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In Praise of Concept Production: Formats, Schools and Non-Representational Media Studies

By Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter

‘What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?’
Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media, 1988

‘I have seen the future – and it’s not visual’.
Johan Sjerpstra

During the first decade of the 21st century the academic discipline of media studies failed to develop a compelling agenda. Media turned out to be empty containers, individualizing people rather than imagining collective agendas. The growth of ‘media’ could lead to its ultimate implosion. If ‘media’ have gone digital and become the network glue between devices, there is a danger of defining the boundaries of media studies purely for the sake of the discipline itself. Media studies then becomes self-referential, defined solely in terms of its self-defense against predatory competitors. For instance, if media cannot be distinguished anymore from urban life, geography and location-based services, then what is the task of media studies? Public Relations is a trap here: to study media is not identical to its promotion. We need media researchers to reflect on how they use their object of study in the research methodology itself. In a media society of compulsive immersion, this is no easy task. Indeed, many would charge such a call as regressive, harking back to the Cartesian myth of critical detachment. But as we will argue, we consider the work of reflexive mediation – of concept production – necessary if such a thing as media critique is to exist at all.

For the past decade media studies has struggled to keep up with the pace of techno-cultural change. The methodologies and concepts of the broadcast era of ‘mass media’ are of little use when analyzing networked digital cultures. The globalization of higher education and the increasing competition between disciplines over diminishing funds and international students has further exacerbated the unconscious crisis of media studies. With a push towards vocational training, stagnating cultural studies and a distaste for theory in general, film and television studies can only make defensive gestures towards the ever-expanding digital realm.

The future of media studies rests on its capacity to avoid forced synergies towards ‘screen cultures’ or ‘visual studies’ and instead to invent new institutional forms that connect with the trans-media, collaborative and self-organizational culture of teaching and research networks. Unless media studies makes such a move, it will join the vanishing objects it assumes as constitutive of media in society. In this essay we want to go beyond an inventory on the state of the art and use the example of organizing networks as a concept in development that might revitalize education and research in this field. The work of organizing networks, a concept proposed by us in 2005, involves the invention of new institutional forms immanent to communications media.1 Such a collaborative process mediated through network culture conditions the possibility of disciplinary transmutation.

Database Dating and the Invention of Schools

A school is defined as a critical mass of equal standing scholars and teachers with distinct intellectual traits. The question on the table is how to develop decentralized ‘global’ (public) research schools and identify what their key features might be. The current ‘science’ system expects collaborative research but does not facilitate the formation of distinctive schools of concept production. Humanities scholars have learned to play the waiting game of drip-fed funding, locked in the holding bay of a terminal with no interest in supporting experimental research on a distributed, trans-institutional scale. The internet has, surprisingly, not made much of a difference. One could blame the structure of research funding and related academic publishing rituals for this, but that’s a weak proposition since it assumes a form of structural over-determination. A general culture of indifference towards the relation between media environments and conditions of concept and knowledge production prevails in a more pervasive way. Has the (neo-liberal) individualization of society increased our fear for long-lasting collective commitments? If ‘schools’ are so influential, what stops us from creating them?

Instead of conceiving a multitude of schools and approaches that theorize the turbulent transformations in the media sphere, the collective production of concepts has been a decidedly tame affair. There are no institutional examples of new media research agendas, collectives or schools. Where is the Frankfurt School of our time? All too soon we seem to reduce collaborative efforts to fashions in theory. No matter one’s critiques of the Frankfurt School, the fact is they produced a lasting legacy in the field of media studies and cultural analysis. Despite its identity as a school, the work of individuals stands out: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkeimer, Marcuse. But a counter-reading would say it is exactly the distributed intellectual labor of the Frankfurt School that allowed these extra-institutional figures to become part of the canon of critical theory and social philosophy. It is the self-organization of a group of intellectuals to create a school across national and transnational spaces that inspires us here.2 Much of what is now called French theory has been produced in similar circumstances, outside or on the fringes of academia, creating a delicate balance between individual work and intense exchanges within a social milieu of intellectuals, artists and activists. A similar story can be told of Italian post-autonomia political philosophy and the earlier schools of Freudian psychoanalysis. Media studies desperately needs its own versions of these distinct, collective intellectual efforts.

