Issue 12 / Commons

December 20, 2020
Black and white image of scales and a person holding a newspaper

Image by Celine Nguyen.

Specter in the Machine

Evan Malmgren

In the 1990s, as the internet was being turned into a shopping mall, a group of radicals built a digital commune.

Pit Schultz was sitting in a Kreuzberg art gallery, less than a mile from the ruins of the Berlin Wall, when he sent one of the first emails to a mailing list that he had just helped launch. Schultz laid out a vision for what it might become:

It should be a temporary experiment to continue the process of a collective construction of a sound and rhythm—the songlines—of something we are hardly working on, to inform each other about ongoing or future events, local activities, certain commentaries, distributing and filtering textes, manifestos, hotlists, bits and blitzmails related to cultural politics on the net. It’s also an experiment in collaborative writing and developing strategies of group work… The list is not moderated. Take care.

It was June 1995, and the internet was changing in fundamental ways. The US government–funded National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), once the backbone of the internet, had been decommissioned a few months earlier. New companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, and Netscape were racing to cash in on an early wave of commercialization, and a rising priesthood of techno-utopians gathered around Wired magazine—launched in San Francisco in 1993—to herald the coming digital economy as the harbinger of a more unified, democratic, and horizontal world.

The 1990s were a heady time, but not everyone was convinced. If Wired was the pulpit for a new gospel of venture-funded tech, Schultz’s mailing list, called Nettime, was an effort to build a home for the early commercial internet’s discontents. Drawing on various contemporary anti-capitalist currents, from the anti-globalization movement to Italian autonomism to Berlin’s lively squatter movement, Nettime aimed to synthesize an alternative to the techno-determinist optimism oozing out of Silicon Valley: the worldview that media theorist and Nettime regular Richard Barbrook named the “Californian Ideology” in a 1995 essay co-written with Andy Cameron.

The Californian Ideology, through its “bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism,” celebrated the rampant commodification of digital networks as a force for personal liberation. The 1990s are often remembered as a time in which this vision of the internet went unchallenged, but the Nettime crowd wanted to chart a different path forward. They developed theories of digital culture, pioneered tactics for new media activism, and wrote ground-zero critiques of the commercial internet as it took shape around them. The mailing list itself was also a platform for experimental forms of collaborative writing that tried to embody a different experience of being online. At a moment in history when profiteers and privatizers were terraforming the internet into the market-saturated system we know today, the Nettime circle gestured toward a more collective, less commodified alternative—but only vaguely.

A Collective Undertaking to Deconstruct the Utopian Wired Agenda

Nettime lived on the internet, but it came from Europe. The idea for the mailing list was first proposed by Schultz and his friend Geert Lovink at a meeting of the Medien Zentral Kommittee—German for “Central Media Committee”—at the Venice Biennale. The Kommittee was a loose collective of academics, net artists, and new media activists who believed in the necessity of creating alternatives to both the Silicon Valley worldview and the commercial internet it had inspired. In doing so, they drew on materials closer to home, building an umbrella for an anarchic strain of critical net culture that flourished across Europe.

Whereas Wired drew from the ranks of a thriving private tech sector, Nettime’s milieu came from a relatively communal and localized hacker culture. This took shape, for example, around spaces like c-base, the member-funded nucleus of Germany’s rapidly expanding hackerspace scene, which went on to promote free public internet access via wireless networks. Another spiritual progenitor was Austria’s Public Netbase, a nonprofit internet service provider and new media initiative that promoted “network democracy from below,” openly clashing with the country’s right-wing government.

Europe had also been home to a number of ambitious publicly funded efforts to extend social and civic life into the digital realm. Perhaps the most famous was France’s publicly owned Minitel network. Rolled out in the 1980s, Minitel was the most successful online service prior to the modern internet. It ran across nationalized phone lines, distributed free terminals, and boasted a peak of twenty-five million users out of a total population of sixty million.   

By the 1990s, similar initiatives had cropped up around Europe at the municipal level, like Amsterdam’s Digital City (DDS). A citywide free-net, DDS grew out of the pirate radio scene and aimed to create a universally accessible network that could guarantee certain basic rights online. There were public terminals, and anyone could sign up for a free account with email, internet access, and space for a homepage. Instead of being organized around the free market, the network’s architecture was designed with the city metaphor in mind: you received mail at the “post office,” links were accessed through a “station,” “public squares” hosted government services, organizations and companies could rent “shops,” and the entire system was navigable through a graphical city interface.

Public networks like Minitel and DDS can help us understand why European hacker culture diverged so sharply from the cult of Silicon Valley. While the US obscured the internet’s publicly funded origins behind a veil of bootstraps entrepreneurialism, many Europeans first encountered mass computer networks as explicitly public entities.

Nettime took inspiration from these projects, and attracted many of their architects, but the list itself represented a different kind of intervention. If projects like c-base, Public Netbase, and DDS explored new ways of creating and organizing networks, Nettime was also an attempt to theorize and embody a new way of experiencing them. In the words of Geert Lovink—a cofounder of both Nettime and Amsterdam’s DDS—the list was “a collective undertaking to deconstruct the utopian Wired agenda. Not directly, in word or academic texts, but by doing.”

