World-InfoCon Amsterdam 2002: Conference Report
While the World-Information Exhibition in Amsterdam’s “Oude Kerk” – on show from 15 November to 15 December, 2002 - displayed state-of-the-art technologies, a survey of the politics of information and some of the most advanced examples of digital art, the two-day World-InfoCon conference “The Network Society of Control“ concluded World-Information.Org’s program in Amsterdam.
Taking place on 6 and 7 December, 2002, at De Balie “The Network Society of Control“ represented a crucial event in connecting two discourses that can no longer be treated separately: surveillance and privacy on one hand, and digital commons and intellectual property on the other. Whereas on the first conference day, titled “Security Paranoia in the World-Info-Sphere”, speakers addressed issues of security and control, difficult to disentangle form paranoia and panic, the second day was dedicated to the issue “Building the Digital Commons”.
In the course of the starting session on Friday morning, presentations given under the heading “Control Anxiety“ included cyborgologist Chris Hables Gray and World-Information.Org director Konrad Becker. Gray’s presentation of cyborg theory provided a stimulating entry point for developing a coherent understanding of policies that affect both knowledge and bodies and was followed by Becker’s lecture, which constituted a colorful and disturbing review of the historic origins of information manipulation, a rapid succession of flash lights on centuries of secret and clandestine knowledge. On a more secular note, capitalism theorist Brian Holmes, showed a rather practical side of his work presenting maps that criticize global power structures and Ryan Schoelerman, a young ex-Marine, provided a first hand insight of electronic data collection as practiced by the US Forces on behalf of the NSA - the daily nitty gritty of surveillance, performed by young boys whose job description knows no question marks. Later, in a gripping presentation, Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble left no doubt that biology is part of the info-sphere - and an arena of molecular invasion: the appropriation of biological information by biotech corporations amounts to the final seizure of bodies by informational capital.
The afternoon sessions of the first conference day were focused on “Public Mind Control“ and featured perspectives of the corporate influencing of the infosphere. Sheldon Rampton, PR Watch editor, presented views of the PR business that were as clear as they were disconcerting. Yet any sort of governmental regulation, according to Rampton, seems counterproductive, making step-by-step awareness-building at the grassroots level the necessary alternative. The latter insight also emerged from Eveline Lubbers, when she introduced her work leading to the publication of her book “Battling Big Business”. Anyone who was not quite so sure what corporative disinformation strategies such as “greenwash” meant was left without a doubt. The fact that there is hardly any critical reporting to be found in the mainstream media in this regard comes as no surprise to Ben Bagdikian, the Grandsigneur of critical media theory in the US, who attached some hope to the Internet: “The Internet plays an important role in breaking through the overwhelming influence of the ordinary commercial media.“
Day two was dedicated to the digital commons and participants spoke on issues from within the wide-ranging area of intellectual property, the “spectre” that has come to haunt the politics of the infosphere. Here, free software and open source were addressed by two of the top people in this field, Volker Grassmuck and Felix Stalder, both of whom underlined the importance of open source for the digital commons and gave an impressive view of the creative opportunities open source can unlock. From a non-European perspective, Arun Mehta stressed the damaging effect of the copyright industry on India’s attempt of developing software suited to its needs. “Writing software is like walking on a pavement where individual squares belong to different people”, Mehta said. As Darius Cuplinskas and Steve Cisler portrayed the challenges intellectual property constitutes for public libraries and knowledge networks – exorbitant subscription fees to specialized journals have meant that scientific knowledge has become a privilege for the few – a development which has given rise to novel forms of information sharing among the scientific community. Felix Stalder’s conclusion of World-InfoCon: “The conference has been successful in connecting the surveillance and the copyright issues in a way that you start to understand what the connections between them are. And it has been able to build a bridge from the specialist community to a much wider audience.“
Conference Report by World-InfoCon Editor Eric Kluitenberg and World-InfoCon speaker Steve Cisler