HomeseperatorAboutseperatorOn being 'independent' in a network

# On being 'independent' in a network

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman

If we want to figure out how to sustain independent cultural production on the internet, it seems vital we first look critically at the vocabulary of independence itself - what it might be when translated to the practice of networking.

As a negatively charged category, independent cultural production is easy enough to accept: it is not state or corporate culture in any simple sense; it does not emerge from the studios of Bertelsmann, Disney, Murdoch, ORF or the BBC. But as a positively constructed term it becomes more problematic. Are independent producers so independent they don't accept any money from the state, corporate sponsors, or private philanthropists? Theoretically, they will shun markets and capitalism, but do they engage in them practically? And if so, is this on the basis of pure expediency or a political rationale (for example that micro-markets for beer, film, ticket, or subscription sales are qualitatively different from carnivorous macro-markets driven by growth and mutual acquisition)?

Maybe describing independence is as simple as saying that as long as producers are totally self-determined culturally and any funders they have keep their hands off their content, they qualify? It's doubtful: aside from sticky issues of behaviour, psychology and free will, this idea begs questions of differentiation, constituency, and global interdependency. If an independent cultural producer is producing cultural objects, social processes, or informational architectures roughly equivalent to those produced by a large corporate or institutional player, should their economic self-sufficiency still be fetishised? If the independent culture of generously funded elite institutions reflects merely the taste of their trained specialists, is the social validity of their project even comparable to that of an independent community television station broadcasting pirated football matches to the local neighbourhood? And, beyond the funding debate, if the price of a Western European country's culture is disguised by social welfare, mature technological infrastructures and a history of imperialism, does this elevate its 'independence' over global production cultures that appear more compromised? In a networked production process, these questions are unavoidable.

Independent as in 'free market'?

In cultural, social, economic, even geographic terms, the notion of independence is so profoundly contingent as to border on the meaningless. From the perspective of Great Britain, you need look no further than its government policy to see the place it occupies in the mythopoetic landscape of national politics. Thanks, among other things, to consultant Charles Leadbeater's publication The Independents: Britain's New Cultural Entrepreneurs (DEMOS), a whole commercial ecology lives by the language of autonomy whilst claiming to further Britain's leadership status as a New Economy. By explicitly linking creativity to individualism, the document makes clear how it helped divest the notion of independence of any political dimension other than that indexed to national economic survival. Those who supported the research for this book, which was published in 1999, give a good indication of which interests were served by the activity it promoted. They were the BBC, the Department of Trade and Industry; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts; the Iron and Steel Trades Federation; Sun Microsystems; Cap Gemini and the Sheffield Local Education Authority - as perfectly constructed a list of public and private as you might find in any piece of Third Way memorabilia.

Since September 11th and the dot com bust, there is less money sloshing around for risky ventures. Now, more than ever, it is the paranoid logics of security and guaranteed profit which fuel much of the technological development that does gain investment. The few remaining Third Way enthusiasts, too, seek ever greater verifiability for their grand narratives of urban regeneration, intellectual labour, and social inclusion. Phenomena like the British regulator Ofcom's hardline clampdown on pirate radio stations (which has left scores of DJs in prison and the black British press in an uproar about the further erasure of media representation) make it clear however that unless 'culturally diverse creativity' happens within clearly defined market parameters, the state is not interested. With creative and economic development coming to be so closely linked at the turn of the century, the conservative turn has triggered its fair share of destruction in official cultural institutions too (access to funding, cheap accommodation, and other indirect sources of capital have all been curtailed).

From independence to critical networking

Cultural production on the internet now exists on a precarious seesaw. On the one side, the gravitational pull of the attention and resource economies subjects it to standardised norms of communicative and technological rationality. On the other, the social imperative which frequently motivates work subjects it to reiterative processes of collective inquisition - the drive towards reflexivity, accountability, transparency. Spurred by both, the thrill of collaboration, immediacy, and disproportionate reach still keeps producers keeping on.

So how to develop the 'organisational intelligence' that is this panel's theme? One answer lies in recent attempts at critical cartography. Although these have invariably focused outwards more than inwards (and thus often lack a deeper autopoetic criticality), methodologies of graphic or database-driven mapping do attempt to imbue the network with some sense of self-consciousness by foregrounding the relationality between 'old' and 'new' economies, the on and offline, small and large 'intelligence nodes' - as Free Bitflows dubs them. The mutual dependence this invariably illustrates also needs to find a place in economic models of sustainability. Not by setting up an impossibly sophisticated distribution system from the centre to the periphery, the top of the pyramid to the base, or across a million nodes, but by acknowledging how capital flows, and what decisions should be made on the basis of this knowledge. Faith may have been lost in the mega event, institution, or tech project, but the flexible entities frequently touted as their replacement do not 'live on air' alone (much as Leadbeater would like us to think so!). Resolving the conundrum of these entities' viability seems to be possible only through the choreography of situation - in more deeply rooted local connections and an agnostic embrace of the global net. Instead of remaining moored to the metaphorical relics of splendid isolation and untainted creativity, this might bring independence closer to the collective dream of self-sustaining networks.

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