Comunitarian dynamics, electro-electives affinities and networked memories in the contemporary cyberculture: the nettime list.

with Patrice Riemens

Federico Casalegno, March 1999




From the very start, Patrice Riemens has participated in the elaboration of contemporary cyberculture. His view of these phenomena is that of both critic and connoisseur, and he speaks from personal experience. Rather than being a central actor, he has always been present in the margins of the various social movements and digital cultures. In the Netherlands, he is among the founders of Nettime (1), and he monitors changes in communitarian networks, activist circles in particular. It is within this perspective that his testimony is interesting for the "Living Memory (2)" project, especially in regard to the dynamics of shared memory on the network. We shall begin by asking what strategies allow for communitarian networks to take place...

PR: I have indeed participated in an interesting movement and have long followed the expressions of contemporary cyberculture. In answer to your question, I would say that this type of network can only crystallise in the presence of two factors: common affinity and personal relationships. To better understand the movement we must go back to the origins of the process. Consider Amsterdam, where there was a very strong "alternative" movement of squatters, a broad group resembling a "youthful elite", a group of active young militants, intellectual, wealthy and well-educated, from good families. In this respect, we can't really say we're confronted with a mass movement of the populace. The movement first expressed itself through the occupation of empty houses. Then it broadened to include everyday environment in full; restaurants, hair salons, and garages were operated in squatted locales without any sort of licence. It was, in brief, a total and alternative arrangement of daily life. They also had a system for communication and publication. At the time, they communicated through telephone lists and Press releases. They had their own magazine, Bluf, and a publishing house, Ravijn. As soon as the network arrived, they took it up as well. Next to this alternative movement, there was also that of the Dutch hackers who had the good sense to quickly dispense of the outlaw or cyber-terrorist label and were recognised as a social movement. This is an interesting characteristic of Dutch pirates as compared to other hacker groups. In any case, the two movements, hackers and squatters, never fusioned, but they did come together in their contribution to the budding of the alternative digital culture. In the early 1990's, the Amsterdam Digital City (3) saw the day, as did "XS4all" (4) and the Society for Old and New Media (5). These expressions of digital culture were therefore born of people who knew each other well and frequented the same milieu. Within the context of the constitution of these "virtual communities" characterising contemporary cyberculture, we come back around to the good old system based on personal relationships and intellectual, social and political and even class affinities between participants. The third founding factor in the Netherlands was a system of social allotments which, up until about ten years ago, enabled people who chose not to have a job or career to get by on government financial aid. Hundreds of people were thereby able to spend a lot of time on these activities. I think this should not be underestimated because it is what freed people of material worries and allowed them to get involved in alternative and digital projects.

FC: These nuclei created a critical mass of people who now make up communities like Digitale Stad or Nettime's (6) Discussion list.

PR: Yes, but that's not all. On the one hand there was this alternative system in Amsterdam where people were fairly connected, let's say, physically, through human relationships, before the electronic network existed. Of course there were disputes and controversy, but at least they formed a real local community. At the same time, this local community had outside contacts, especially in squatter communities in other cities like Berlin, Zurich, London, Milan and Paris. Here were people who had the leisure to travel, who were used to functioning in a network, to creating reticules of relationships and to having connections on an European and world-wide scale.

FC: Are you referring to an exclusively social, political and intellectual movement?

PR: No. Art also played an important role. Nettime, for example, was created at the Venice biennial in 1995. It was created on the margins of the event because some people were part of the biennial while others just dropped in through an alternative network, "cultural piracy". This is how Nettime was created.

FC: It's interesting to see how the electronic network made way for the emergence of a community that existed before the network itself, with all that that implies. In the case you are illustrating, we see that not only is there an emotional charge subjacent to the formation of communities that go on-line, but there is also a important form of chance and spontaneity.

PR: It is true that no founding "will" or organisation pre-exists community. On-line communities are characterised by games of chance, of coincidence, that crystallises with an alchemy impossible to grasp.

FC: This brings us back to what we were saying earlier, that affinity and personal relationships are the basis for on-line communities.