Is global media studies something for the future? That is not the direction we would advocate, at least in terms of how it is currently defined. Global media studies emphasizes cultural competence and an awareness of cultural differences derived, in some cases, through media ethnography. For the most part, global media studies is driven by conservative methods of content and discourse analysis. Frequently it stays within the UK audience studies approach to media research and is, at best, Commonwealth in its focus. Certainly, there is research on the political economy of global media, though here the cultural question is frequently left out. And it plays into very weak empirical attempts at a political economy of so-called ‘global’ media industries, which in reality are more often regional at best with the rise of ‘national webs’ bringing even the regional scale of media-culture into question. In short, global media studies is a concept free zone without transnational connection or inter-scalar complexity. There is no coordinated network of global media researchers working in any sustained manner on the undulations of contemporary media cultures. The old association form of grouping international researchers around particular disciplines is certainly not the model that is going to provide the distributed labor required today for research practices immanent to the media of communication.

Traditionally renowned as the dream factory, the USA in particular has demonstrated an inability to create collective academic projects and facilities for long-term collaborative work in new media research. In fact, the world over, the current research model is one of a ‘principal investigator’ who hires assistants, postdocs and PhD students with the sole aim to demonstrate ‘leadership’. What characterizes media studies, in sync with the global neoliberal context, is the figure of the lone researcher. If research funds are realized, content might consolidate within the logic of reporting and listing of outputs. But if the money doesn’t come through it can be very hard to materialize research, at least within the academy. While a plethora of ‘tactical media’ interventions over the past 10 years suggest a healthy state of media invention, these are not instances of collective production at a disciplinary level of institutional support, infrastructure and commitment.3 Rather, the academy’s preference is for silo construction that engenders, at best, interdisciplinary innovation around intellectual property regimes (IPRs) as distinct from transdisciplinary invention through free collaboration, and remains the model of the singular author-producer.

Perhaps teamwork’s violation of the sacred author as individual explains why science’s collaborative methods are de facto not allowed in the humanities – despite the fact that the ‘science’ model is promoted so heavily as a cultural model. The sciences long ago recognized the collaborative function of knowledge production, and a key part of this stems from science’s old collaborations with industry, requiring the field to traverse institutional expectations and logics of production. But if we look at a case like Australia where ‘industry linkage’ grants in the humanities have been the norm for over a decade, this structural change has not had any sustained impact in terms of materializing meaningful collaborative research practices.4 In the end these are only formal relations on paper and not lived relations in any substantive sense in terms of disciplinary invention. Moreover, they are top-down arrangements driven by government policy directives on obtaining funds within a populist and economistic political paradigm. It is no surprise that Aussie-academics drifted toward industry linkage grants out of simple cynical opportunism along with a desperate survival instinct, a few exceptions aside. The so-called industry partners are often just neighboring governmental bodies such as cultural and media organizations and government agencies. The ‘linkage’ is largely symbolic and institutionally, not research, driven. The aim here is to legitimize already completed research and to create an institutional framework within which to justify career futures. Meaningful and inventive research collaborations cannot materialize in such arrangements when they start with these kind of forced relations.

The database approach to finding research partners within the European funding system is not much different. Academics in search of research partners plug in their expertise details, disciplinary training and project interests, press submit, and the database builds a field of partner options. Within the Framework Programmes (FP) researchers are effectively forced to work together in order to have a shot at funding, and the database serves as a mirror of TV dating games where contestant profiles are the basis upon which a ‘perfect match’ is conjured from the abyss of isolation. It doesn’t help that researchers are quietly advised to lobby in Brussels for collaborative EU research money if they wish their projects to have any chance of obtaining funding. With assessors holed up in hotels in Brussels reviewing a thousand applications over a few days, it’s no wonder that they pick their buddies out of the stack. Such a massive scale of applications in the European system leaves little choice other than a corrupt culture of cronyism. While efforts in public relations might improve the signal/noise ratio with decision makers, it is very hard to see how it assists the work of collaborative research, assuming your project even has the capacity and resources to enlist an Ad Man. Instead, this model of research becomes indistinct from contemporary political campaigns, where special interest groups lobby the centers of power and all the while the project moves further away from the objects, methods and passions of research.

In sum, the academy’s closed intellectual property regime logic, its centralization and its habit of database dating is thoroughly disconnected from new media environments characterized by a culture of open communication and collaboration. Among countless current examples of this are open courseware (from MIT to Edu-Factory), open publishing (online journals, collaborative blogs, etc.) and open software movements (, Linux and all its variants). Crucial here is the connection between online communication and material situations. Whether it’s bar camps, collective field research, or group planning meetings, the off-line element is central to the work of organizing networks. To be purely ‘virtual’ is to risk drifting potentially vital concepts into the realm of vaporware. The material dimension functions to galvanize online activities as a substantive force.

