Right place, right time?

Jean Poole reviews Future Active

I like the internet. I think Graham Meikle likes it too, perhaps for similar reasons: we can explore our favourite mudwrestling webcam sites, meet other fans, keep in touch. Graham’s position as author and mine as reviewer also imply a healthy respect for the expanded research methods the net allows, the online communities we can be part of, the e-mailing of stories at the last minute. This shared respect, I suspect, finds us both very curious about how the wrestling of public and private interests will shape the internet’s development.

Imagining Graham’s desk

Pens, paper, a Compaq (?) laptop, dictionary, thesaurus and a gleaming crystal ball sitting to one side into which Graham gazes periodically with an optimistic pragmatism, rather than tech-utopian drool. Above the desk a mirror—reflecting bookshelves creak-heavy with politics, postmodernism and the entire cyberculture canon. And a good deal of print-outs, because net-dissectors still like to underline words with a pen. From this very desk, Graham has conveniently chronicled the most famous political uses of the net in recent years, pored over interviews with many key outspoken online activists and authors, grouped the different shapes of net activism into useful categories, and offered some perspectives on ways the internet may continue to be developed in an open form. I’m thinking it’s a nice old wood.

Imagining Graham’s Internet

Some of its key features include openness, resource sharing, communication, conversation and collaboration. While these are features celebrated by the early digerati such as Howard Rheingold and John Barlow, Graham is careful to debunk ‘cyberhype’ during a quick tour of the net’s early years and evangelists. He maybe spends a little too much time translating the hyperbole around the net as ‘market boosterism’, but is sharper in critiquing ‘interactivity.’ Usefully, he outlines transmissional, registrational, consultational and conversational forms of interactivity, and proposes that Tim Berners Lee’s ‘intercreativity’—solving problems together—as a better challenge to aspire to. Throughout the book, an open, conversational, intercreative internet is described as a Version 1.0 internet. A Version 2.0 internet, Graham proposes, is one where we move to the closed system preferred by entrenched corporate interests, a broadcast rather than many-to-many model. By the way, the book is riddled with characters doing their utmost to steer us away from a version 2.0 internet; I fancy Graham’s down with numero uno.

Some of The Riddlers

An English couple being taken to court by McDonalds, launched the mcspotlight.org website in 1996. Dragged through the British legal system for distributing a critiquing pamphlet, they found with a website a way to match their wits rather than budget with the legal muscle of a multinational food giant. In subsequent years, millions of visitors viewed the original pamphlet and much supporting material, but as Graham reveals, it was the astute site development and understanding of online community and information navigation which made mcspotlight one of the more successful online political campaigns.

Future Active similarly traces many popular political campaigns such as the B92 radio station’s celebrated use of online radio to spread news during the Bosnian war. Much of the work is in documenting what happened as events unfolded and how the net was used, but this is supplemented with plenty of insightful quotes from both campaign organisers and relevant theorists. Graham diverges from the media theory pack a little though, by exploring ways some nastier groups have used the net.

Web Nasties

While careful to point out he doesn’t endorse, merely analyses, the net strategies of deathnet, godhatesfags.com and the North American Man Boy Love Association, I don’t understand why Graham didn’t use the same sort of caution in detailing his flirtations with the Labor Party, Liberal Party and One Nation websites. To his credit, he thoroughly exposes the major parties’ lack of engagement with their constituents online, speculating that it’s not that the major parties don’t get it—but that they don’t want it. Prefer they the broadcast or Version 2.0 model rather than a community-based model with lack of hierarchy or control. In contrast the web-Hansonites are shown to have embraced and harnessed the qualities of the internet effectively. Although One Nation sitemaster Scott Balson’s claim that “Hanson was the first cyber-politician on the internet,” is slightly dubious, their integration of e-mail lists and bulletin boards was apparently commendable.

Other Commendables

Veering into newer political territory, one of the book’s better sections links together the ‘free software’ movement, the growth of the indymedia online publishing centres, globalisation, and the role of 2 Sydneysiders in making this happen—Matthew Arnison on code and Gabrielle Kuiper. The free software and open publishing movements are becoming increasingly influential in many spheres and their development is well described here. With his encouraging tone and enthusiasm for the topic however, some chances for exploring the issues and difficulties currently being experienced by open publishers have been missed. This is my only problem too with the near closing pieces on ‘culture jamming’ and ‘tactical media.’ Fantastic coverage of interesting projects, people and events online, but scarcer on-the-ground is any critique of the limitations of their approaches.

The book for you?

Depends. Maybe you’re a sociology, communications, cultural studies, art or media theory student looking for a good, brisk overview of recent online skirmishes, blossomings, battles? Perhaps you’re interested in understanding more about our transforming society and ways the net is being tactically used? Maybe you don’t share the same bookmarks as frequent indymedia visitors, or the nettime/fibreculture/rhizome etc mailing list members?

For me?

I liked it, although much of the terrain was familiar. Wished occasionally for more criticisms of people being celebrated, but admired the collation, the crisp, want-to-communicate tone. A broader ‘media activism and the internet’ might have covered more artistic strategies online, MP3s and more software development. Like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, this is a fine book which may end up being in the right place at the right time.

Graham Meikle, Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet , Pluto Press, Australia, 2002.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 8

© Jean Poole; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002