In the early to mid-1990s, the internet could be a disorienting place; a seemingly endless labyrinth of what Baffler contributor Kate Wagner described as “haphazardly designed, amateur-generated sites.” But it also often felt more grounded and neighborly than today’s internet. Most online communities were small and focused enough for participants to develop personal familiarities, shared norms, and something like a localized collective consciousness—“netiquette,” as it was called. In a time before platform capitalists had carved the net into siloed empires of attention-time, it was still possible for anti-capitalists of the sort that gathered around Nettime to see the internet as a catalyst to dissolve commercialization and competitive individualism—but by 1995, things were starting to change. Developments like online shopping, powerful search engines, and interactive advertisements were beginning to rend the federated collectivism of the early internet into a world of quantitative efficiency and algorithmically mediated “users.” A window of possibility seemed to be closing. Nettime was determined to keep it open.

Living in Social Time

Nettime’s name was chosen as an alternative to “cyberspace,” the dominant metaphor for understanding the internet in the ’90s. “Cyberspace” renders the internet in spatial terms, and evokes images of highways, libraries, webs, clouds, and shopping malls. All of these tend to naturalize concepts like scarcity and enclosure, which in turn lend themselves to the possibilities of exclusive ownership, exploitation, debt, or rent. 

By contrast, “nettime” renders the internet temporally. Whereas the concept of a spatial network frames humans as occupants of a fixed virtual world—one that could be chopped up into shopping malls—“nettime” suggests that their mutual engagement fundamentally constitutes the network itself—that there is no network without the nodes it connects. Rather than passively “going” online and browsing shelves, we actively produce the network together, in real time, through our collective participation. “The time of nettime is a social time,” wrote Pit Schultz in the introduction to an October 1996 Nettime publication. “Time on the net consists of different speeds, computers, humans, software, and bandwidth, the only way to see a continuity of time on the net is to see it as an asynchronous network of synchronized time zones.”

In trying to embody this “social time,” Nettime pioneered a practice of “collaborative text filtering,” a continual, self-organizing process whereby texts were submitted to the broader group, replied to, expanded upon, and ultimately flowed into a collective train of thought. The original vision was to initiate something like a perpetual conversation, without editors, boards, gatekeepers, or centralized moderation; the list’s “filter” was the collective interests and capacities of its self-selecting membership. In the introduction to ReadMe!, a collectively edited book of Nettime essays published by Autonomedia in 1999, the list is described as “always different from what it was a moment ago; it’s always discovering something new about itself. As such, it is a working implementation of what subjectivity might become in an online environment.”

In practical terms, this meant that Nettime served numerous functions: it was a tactical bulletin for Europe’s anarchic hacker community; an open source prepublication platform for academics; and a forum to discuss current events, announce events, post manifestos, and theorize the commercial internet as it came into focus. Prominent works to come out of Nettime were occasionally circulated at conferences, republished in magazines, or rounded up into physical publications—but online, the emphasis was always on a perpetual process of becoming. Whereas early online messaging programs like AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) and early virtual communities like The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link) operated on the concept of exchanging content between discrete, static users, hierarchically sorting information, and publishing text in a self-contained, finalized state, an unmoderated mailing list leaves participants with no common structure or interface but one another.

Collaborative text filtering was meant to recover, in a many-to-many communication system, the experience of temporally interconnected thought that is foundational to real-time conversation. Nettime members developed a collective style of writing that embraced its own incompleteness, questioning the notion that any text can or should be understood as finished, or that any thought is worth isolating from its discursive context. This practice generated prescient missives and essays on applying copyleft practices to non-software intellectual property, the reality that the internet was already doing more to restructure labor rather than expand leisure, the creeping power of data collection and surveillance, and the creation of a new class of “information proletariat.” Above all, it emphasized the network’s participants as its creators, rather than mere residents.

Haunted Variables

Nettime fought for alternatives to the privatized net, pushed back against the Californian Ideology, and experimented with a collective experience of being online. But the list had considerably less success in articulating a comprehensive alternative to the commercial internet at scale, or bringing its experience to the broader public. The mailing list grew to thousands of subscribers, but its vision for an alternative to the commercial internet remained dormant, and its members ultimately failed to alter the course of the internet’s commodification.

This failure was partially rooted in a vagueness at the heart of Nettime’s challenge to the Wired line. While mailing list participants could momentarily enact a more collective experience through collaborative text filtering, the lack of organization also ensured that no consensus around a comprehensive alternative would emerge. Nettime participants tended to share certain anti-capitalist principles—a preference for publicly owned internet infrastructure, the decommodification of intellectual property, and the abolition of various digital hierarchies—but the particulars were subject to endless debate. Real-world implementation was thus limited to aesthetic interventions—culture jamming, détournement, and critical net art—and local, uncoordinated, long since defunct projects. Media theorist McKenzie Wark later observed that Nettime was united by “a negative consensus around the need for a countervailing theory.” That negative consensus never evolved into a positive one, because a single countervailing theory never emerged.