Successful instances of disciplinary collaborative research can exist. We are reminded of the science and technology studies (STS) method, in which anthropologists and sociologists approached science with questions. Why did it work? Driven by initial questions around health, environmental, financial and medical issues, STS was a research driven approach to knowledge production, very different from the self-referential tendency in media studies to avoid rigor and instead produce texts based on the endless citation of peers with power. STS provides an example of how the material world forced the disciplinary contours and methods of STS to adapt, evolve and consolidate. STS managed to develop the skill of translating issues that emerge in society into legitimate and necessary research programs free from client driven research. While media studies all too often remains beholden to the abstract and frequently politically motivated research focus areas set by funding agencies, it could embrace the culture of collaboration special to networks and design new models of autonomous research funding.

The Media Question and Organized Networks

So let’s face it, after a short renaissance of Anglophone cultural studies in the early 1990s, the Media Question no longer sparks the collective imagination. Abundant fragmentation has distracted us. Why do we even bother with the fate of media studies? What’s really so special about it? Certainly we have our own intellectual affinity with various figures – Innis, McLuhan, Mattelart, Castells, Kittler, and so forth. But this says more about attractions to style and modes of analysis than disciplinarity per se. We would also have to admit to a fascination with the magic of mediated relations and the marvels of technical invention. But what drives us is the Media Question, still unresolved at the level of architectural control, the production of standards and management of protocols – all things we see as collectively produced and in fact unrelated to the routine and very dull fare that usually defines the territory of media studies: representations of marginality, textual and content analysis and identity politics.

The direction of media studies must therefore be non-representational. While for the time being media remains what it has been, a container concept, we know from the work of medium theorists that the container is a very elastic form of the materiality of expression. Media never cease to surprise or generate unusually high levels of excitement and forms of mass participation. In this respect, media is always social, and so too is the materiality of form. The focus should, for instance, be on integrated urban-media environments, smart technologies, ubiquitous media. As a social-technical phenomenon, then, communications media are always alive and therefore changing.

In contrast what makes media studies so boring and predictable is its slowness and obsession with the visual. No matter how fast the transmission of signals, the distribution of academic knowledge is inherently slow. Think of book publishing and how you wait two years for the text to appear. The cost of printing books in China is cheap, but shipping containers still take 2-3 months to reach the other side of the world. If key publishers embrace print-on-demand some of these obstacles would be addressed. And it is truly unforgiveable the way publishers such as Routledge and Palgrave charge upwards of one hundred pounds sterling for monographs. Authors should also know better and take a closer look at their contracts before they consign their hard work to the remainder’s shelf and pulping machines at the expense of being read in a timely way.

Media studies hasn’t taken its objects seriously enough. All too easily it borrows from the shopping mall of post-modern theory, psychoanalysis, sociology and literary studies to interpret its own object, neglecting the challenge to develop media theory itself. The insane subject provides the raw material and object for concept production in psychoanalysis, for example. So why should it be so difficult for media technologies to function as the object of concept production? To think that it can’t is to seriously regress and suppose that media are simply empty vessels or black boxes waiting to be filled – the container theory all over again – rather than remarkable objects with their own capacity for inspiring concepts. Where, then, should media studies find its concepts of renewal? What are the geocultural contours and institutional settings best equipped to support collaborative concept production that will most likely happen outside the academy?

Let us be clear: concepts are essential for a vibrant and distinctive media studies discipline. They are not produced for their own sake, but because they hold the capacity to transform society in profound ways. Think of the Freudian inspired work of Edward Bernays and the rise of public opinion and advertisements of consumer fantasies in the US after World War II.5 The experience of life and the production of subjectivity underwent enormous changes once the concept of desire was integrated into the media imaginary of post-War society. Consider also how the Obama 2008 presidential campaign drew heavily on both traditional grassroots political strategies along with organizational concepts developed out of social-network and activist media such as swarming, viral marketing and self-organization, resulting in a post-party production of the Obama brand. For these reasons, we think there is great importance in developing distributed, collaborative research agendas that invest in analysis by way of practice to produce concepts in the digital era.

