excerpts from geert lovink interview on social media and education

Below are excerpts from Markus Palmén's recent interview with Netherlands-based writer Geert Lovink on the topic of "Social Media and Education." They're arranged as numbered bullet points, with boldface added for some phrases (sorry, these are my notes). It's refreshing to find a tech-savvy commentator who hasn't embraced the Stacks (see below).

1. I hope I do not disappoint if I say that social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) have got nothing to do with education and learning. Social media provide people with ‘news’ and updates from their own social circles. They are huge distraction machines that create shareholder value through a very narrow corporate lens, dominated by US-American cultural values.

2. My advice would be to focus on the slow tools of knowledge production such as databases, archives, wikis and search engines. We need to un-hype social media, derail public conversations about them and focus on the incredible diversity of (collaborative) online tools that are already out there.

3. Inside the walled gardens of social media there is only real-time chatter (which is not even properly archived). You are right when you say that social media is important in people’s lives. After all, we’re social animals. The mood in the herd matters. Our peers and friends are vital, and so are family members, the people we work and play sports with. What we’re talking about here is education, learning, and how to organize that in the digital age. Which role are digital tools playing in the current setup? To limit that to social media is really annoying as these are noise generators, news pointers, dating sites, infotainment. That’s nice but makes me wonder why we are distracted. Why don’t we discuss ways of online learning, the politics of MOOCs [link added --tm], the current poverty of the online learning dashboards, the use of online video in the class rooms, the integration of videos in the next generation text books. We’re not talking about ‘alternatives to living in a digital world’. No one is advocating offline romanticism.

4. I am sorry to say that Web 2.0 no longer exists. The term came up in the aftermath of the dotcom crash when Silicon Valley had to forget the huge drama of the dotcom crash with its immense capital destruction and mass unemployment. The ‘blogosphere’, Second Life and early social networks such as Friendster, Hyves, Bibo, MySpace etc. were soon overrun by Google and Facebook. These days we speak of ‘the stacks’. This concept was introduced by Bruce Sterling in 2012. It adds up IT giants Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook. It is indeed a conglomerate, known to make secret deals in Bay Area cafes where they set prices, discuss salary caps and take-overs. What unites these corporations is not just their wish to create monopolies (and eliminate markets) but also their inherent tendency to become invisible. Their aim is to colonize and administrate the techno unconscious. They do not want to be accountable. Let’s forget Google, that’s what they want. This is a very different strategy from all that’s being taught in PR and marketing classes. The general public should not openly talk about the stacks (that’s why Pando is doing such a great job)*. Their aim is to disappear in the background as quasi-public infrastructure. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is their intellectual guru. He is the one who openly defends their status as monopolies and states that we should stop complaining. Leave our Valley alone!

*Tom here. Had somewhat given Bruce Sterling up for lost after his above-it-all response to the Manning/Wikipedia revelations a few years ago but this term the Stacks could be useful, for example, in identifying sites that have quit trying ("another Stacks-friendly article from Rhizome.org"). By contrast, Pando, which Lovink mentions, delves deeply into the rhizomatic root rot of the current Silicon Valley: the "techtopus" wage fixing scandal, governmental backing of TOR, Omidyar partnering with government, etc. Mark Ames and Yasha Levine brought their muckraking skills to Pando from The Exile by way of the short-lived NSFW Corp.; unfortunately most of their Pando writing is behind a paywall ($10 a month, $100 a year, but worth it, I think).

5. In the last two decades I have witnessed myself how weird[ly] we have responded to the rise of ‘new media’. After much hype most of the sensibility and core competence in society is again fading away. New media course[s] have closed down and most cultural initiatives and festival[s] have disappeared (at least least in the Netherlands).** Computers and smart phones withdraw in the background. The democratization of computing has not lead to a deeper understanding, quite the opposite. It is ironic that in Western society people knew more about computers and programming 15-20 years ago. Web 2.0 has greatly contributed to this loss of literacy. Frank Pasquale calls it the ‘black box society’ we’re living in. We are ruled by algorithms but have no say about them.

**Tom here, again. We're not talking about "new media" so much anymore in the U.S., either. Now it's social media, on the one hand, and a few crazed nuts using Linux computers and chatting over IRC, on the other. "Understanding one's phone" or "hacking Facebook" feel like ludicrous topics for artists at this point. New York has a substantial scene of "net artists" who mainly use Facebook exactly the way it is intended.

6. I’d wish to see a move away from the centralized, manipulative and limiting possibilities of Facebook and Twitter, moving towards ‘federated’ collaborative tools that do not address us as ‘friends’ who are forced to ‘like’ the shocking image of the young Kobani boy who is washed ashore to show our rage about the current migration policies and to show our solidarity with refugees. There are so many ways to engage in self-organization. Retweeting the news is a nonsense gesture. Being tactical these days is about setting up groups, contacting locals, and getting involved in unpopular struggles. Responding to the agenda of the world news manufacturers is not something for activists. We need to look ahead and define tomorrow’s agenda. I understand that this will not give us much satisfaction as it is pretty unpopular to put yourself in an avant-garde position. Being avant-garde is considered something for losers.

7. Tactical media is a historical term from the early-mid nineties that tried to capture that opening possibilities at the time, from camcorders, fax, public access television, free radio to email and the early web. This was combined with a decline of the traditional left and a rise of NGOs and a growing involvement in media activism of artists and designers. Hackers were also part of the gang. The diversity sketched here no longer exists. We do not feel we’re part of a ‘smart phone spring’. Digital technologies and the internet are now the default. There is hardly anything outside of it. Young artists these days are fascinated by old analogue technologies but usually they are without any audience. They are truly ‘sovereign’, in the Adilkno definition [link added --tm] of being on their own, broadcasting to themselves, very much unlike the selfie you post on Facebook that receives 428 likes in a few minutes. Tactical media these days resist the logic of instant self-gratification. The question what tactical use of our digital tools is today is a really interesting one. In my understanding we need to look for direct connections, beyond the broadcasting and networking metaphors. The answer is, most likely, not to be found in our visual culture, which is already so rich and abundant. In the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe we see that the most impact is made by those groups and individuals that manage to create direct solidarity links with the refugees and migrants. The peer-to-peer philosophy has a lot to offer to us in this respect. Our future lies in offline digital networks. As we all know, the internet is broken and we will not be able to fix it any time soon if the circumstances do not radically change. With the stacks in charge, it is inevitable that the collective imagination will leave the internet context and migrate elsewhere. The education sector needs to be aware of this tendency. Sooner than later, the digital will become boring, if not repressive. This will inevitably put the ‘distraction’ controversy in another light.

Tom here, last comment: In the heady days of the blogosphere, legacy hacker-artists bullying each other with quotes from Jurgen Habermas in the Rhizome comments seemed terribly boring. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, with calls to join (or rather, not opt out of) Facebook or be forever on the margins, like that's bad. While still Habermas-bludgeoning! We need some of that hacker consciousness back, preferably without the academyspeak.