Attempts to build such a unified theory tended to fall flat, as when Richard Barbrook sent an essay called “Cyber-Communism” to the list in 1999. “A spectre is haunting the Net,” it began, “the spectre of communism.” Barbrook’s central contention was that everyday internet users were already on a path to transcending the profit-driven logics of the privatized net, thanks to the popularity of gift economies around phenomena like user-generated content, open source software, and peer-to-peer networking. In other words, he argued that the experiments in collaborative text filtering that Nettime was undertaking to cultivate a more collective experience of the internet were already being superseded by mainstream initiatives with far greater reach.

Twenty years later, a commercial internet dominated by a handful of platform oligarchs makes Barbrook’s optimism easy to dismiss. But it didn’t take the power of hindsight to notice that his “wait and see” determinism was functionally indistinguishable from the techno-utopian Wired set. A satirical Nettime response to Barbrook’s essay captured the point:

Subject: THE GIF ECONOMY: How Several Layers of Lossy Images Are Synthesized into a Moving Image that Will Animate the Masses and Inspire Them to Do What They're Doing Anyway, Namely, Clicking Their Way to Liberation; Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Californian Ideology




Just imagine … a specter is haunting HAUNTED_VARIABLE for the second time. Luckily, if it’s a tragedy the first time, the second time around it’s only a farce — so fear not: no more messy dogmatic truths, state bureaucracies, apparatuses of oppression, proxy wars, or national collapses. CyberCommunism[TM] GUARANTEES you won’t have to change a single setting, preference, or property in order to build a communist society! You can contribute DIRECTLY to the construction of a workers’ paradise on a GLOBAL scale from the comfort and privacy of your own home or office WHENEVER you feel like it - just by surfing the Internet!

Largely derided on Nettime, “Cyber-Communism” nonetheless displayed a foundational shortcoming of critical ’90s net culture: an aversion to the firm commitments and big-picture thinking that would have been essential for mounting a serious challenge to the internet’s rapid privatization. One of Nettime’s signature critiques of the Wired line was that the techno-utopian gospel’s apparent optimism about the networked future disguised a fundamental pessimism about the role that humanity might play in it. Humanity was not the subject of this future; technology, mediated by the profit motive, was. Utopia was coming, whether we liked it or not. 

Yet Nettime’s participants often reiterated this same idea in a slightly different register. In the end, Barbrook shared the techno-utopian faith that, through the commercial internet, humanity was automatically generating a better future, albeit a communist rather than a capitalist one. Lacking a coherent political program, such immanentist arguments amounted to little more than a vague hope that things would work out in the end or, at best, a collection of abstract demands: “Deprivatize corporate content, liberate the virtual enclosures, and storm the content castles!”

Echoes of Electric Agora

By 2020, a handful of Nettime’s once-utopian ideas have become ubiquitous facts of the commercial web—but only in forms that have been disfigured to the point of unrecognizability. Collaborative text filtering, for example, has become a core feature of how modern social media platforms create and manage feeds. Rather than employing formal gatekeepers or editorial staff, websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google rely on collective behavior and decentralized editorial discretion to produce evolving, personalized hierarchies. But most of the agency has been transferred from conscious human actors to algorithms, with networks operating beyond the scale of comprehension.

Meanwhile, Nettime was forced to abandon its anarchic commitment to total decentralization around the turn of the millennium, and began tolerating light moderation once the list got big enough to encounter a few deliberate disruptors—as well as a general tendency for men, in particular, to use it “to compare the length of their bookshelves,” as communications professor Matthew Fuller put it in 1998. Given that decentralized collaborative text filtering proved unmanageable at scale, and given the extent to which corporate social media platforms have adapted the same techniques to alienate “users” from their own experiences of the internet, it may be best to understand Nettime’s experiments in collective subjectivity as windows into a time when the internet’s corporate trajectory seemed less inevitable, rather than practical steps toward building a decommodified internet from within. Like the broader anti-globalization movement that influenced it, the Nettime circle was ultimately naïve about how easily the system would reabsorb aesthetic transgressions and hyperlocalized struggles.

Nettime has receded into obscurity since its halcyon years of 1995–2001, but the list is still running and open to new members after twenty-five years. Some of Nettime’s early disciples have even risen to positions of real influence, buoyed by the post-2016 techlash and the resurgent popularity of democratic socialism. Richard Barbrook, for example, coordinated Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 “Digital Democracy Manifesto,” which proposed significant state support for platform cooperatives, open source software, and public broadband expansion—structural solutions that harken back to the pre-commercial European internet. As Nettime’s critiques bubble back to the surface amidst a renewed climate of tech skepticism, the list’s archive provides lessons, warnings, and a usable intellectual history for today’s tech-skeptical left.

The Nettime circle may have failed to stall the rapid privatization of the internet or dismantle the Californian Ideology in the ’90s, but today, these forces face far more mainstream scrutiny. As an ascendant techlash resurfaces many of the European hacker culture’s early critiques of the private internet, and looks for tools to build an alternative, the list’s archive reveals a forgotten forerunner that kept a torch burning in dark times.

Evan Malmgren is a research associate at Type Media Center who has written about power and communications technology for The Baffler, Dissent, The Nation, and others.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 12, "Commons". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.