One approach to addressing the need for new modes of association and collaboration in media studies is to experiment with the model of ‘organized networks’ to institute media research within an informational, digital paradigm. Such a move would further disaggregate the already crumbling system of the modern university. Critics might contend that organizing media research within the culture of networks would simply reinforce the neoliberal drive to outsource the provision of services. One could also argue that a move toward organized networks would be precisely at odds with the idea of institutional security necessary for sustainable practices of knowledge production. But in our minds there’s an important distinction between service provision and knowledge production. The former is driven by the market impulse and is underscored by disinterested (‘alienated’) labor within highly precarious conditions of employment. While the latter is not without similar precarity, and indeed in the age of ‘digital diploma mills’ shares much with service provision,6 the work of knowledge production in the age of digital networks nonetheless holds both affective and material qualities of a special kind, quite unlike so-called knowledge production within universities, where social relations are as hierarchical and atomized as those found on the 19th century factory floor.

Social relations within and across networks tend to be fleeting and project driven, struggling for continuity. Similarly, at a material level the technical standards of much online knowledge production tend to result in a proliferation of platforms and sites, which has the effect of further disaggregating what might in fact at the social level be a series of projects shared by a number of participants distributed across transnational spaces and times. This leads us to another key concept for knowledge production in the age of networks: seriality. Where standards, sites and participants appear fragmented, the concept of seriality helps establish connections across otherwise seemingly unrelated phenomena. Tools and methods need to be developed that assist researchers, participants and user-viewers in their efforts to keep track of multiple projects distributed across space and time. This requires more than a real-time software fix. Take Google Wave, for instance. According to the Wikipedia definition ‘Google Wave is a web-based, computing platform, and communications protocol, designed to merge key features of media like e-mail, instant messaging, wikis, and social networking. Communications using the system can be synchronous and/or asynchronous, depending on the preference of individual users’.7 The problem here is not so much the baroque combinatoria of data streams but the standardized automatic results these dashboards generate to instantly solve the all-too-human noise of collaboration. Aggregation is not the answer for meaningful collaboration, since the productive and indeed often charming differences that define research projects online tend to be erased when incorporated into a real-time aggregation platform. Networks thrive on not-working and communication gaps.8 Special qualities of different communications media need to be retained rather than aggregated to best sustain serial relations across diverse networked projects that refuse incorporation by any single power or authority.

Concepts Beyond the Classroom

There also remains considerable work to be done concerning the relationship between research and teaching in media studies and indeed across the disciplines overall. Moreover, there is great potential to generate concepts in the research-teaching ‘nexus’, to adopt the managerial parlance. But this work of concept co-production should not be technologically determinist or have too much faith in technology alone. Like the ‘ICT for development’ discourse, which assumes the introduction of technology into developing countries results in economic transformation, there is a broad feeling that technology makes teaching better. Nevertheless, a recent report noted that the vast majority of academics in the US continue to resist adopting technology in the classroom.9 For us the issue is not so much one of mass conversion to high-tech education (the students come to class prepackaged with a digital default anyway, even if their professors do not), but of translating research practices from the wikis, collaborative blogs, project based learning and media production that many of us already engage in for pedagogical purposes. In other words, the use of digital media in the classroom already assumes a process of research: one has to learn new software, techniques of information retrieval and recombination, social protocols of communication, and so forth. Moving such practices into a paradigm of teaching-as-research requires translation, which in this case is a collective political task across institutional settings that at once formalizes and consolidates teaching and research through the development of new methods, models and concepts.

Instead, what we find within the techno-institutional economy is research excluding teaching, thereby retaining the distinction between the two. Moreover, media studies is positioned as a disciplinary practice of education rather than research. Within the circumscribed borders of the informational university, media studies has no distinct object of study. The object of media studies is not media, it is audiences, textual analysis and content analysis coupled with a vocational element. Media studies for most students is a means to an end: the job. Analyzing the process of learning itself is very rarely embraced and requires a good teacher. Students, broadly speaking, are terrified by the sea of uncertainty that defines the labor of thinking and therefore research. They want signposts installed at every point of the learning process, and academics willingly supply students with ultimately false rules of certainty in preparation for good end of semester teacher performance surveys required to hold onto the job. This situation of pedagogical failure and disciplinary stagnation is hardly helped by academics whose sole aspiration at an intellectual level is to publish unread articles in the journal stables of Elsevier, Sage, Springer or Taylor & Francis. Journals held by such publishers are the pillar of legitimacy in the field of media studies and can be read without ever finding a concept. They are exercises in producing work that is largely indistinguishable from one article to the next. To put it very bluntly, the biggest threat to the future of media studies is the university itself.

