The Matrix: MEME 3.03

MEME 3.03

Freedom's just another word for WYSIWYG


The southernmost range of the Alps divides Slovenia from Austria. Drive over these mountains, from the Austrian side, and you emerge an hour later in a flat plain which leads to the coast, and the Adriatic sea. Along the way, you'll pass Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia, which resembles a poorer Salzburg-- a quaint, small city-- with a bit more grime and tarnish from forty years of Socialism, testimony from Slovenia's time spent as part of Yugoslavia. The Slovenes are doing their best to catch up with their richer Northern neighbors. Slovenia is the wealthiest of the former Yugoslav republics. The economy has grown between 4-6% a year since 1993, and unemployment is down to 7.3%. A decade more of this kind of growth, and Slovenia may well be just as small, rich, and neat as Austria.

I visited Ljubljana in late May, as a participant in the Nettime Conference, where, over two days, people from nearly every country in Europe came to participate (along with a handful of Americans). Nettime is a grass-roots organization which exists mostly in cyberspace, as a by-invitation discussion list, and a Web site. Its goal is a loose one-- what Nettimers call "Internet criticism"-- and over several years since the creation of Nettime in 1994-- the organization has developed as a pan-European confederation of independent thinkers. The sources are too vast to summarize under one label. Perhaps the best explanation of Nettime is that it attempts to explore and discover ideas relating to the spread of cyberspace, ideas which stem from a European, rather than an American, sensibility. The central forum is Nettime's e-mail-based discussion list with 400 participants. The list isn't really a discussion list, but a redistribution point for essays on the meaning of cyberspace. Nettime calls this process "text filtering," and this gives Nettime a thoughtful, meaningful quality, the electronic equivalent of journal, in a state of perpetual flux, mix-mastering threads into a conceptual jam session, with no start or end.

Twice a year, Nettime produces printed material based on the posts which go to the Nettime list. These books go by the initials ZKP, as in "Zentral Kommittee Proceedings"-- it's a joke of sorts, a riff on the old-fashioned jargon from the days of COMECON, Politburos, and five-year plans. (As far as I can tell, there is no central committee guiding Nettime.) In Ljubljana, I received a freshly printed ZKP 4, the fourth in the series, and this issue came out on newspaper, apparently one of 10,000 copies made. Nettime, as I noticed in Ljubljana, defies attempts by observers to categorize. Just when you think you've figured it out, Nettime might morph slightly, upsetting your conceptions.

In the tradition of Dadaism, humor, deadly serious sometimes, with its reversals and self-contradictions, keeps Nettime moving. Motion is good, as it is a source of growth and life, and Nettime is growing. About 10 people join the list every week, and 120 people came to the conference; most were from Europe-- Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Sofia, Budapest, Riga, Moscow-- practically every European nation had a citizen in Ljubljana. Europe and cyberspace were at the center of attention.


Europe is undergoing a period of intense self-definition, on several levels, and cyberspace is part of that story. The continent is struggling to define what being European means, both practically and conceptually. On a practical level, 1999 is supposed to be the year of the "Euro"-- the single-currency anchored by France and Germany. The Euro is the centerpiece of Economic and Monetary Union, or EMU. EMU is the culmination of nearly 40 years of European economic integration, and the development of a common market. That's one aspect of self-definition, another is the question of West and East. With the end of Soviet Empire, not all European countries are equally European. The struggle to define which countries get "fast tracked" into the new "European common market" is the primary foreign policy concern in most of the former Soviet satellite states. Then there's c-space.

Cyberspace, serving as a loopy cultural icon du-jour, is causing strange European cultural paroxysms, similar to those the United States began experiencing in 1995, kicked off with Senator Exon's "Communications Decency Act," cyber-porn, and junk e-mail. As in the USA, the heart of the matter comes down to identity and control. Who controls the Net? Who defines what goes on the Net, how it grows, and what the Net means? When you get enough nodes up, enough kids with modems, you gotta cultural crisis. Europe's reaching that point, one country at a time.

