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November 25, 2006

Interview by Simon Mills


Sean Cubitt

[...] Simon Mills: How do you think the plethora of so-called Web 2.0 applications (E.g. Myspace, Youtube, Bitorrent, Google) are changing the media landscape? These are all predominantly based on constantly evolving databases so exhibit a distinctly new media aesthetic. They also seem to aid a more democratic means of cultural production making publication and involvement cheap and easy. Are you sold on the idea of ‘network as platform’?

Sean Cubitt: Cheap and easy is always good. talk, as they say, is cheap. Thank God. It takes millions of people talking (and writing, which is nearly as cheap) to produce one poet; and it takes millions strumming away to produce one musician. Those of us who only talk and strum are nonetheless experts, in the sense that we know how hard it is to make words and sounds do what you want them to, and so we are the perfect audience for the poet and the muso. It will take a million mash-ups to make one work that will really make your jaw drop.

And yet I can’t help fretting that the NewsCorp purchase of MySpace, and the Google buy-out of YouTube, are exemplary moves towards the commercialisation of cultural democracy. A million content-producers raise the levels, and create the audience, but the coming Homer will be just another unpaid prosumer in the gardens of digital labour. The cynic in me sees digital gaming as training for the unpaid labour that was informally organised in the TV era. Already back then, as Dallas Smythe noted in the 1950s, all non-working, non-sleeping time was being colonised by another form of work, which he called the production of attention-value. When broadcasters sell audiences to advertisers, they obviously don’t enslave them body and soul. What is changing hands is the attention of viewers. And how are the viewers paid for their attention? I suppose you could answer that they receive some kind of gratification from the endless repetition of adverts and jingles, but it seems a paltry recompense when compared with the billion-dollar trade in eyeballs. The same has to be said of content-producing internet users, with bells on.

There is no longer any reason to believe the internet is intrinsically democratic, or intrinsically anything. The network is the network, in the same way air is air. Air is of course intensely democratic, but then we thought the same about water, and look how that has become a user-pays industry, and a weapon of ar. This doesn’t mean we should withdraw from drinking and washing; and it doesn’t mean we should refrain from struggling for a viable ecology. Ditto the internet: we can no longer live as if it did not exist. To abandon it to NewsCorp would be unthinkable. Historically, the net, the web, and almost every working application has been thrown together by creatives, whether for fun or profit. Almost nothing has been produced by corporations. Clearly corporate structures, however they benefit from network communications, are inadequate to the cultural innovations that users produce. And yet they have the inherited wealth that allows them to buy, one by one, every new tool and toy. I admire Wikimedia for holding out as long as they have, and longer. Linux likewise. These are the models: pirate enclaves, temporary autonomous zones. The reason we keep our smiles, as the greedy, incompetent commercial sector mops up our devotion to the internet gift economy, is that they manifest with every purchase their inability to originate, and in that admission, their incapacity for the global rule to which they lay claim.

Perhaps I’m wrong in thinking that democracy is commercialised in web 2.0 formats. Perhaps instead commercialism is being democratised. Certainly the nature of both is changing. Some of me is conservative enough to resent and regret the changes. The rehash of PR handouts by journalists, and the rehash of journalism by bloggers, isn’t the journalism I praise – the journalism represented by Robert Fisk at the London Independent. Some of me still believes that freedom of speech is important to democracy, and resents its loss in corporate media, and its confusion with mere opinion in the blogosphere. I have more than enough opinions of my own. What I need is journalism. This is the sound of an older democracy complaining about its own demise, and painting an already nostalgic and inaccurate picture of its actually smutty and corrupt past. Some basic media ethics need to be introduced at school level – driver’s ed for the web generation. A recent scandal here – a sexual assault posted on YouTube by working-class schoolboys – suggests the alternative. (Of course I do not want to argue that a veneer of irony makes this permissable to a different class of people – if I or anyone never saw Clockwork Orange again, the world would not be a worse place).

Nonetheless, the network is the only platform we’ve got, and we’d be idiots to give it up... From Sean Cubitt Interview by Simon Mills, Framed Journal.

Posted by jo at November 25, 2006 04:01 PM