The more recent work of Lev Manovich serves as one point of departure towards reinventing media pedagogy and concept production.10 Manovich frames his book Software Takes Command with the following question: ‘How does the shift to software-based production methods in the 1990s change our concepts of “media”?’ Emphasizing the digital proliferation of visual material in contemporary life, Manovich foresees an accompanying crisis in critique. Where previously existing relations between critical approach and media form provided a sufficient architecture of intelligibility (think of psychoanalysis and film, for example), the abundance of digital culture today has yet to establish analytical models and relevant concepts with which to make sense of the hyperspeed of status-update culture. Teaching semiotics to your undergrads is not really going to help much when it comes to explaining the proliferation of YouTube videos, file-sharing sites and social networking updates.

How to transform the culture of existing education institutions so that teaching is positioned as a generator of – rather than separate from – research presents a very particular set of obstacles. Part of the problem is that digital culture is so highly unstable. One of the key reasons the 19th century novel could obtain canonical status and help invent the critical field of literary studies was because generations of scholars were able to refer to and debate the minutiae of plots unfolding across individually produced pieces of content situated in the logic of an author’s oeuvre. But this is not the case for digital culture, which is technically prone to collapsing code as programs are collectively rewritten and made obsolete with the latest update.

This technical characteristic manifests in social and cultural realms. For instance, there are no institutions beyond the idiosyncratic media art museums here and there that archive the internet’s inherently unstable medium. Certainly there exist a scattering of online archives such as the Wayback Machine,11 and indeed one could argue that competing platforms of search engines produce more than enough results for the networked masses.12 But we are talking of something quite different than the algorithmic organization of hits and links. The production of concepts for analyzing digital media culture cannot exist exclusively online with all its social-technical ephemerality, economy of upgrades and tendency toward high levels of distraction. On-the-ground institutional infrastructure that supports critical digital studies is required for sustained research agendas, the formulation of curricula and support staff.

The next problem is that newer forms of teaching are assessed through managerial audit regimes obsessed with the self-referential and thoroughly time-wasting exercise of ‘quality assurance control’. Those who do bring technology into the classroom often find and even willingly embrace a teaching process contained within institutional software systems – Blackboard, WebCT and internal wikis are key culprits. As a consequence, teaching practices and content are not exposed beyond the borders of the institution and therefore not assessed by a world of peers at large.

A final problem of a practice-based approach is that it all too easily replicates the visual elements, hegemonic language and software behaviors of its own tools. Critical concepts also do not just emerge out of practice. Teaching how to develop one’s concepts should be distinguished from the techno-commercial skills to master and localize media. We see this so often in new media education: importation of hyped-up concepts from California and customizing them to make viable successful products. This sense of localization is indistinguishable from the publishing giants Sage or Taylor & Francis offering teachers the opportunity, if they pay, to remix a course reader from their database.

Could we engage ‘Digital Humanities’, with its separate IT staff who will deal with the technical details for clueless arts and humanities scholars? The concept of Digital Humanities might be useful for retiring linguists but is deadly for the media studies environment. The humanities itself should try to overcome its distance from computer science and attack the sciences head on for its privileged position in terms of funding. Digital Humanities maintains to be working in collaboration with computer engineers but the problem is they retain a classic division of labor, which totally goes against transdisciplinary knowledge production. What we need is to move away from expert dependent high-end tools to broad-based undergraduate programs. We do not need massive budgets, but the Digital Humanities only work with high-end institutions and hide themselves behind the smoke screens of large datasets. The ‘digital’ is revolutionizing humanities itself and should not be downgraded as servitude to the IT staff and their authoritarian imaginations.

Mavericks, gurus, consultants, entrepreneurs, futurologists and public intellectuals all trade in viral memes, but these are mostly bubble concepts that slide nicely across the PowerPoint presentation and are not connected in any material way to media research. This idiom of concept-lite derives from a lively and healthy publishing industry in business, management and trade press – a post-war phenomenon that corresponds with the rise of consumer society and emergent post-industrialism. This extra-academic discourse is powerful precisely because thought becomes abstracted from material conditions. And at the level of visibility if not readability, it is very hard to ignore this literature – it can be found at every airport, yet it rarely appears on course reading lists.