PR: Even Amsterdam Digital City (begun in 1993 and functional as of 1994) is based on this dynamic. Then there is the need to so something, even if it remains a bit foggy. For example, in creating Amsterdam Digital City (DDS), there were three partners who wished to "do something", but they didn't know quite what. The hackers wanted to spread the use of the network, the cultural centre of Balie (7) wanted to do something concrete with its program of conferences on "technological culture", and the municipality wanted to bring the public closer together with their political representatives.

FC: It is interesting to see how these groups form. You have already described archetypal figures that characterise these networks, but what are some of the other key figures in these networks?

PR: First of all, at time Nettime was created, fifty or so people formed the group. Half of them were a little more involved than the others, and a small core, half a dozen people, were the most active. There within were the moderators (8). Their function is relatively void and does not, at first glance, represent much, since apart from resolving conflicts, rare on Nettime, there is not much concrete work to do. In fact, we could say that there are more conflicts to resolve between people than content. Moderation may be invisible work, but it is capital. The work involves monitoring exchanges and also keeping in touch with those who provide information. If we consider the Monde Diplomatique (9), we come across the same dynamics; the problem is that there are eight employees to manage 2,500 more or less volunteer collaborators. Nettime, on a smaller scale of course, encounters the same difficulties, and this is where the moderator's energy is consumed. It is not so much in the censure or writing of texts that the moderator's role is important, but in the threading together of community members, writing to them, keeping them and making contact. In terms of concrete work, it is difficult to understand what a moderator does. If we look closely at what Nettime's moderator does, we could not quantify the activity, no matter how indispensable it is. Yet in general, managing the community takes an incredible amount of time. It is not necessarily gratifying, but it is fundamental.

FC: In reference to the network's exchange system, with its increasing possibility for stocking information digitally, J. Baudrillard has hypothesised a "fossilisation of memory". Considering that communities are increasingly able to preserve memory on computer, we are witnessing the formation of a parallel system in which we place memory outside the community itself, by creating a self-sufficient and nearly independent circuit. In this hypothesis, the fact of archiving information is more closely related to extradition than the constitution of shared memory. Do you see this process at work in network groups?

PR: That's a good question and I'll reply somewhat instinctually. For example, think of people who, taken with the desire to keep up to date on the one hand, and to keep track of information they find important on the other, never throw away magazines or they stack news clippings. Do they really look at this information, these pieces of newsprint, once stored? I would tend to say, and I'm exaggerating of course, that this is a loser's behaviour, because those preoccupied with the past with no particular goal are losers of sorts. If we now look at Nettime's archives, it is interesting to consider the number of consultations. I get the impression the archives are not used much. Spontaneously, I would say that community memory, rendered more evident by electronic means of storage, is illusory, and much like these piles and piles of dusty news clippings. Certainly, the archives mustn't be destroyed, on the contrary, it's good that they are there when needed, but they are not "living".

FC: In a sense, you're saying that these archives would better serve people within the community than people outside it.

PR: Yes. I would even draw a parallel with the work of the moderator of a discussion list, who's work is only noticed when he's not doing it. With archives, it's sort of the same.

FC: You seem to be in syntonia with J. Baudrillard when he says, with a certain irony, that it is something like the Labour Ministry; it gives people a sense of security with its imposing presence, but it does not give people work.

PR: Yes.

FC: E. Morin says that the sharing of collective memory allows human beings to lead a "poetic existence", by reminding us that life is not purely functional or utilitarian. Does this dynamic exist in Nettime or the other communities you know of?

PR: Generally speaking I agree, but I'll take a little detour to reply to your question, and draw your attention to the fact that in certain communities, like Nettime, it is rather ill-regarded to self-reflect on the community, to question "what this means to us", etc. At the beginning of the Nettime adventure, even if some people posed questions about the group itself - what direction it should take, the objectives to be reached and so on, - the other members considered such introspection to be self indulgent. In the United States, and I've got the Seattle Community Network (10) in mind, we're on another level, with communities tending to formalise their existence with a "mission", "objectives", etc. So the idea put forth by E. Morin seems to apply to the trend of networks like Nettime, that do not give too tight a framework to their actions or norms, but whose attitude tends to be to let the community live its life. In this, the attitude is poetic.