The German government has attempted to sever all Internet links between the Dutch domain, XS4ALL.NL, and Germany. XS4ALL.NL, a hacker-led, grass-roots ISP and Web server, had agreed to host reproduction of Radikal, a left-wing publication banned in Germany. The German attempt to cut off access to the material failed, as it quickly replicated across the Net, appearing on approximately 50 mirrors Netwide. A similar cultural crisis took place in Italy, where an Italian zine, Decoder, is under surveillance, and liable for prosecution, after publishing on-line a cartoon by the English artist Graham Harwood. The comic strip depicts violence against children, as an illustration for an article on violence against weaker people. The Italian magistrate, horrified at this revolting and obscene display of purient material wants to send Decoder's publishers to jail.

Austria had a similar moment of Internet angst: for two hours in mid March Austrian ISPs shut down Internet access, to protest government attempts at holding carriers responsible for what their users may be reading or saying. Latvia is trying to regulate RealAudio streams as radio broadcasts, requiring a state license. France is disgusted with the dominance of English on the Net, and politicians, along with "intellectuals" dally with creating a "French Internet," whatever that means, as a way to preserve France from Anglo-Saxon, Anglophile, English-whatever, brain-space memetic imperialism. They were dealt a setback recently, when a French court ruled that Georgia Tech university did not need to change an English-language Web page describing activities of its satellite operation in the city of Metz, as the French government wanted.

C-space is redrawing the geography of Europe by loosening, on a cultural level, national control of what people can see and read. EMU will loosen state control on an economic level, replacing the "dirigiste" policies of state-sponsored employment with the supposedly natural rhythms of a free market, and local bureaucrats with a council of ministers in Brussels as arbiters of what's considered fair- and foul-play in the marketplace.

At the conference, Nettime mutated its interest in criticizing US-style "cyber-libertarianism," "California Ideology" and WIRED magazine, towards a newfound concern for their home-space. Where once America, with its Microsoft, Netscape, Northern California and Unix seemed an appropriate target for focused attention, now Europe, with its bifurcated continent, restrictions on travel based on wealth and geography, and emergent forms of c-space censorship, has created a dynamic of its own, and serious issues which must be addressed and debated. It's clear now that Europe can grow, and is growing, a Netspace of its own. What will the rules be on that continent? This was the riveting, at times surreal, focus of the talks in Ljubljana.


During the "blitz-lectures" (15-minute presentations), group discussions of Net-based art, and a long analysis of the Soros Foundation which looms, in the eyes of some Nettimers, as a paradigm for post-government government, the noun "ex-East" came up again and again as the best way to describe one half of Europe, the half that's, by-and-large, excluded from the "ex-West" and its economic club. While that club is showing some signs of crisis, with a Socialist victory in France last week, a Labour Parliament in London, and some crafty financial shenanigans in Germany where the Bundesbank has decided to reevaluate German gold reserves at much higher rate (thereby lowering the government's budget deficit in line with monetary union requirements), EMU's still the hottest club in town. If you're not a member, you're a loser.

The ex-East is not allowed in for now, although that's not going to last. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are on the "fast track" for membership. Slovenia is vying to jump the rails and get in behind them. What happens to the ex-East then, if four of its members go West? The eerie shape of post-Cold War Europe is not one of two former halves still, ironically, existing as present-day halves, divided by wealth, at least it's not the halves we're accustomed to. No, the division of the new Europe will fall along a far older divide-- Rome and Byzantium.


When the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, rebuilt Byzantium in AD 330, giving it the name Constantinople, two empires emerged from what had been one. While Rome collapsed a century later, in the fifth century, the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Latin and the Catholic church carried the essence of old Rome forward, loosely uniting the West with the Latin alphabet and, for awhile, Catholicism. Until the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther, much of the West-- certainly its core, Britain, Spain, France and the German principalities-- swore spiritual allegiance to the same holy empire. They even went on joint military operations, the Crusades, and developed postal roads, a feudal harbinger of NATO and EMU. In the Byzantine empire, which subsumed the Balkans, Turkey, Romania, and today's Moldavia, Ukraine, and bits of Russia, a new alphabet, Cyrillic (created by the Bulgarian St. Cyril in the tenth century), emerged. Here the religion was Orthodox, and this, like the Catholic, eventually splintered into further forms (like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox).