Can we turn instead to innovative startups? Most of the work inside young companies involves the localization of existing realms of knowledge and commodity consumption – comparable to academics’ endless reviewing, quoting and copying of existing work under a banner of ‘creativity’ that suggests otherwise. Both fine-tune marketing and research paradigms around already existing knowledge. Similarly, in open source software development Linux is the basic platform and customization follows. The system itself is not transformed, but simply copy-pasted and then slightly altered. The rise of interconnected, integrated adaptation and localization of a handful of styles and ideas is preventing radical concept development. Where in this constellation described above that claims to be focused on critical, creative, innovative concepts does ‘research’ fit in? Maybe research better positions itself in the tinkering, do-it-yourself corner of adaptation. The challenge is to organize ‘research’ as forms of collective production and to modify existing research practices so a transformation can take place. This is what we must explore: ‘becoming a school’.

So where does one turn to for concepts – the crystallization of ideas as frameworks for analysis? Media studies’ future will only be guaranteed by the learning, teaching and research of media taking place outside the academy, where it can turn instead to artist collectives and activist groups experimenting with and developing concepts for collaborative learning – concepts that can then be brought back into and applied in a classroom situation. The same could be said for many other disciplines – performance studies, art and design, etc. But somehow these disciplines have not become inherently dull in the way that media studies has. Given the choice, we would jump at the opportunity to work in design and architecture programs before landing a job in yet another media program with intellectually reluctant if not deeply cynical students. Why bother after all this? Because there is an incredible potential for collective experiences of self-organized modes of research development. Moreover, the profound connection between media and sociality is endlessly rich and holds the capacity to transform societies in substantial ways.

Media studies, was nun? What do we do, teach students to write an iWhatever app? Is that all there is? Will it become an optional choice to include technical education in a media studies degree? Linux for freshmen? No. We need to discover (critical) concepts, which could be classified as mere luck but is a skill that can be trained nonetheless. One needs to develop an eye for them. In the fluid media environment concepts often hover on the surface but can only be recognized after intense intellectual expeditions into history, for example, mid-18th century Continental philosophy. Ideas then spring back to life in untimely contexts, where they become productive. Being informed about the latest hypes alone will not do the job. Only by making strange what appears common can one come up with concepts that capture new, surprising meanings and phenomena.

Organizing Concept Production

So what will happen if media studies finally moves from analyses of visual representations into a methods-based realm of post-visual culture? The challenge lies beyond, in the tactile, local, relational, haptic, invisible and conceptual levels. The work we collectively do as practitioners of media research resides in non-representational dimensions: mobility, miniaturization and media integration into the urban realm. So are we urban studies, design culture, IT? The sheer scale and proliferation of network media comprises complex environments, but it is not as though environments were any less complex than before. It’s just that disciplines have trouble dealing adequately with informational, ontological complexity – to do so will require a transdisciplinary move. This is where the postmodern project comes to an end – the world refused to be deconstructed and took revenge.

Humanities academics have become more conservative and have regressed into intellectual restoration, with less concrete experience of how to organize things. Empirical simplicity has become the preferred mode of research in place of a reflexive and political understanding of processes and relations. Reflexive mediation these days is not limited to media per se but addresses the proliferation of borders, of affects, the multiplication of labor and subjectivity. The institutional and social landscape of work has become one defined by short-termism: portfolio careers and project driven jobs. There is no consistency other than the unstoppable waves of inconsistency. With informational integration the time of mediation is also the time of databases and information management systems. And there we find a place for political economic research coupled with a practice that is focused, at least in our minds, on the production of open standards and open storage.

Media theory needs to unpack the subconscious terminologies that float around, such as friends, open, free, social and local. As an example let’s start with a critique of openness as a hegemonic rhetoric. There is a universal position across leftist culture that is anti-intellectual property. Anti-IP advocates are the noisiest in Old Europe, where one can still afford to be a cultural producer on the payroll of the state. But the media economy is moving beyond the IP system. The information economy today is based on the control of user profiles for recombination then repackaging for third-party clients desperate for affirmation of real consumption. Of course the data-miners such as Google and Facebook trade in fiction as much as the previous media economy, where advertising space and time was sold then broadcast to the masses.