FC: Here we're at the heart of the community problematic, especially the elaboration of European thought and its differences with American thought.

PR: Yes, in the sense that a tendency to rationalise community function is more evident in the American environment, even when referring to forms of community aggregation based on common affinity. But these communitarian forms are experienced quite differently by the actors themselves.

FC: To come back to what we were saying, thanks to this sharing of memory we are able to break away from a purely functional view.

PR: I hesitate on this subject. I think we're in a situation in which we have less appreciation for this memory when it is there, available, and we regret its absence when looking for it. In a sense, its lack is clearer than its presence. Obviously, a community without a history is not a community that works. On the other hand, it is difficult to say what a community actually does with its history.

FC: S. Moscovici says that community requires commemoration, that is to say it must celebrate events, together, and even more than commemoration, is the symbolic re-living of things in common. It is a question of recalling in common, common things. You have already shown how in Nettime, for example, the fact of self-questioning is more or less considered self-centred. In other communities, does any dynamic of commemoration come to mind?

PR: I would say activist movements, or centres for independent media, or other movements that characterise the network counter-culture. Let's say they were part of the innovating forces that used, from the start, forms of remote network communications. However, the physical encounter of people is at the basis of their movement. Even if they use Internet a lot, they get together physically. Even if everyone is connected, it's said a locale is needed to organise any action. My friend Gert Lovink published an article on Nettime entitled "On the importance of meet space (11)", precisely in order to emphasise this complementary and fundamental dimension of network communities. A centre is therefore needed where people can get together, and this reminds me of the function you define as commemoration. In these locales, these places where there's a coffee machine or a refrigerator to put beers in, ties are created are reinforced. Here, groups have common forms of commemoration; this is where shared adventures are remembered. In this dynamic, the new network communities, though perhaps more international, work just like classic communities. Another interesting factor here is that the hackers, who in Holland are considered a social movement, after having created various societies, also created recreational centres. Recreation is a virtual activity, an encounter through an electronic list and web site (12), but they also have many occasions to get together, like parties, and they have a physical locale, the Hangout. Paradoxically, a group like that of the hackers, that knows and masters remote communications, gives priority to real, physical socialisation. Their web site is a good illustration in the sense that there is no veritable content, but rather a family album in which they publish photos of get-togethers, hackers reunions in Italy, or camp Kevin Mitnick at the Ars Electronica festival, etc.

FC: This leads me to mention P. Virilio, who points out the dangers of the "present memory" that is developing along with the network. To explain, he uses a metaphor from boxing. For a boxer, the present instant is fundamental, for all is played out in anticipation of the coming punch. He must take the place of his adversary in order to beat him. There is therefore a phenomenon of confusion between opponents in boxing which we find in interaction on Internet. There is a memory of the present instant, still poorly developed, exceptional and paradoxical, and that puts into action a confusing contraction of temporalities, of the past, present and future. A temporal crash which characterises our hyper-mediated societies and of which films like "Enemy of the State" and "Snake Eyes" pronounce a darkly imaged tele-surveillance. There would exist, then, a memory of the present which would not so much oppose memory of the past, but replace it in some destructive real time.

PR: I don't really share his hypothesis in the sense that P. Virilio doesn't really have hands on experience, that is to say the concrete practise of the network, its constant use.

FC: You're referring to the hands on imperative of the hackers who touched, put together and took apart machines and programmes.

PR: Yes. P. Virilio, while his hypotheses make a lot of sense, does not have practical experience of the new communications and information technologies, so he sees things from the outside. His view is of the mass consequences on the one hand, and the return effect on the other. So if we take the boxing metaphor, the boxer is not really the author of the movement at its source, but he tries to anticipate the movement and its consequences. He draws conclusions from the conditions of possibility. So, I can't really share Virilio's seeming "techno-pessimism". At the same time, I admit to being in a somewhat elitist position, that of the digital nobility (13). I think we can control these technologies and keep a critical position in regard to this acceleration in time. It may be illusory, but it is not unfounded.