The great divide between these two halves of the former Roman empire, strangely, is reappearing as the geographic division of a new Europe. The new border falls squarely between alphabets. Nations which use Latin letters are welcome to join the "ex-West." Those which use Cyrillic, the heirs of Byzantium, are excluded. They will ultimately come to form the true "ex-East." This line can be traced from the Baltic sea, where Estonia (Latin alphabet, Protestant and Catholic), meets Russia (Cyrillic, Russian Orthodox), southwards, subsuming Russia, Belorussia, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia into one block, loosely the same territory which Byzantium once occupied. List the countries on the other side of the line, ones which were once in the "East"-- Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania-- and each is far more likely to join the West's club than any on the other side of the line.


So what's this got to do with cyberspace? In the great narrative of history as line of progressions from one state of well-being to a higher state of well-being, where historical epochs exist as improvements upon the previous, the Information Age is the next great plateau, the heir of the Industrial, Feudal, Agricultural and Neolithic Ages which preceded. Cyberspace is the ultimate distillation of what the Information Age is meant to be-- a home for "friction-free capitalism," the end of nation states, and a state of being where matter is "demassified" into bits and electrons, which form the bricks and mortar of a new world. Behind these allegories and analogies, however, there is a salient, distinctive aspect to how the world is changing, and that's WYSIWYG.

What You See Is What You Get-- WYSIWYG-- it's one of the great geek acronyms of all time, a pure piece of computer jargon which resonates with deeper philosophical implications. Spawned sometime around 1982, when humans, clicking away at their Apple II and Atari microcomputers, got tired of word-processing and not knowing what their documents would look like once they were printed, the need for screens that could replicate the layout of text on paper, so "what you see is what you get," became apparent. The first WYSIWYG (pronounced "whizzy wig") computer to hit the big time was the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The tag line for the Mac, portentously enough, was "Macintosh. Why 1984 won't be like 1984." A woman in silky red running shorts, a nice white tank top and sneakers, runs into an auditorium filled with slack bald men in gray overalls, and throws a sledgehammer into a giant screen with a man droning on about how we will build a world of pure perfection. The ad played once, during the Super Bowl. Like all great advertisements, this one stunned the public and redefined the meaning of computers, as tools of liberation, as machines which make things clearer, shinning light on the truth, pushing back the darkness (or at least IBM). WYSIWYG is the spirit of the Information Age.

EMU, and cyberspace, are held as offering a way towards a WYSIWYG Society, by supporting social systems which are more transparent. In other words, in a WYSIWYG world, information about what's happening is permitted to flow freely, as it's happening (known as "feedback"). Free markets are "free" because, in theory, information that buyers and sellers need to set a price which reflects the "real" value of whatever is being sold, is readily visible. Thus free markets are fairest of all. Of course no market actually reaches this pristine state of free-flowing information, but the idea is to come close by creating structures which support transparency, rather than opacity. EMU is meant to do several things, and one of them, its proponents will tell you, is to make markets freer, and more "open." What they mean by this is more "transparent." It's a WYSIWYG dream. Computer networks are a big part of this vision, as they provide the medium information flows through. Thus cyberspace, by its very essence, is considered a WYSIWYG kinda thing. C-space, the theory goes, is good because it makes the way things work more visible, be it markets, or the spread of ideas.

In cyberspace, you can trace a virtual boundary. It's the electronic division between WYSIWYG and Byzantine. "Byzantine", as in "a Byzantine organization," is nearly antinonimous with WYSIWYG. You could say that UNIX, that most Byzantine of operating systems, is the opposite of Macintosh systems. Yet, to its devotees, UNIX gives powers that Mac users can only dream of-- the ability to dart between nested directories in flash, or siphon streams of data into files by "piping." In Europe, which is rapidly diving along the lines which once divided the ancient Roman Empire, Byzantium may well have some assets which will put the WYSIWYG society to shame, or at least jealous. If you know how the system works, it offers far more power to its devotees than a transparent system. That's the self-negating problem, though. When taken to its logical end, systems like that are called tyrannical.

In Europe, the ex-West claims it's building a WYSIWYG Society, and sees the ex-East as sailing back to Byzantium. It's strange, and bizarre, to see the fatalism of these trends, as if going back to the future were the only way forward.

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