In praise of conceptual thinking, we want to make a claim that collaborative methods immanent to media of communication – in short, the work of organization – can withstand time in an environment that sees platforms, software and code languages coming and going at increasing speed. In ten years time no-one will know what an iPhone was, let alone have the necessary knowledge to write an app for it. Media studies should become more sustainable – it needs a projection into the future where the shelf-life of the concept is not as short as your next software update.

When programmers write a line of code they execute it within the sandbox to see if it works. Where is such a testing environment for media studies to be found? Science has its laboratories but where are ours? This situation can be seen in the precorporate and dull and formalistic way in which computer labs the world over are all the same: hostile settings of absolute sterility with security officers and cleaners as the only human element. What we need is more uncertainty, chaos and untimeliness. Rise up outside the campus, open the doors and windows (equipment prices are no longer a large barrier to communication). Instead, we see students rolling in like sheep, turning on outdated locked-up hardware according to the rules and regulations stipulated by the IT police, and then going home. And these are supposed to be people educated for creative futures. It also has to be admitted that there is a profound reluctance on the part of the vast majority of media studies students to display the tiniest slither of intellectual curiosity. Let’s break through these role models.

Concept production is intimately connected to the challenge of method, of how we operate in specific situations (whether online or offline). In the global economy, for instance, the researcher can have a new role entirely in the collective analysis of workplace settings that are dependant on the use of digital media and software applications in daily business. Think of the global logistics industries and their management of labor and supply chains. There is enormous scope for the birth of a new field of software studies to analyze the effects of logistics software in the production of organizational systems and subjectivity.

Instead of promoting the informality of the existing social networking sites, we propose to experiment. If we champion ‘orgnets’ here it is not as an identity or brand. Similar names are plentiful and there should be more, starting with barcamps, temp media labs, unconferencing, summer schools, book sprints and master classes. We need to theorize these unruly practices in education. Just think if Christopher Kelty’s ‘recursive politics’ concept could be inserted into the aesthetics agenda of software studies.13 Or sonic studies with radio as a technical media of writing, and DJ Spooky as prime theorist.14 In order to get initiatives up and running we have to glance away for a moment from the busy screen: Oublier le Pop, Lady Gaga or South Park as organized networks? Forget it. There is no match or correspondence. Critique is not a mood or sentiment, but a plan to organize things in a different manner.

Amsterdam/Sydney, February 2011

(Forthcoming in Kelly Gates (ed.) Media Studies Futures, Cambridge: Polity Press. A first draft of this essay was written in Shanghai, July 2010. Thanks a lot to Kelly Gates and Morgan Currie for their valuable suggestions and copy-editing work.)


  1. We have discussed the concept of organized networks across a number of essays, including Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, ‘Dawn of the Organised Networks’, Fibreculture Journal 5 (2005), And more recently, Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter, ‘Urgent Aphorisms: Notes on Organized Networks for the Connected Multitudes’, in Mark Deuze (ed.) Managing Media Work, Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage, 2011, pp. 279-290.
  2. For a discussion of the Frankfurt School as a precursor to organized networks, see Ned Rossiter, Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions, Rotterdam: NAi, 2006, 19-22. More on the orgnets concept can be found in Geert Lovink, ‘Introducing Organized Networks’, in Zero Comments, New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 239-255.
  3. As examples of non-academic research collectives, one could mention groups like Critical Art Ensemble, Institute for Applied Autonomy, Bureau d’études, 16 Beaver Group, the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, among many more. Our question is why the academy seems incapable of generating such inspiring and productive formats and practices of research.
  5. For a fascinating analysis of Bernays, cybernetics and the formation of neoliberal governance, see Brian Holmes, ‘Adam Curtis: Alarm Clock Films’, in Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society, Eindhoven and Zagreb: Van Abbemuseum Public Research / WHW, 2009, pp. 284-303.
  6. See David Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002.
  8. Geert Lovink, The Principle of Notworking: Concepts in Critical Internet Culture, Public Lecture, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, 24 February, 2005.
  9. See Jeffrey R. Young, ‘Reaching the Last Technology Holdouts at the Front of the Classroom’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 July, 2010.
  10. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, 2008, p. 25. Available at:
  12. The question of search engines served as one of the topics of investigation for the Institute of Network Cultures event, Society of the Query, Amsterdam, 13-14 November, 2009.
  13. See Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
  14. See Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Rhythm Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. See also the highly inventive work of Australian sonic theorist and avant-pop star, Philip Brophy,

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