FC: This situation is not entirely new.

PR: Certainly. "Lacking memory" is an old complaint that runs down through the history of humanity. If we examine the problematic related to memory, we notice that memory, more than being inscribed in a logic of common remembering of real facts, is inscribed in a perspective of inventing the past, what anthropologists call the invention of tradition. The ancient and authentic traditions of a community are, in reality, a play act invented at a precise moment for the needs of a cause. I therefore insist on the fact that the past, memory, tradition, are only of any value in the present and do not exist on their own; what is important is the re-appropriation of the present. The past has always been reappropriated in the present. Of course there are archives, images, testimony, but they are the theatre set that we rearrange in the present. The past in itself is dead, or at least, mute.

FC: This recalls the fossilisation of memory mentioned earlier. Also, community memory only happens with the imaginary construction of a shared past, and therefore through re-appropriation.

PR: Exactly, moreover, memory is highly personal. Of course we have memories in common and we share information and histories, but each goes through a highly personal process of elaboration and reappropriation. An illustration of this is a project I had with Manuel Castells for the reconstruction of the history of the "digital public culture of Amsterdam" (I wrote an article on this subject with Geert Lovink14). M. Castells' idea was to get the key people involved in the movement to speak with the purpose of arriving at a history. Not entirely objective, of course, but at least to enough to get basic testimony as to what the main actors thought about this culture, with their desires, theirs goals, etc. My feeling was that not only these people are now busy with other activities, but that they would explain their experience and what they did at the time with the frame of understanding they have now, with their new occupations and activities. In a certain sense, the history of Amsterdam digital city is like an encyclopaedia in Stalin's Soviet Union! Entire passages have been erased. This does not mean their is some dark conspiracy, but there are events and facts that become re-interpreted in view of the present. Selective memory and the re-interpretation of the past always play a role.

FC: How do you see the process of elaboration of common language that takes place in network communities?

PR: There are different cases which vary according to the communities to which they refer. For example, in Nettime's community, there is no gap between the people who organised the group and the participants. They had a common language, affinities and their own culture. But obviously, in other cases, like in service communities or civic communities such as Iperbole in Bologna or Go-goettingen in Germany (15), the organisers must address a broader public and the problem of elaborating a common language, a common ground, becomes immediately evident.

FC: In conclusion, what can you say about the obstacles that communities may encounter when they form on-line?

PR: The problem is vast, because sometimes the formation of collective memory must be intentional. For example, with Nettime, we hoped to have "working" archives. This came to be thanks to one of our members who's a computer genius and who created on-line archives that work really well. This is not a technical problem however. Had we asked the group from the start what they thought about having working archives, what was the function of such archives, etc., our philosophical discussions would probably have prevented us from ever setting up the archives at all. I prefer to draw your attention to the fact that community life is highly complicated and difficult. It is not easier that individual life. I think the use of the word community is often too simplistic. With the diffusion of network technologies we speak a lot about it, and we think we are creating communities with an ease hitherto unknown in human history. Network communities, however, require a lot of effort, attention and participation, which are not taken into account in these idyllic visions of volontarists and activists. To use an ex ample from the text of a friend from Nettime, it is like sex, in literature and cinema, sex is grand and glorious, but the reality of a settled couple's bed is something else! With the new network forms of aggregation and community we are in this same perspective and we must maintain a critical distance between discourse and reality.

3 The digitale staad:
5 Society for Old and New Media:
8 On "moderating" on nettime, see, for example, the article "remember the Kosovo war on this list?" 19/9/2000;, or "Between moderation and extreme", nettime, 22/9/2000;
13 Barbook, Richard, "Cybercommunisme", on Nettime and to appear in "Mulitudes"
14 See the archive on : "Amsterdam Public Digital Culture 2000. On the Contradictions Among Users Profiles", August 2000.