September 21, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
generation of public intellectuals has emerged, at home with
digital media, engaged in cultural and political debates central
to the new communities of cyberspace. These new public intellectuals
found their voices in the zines that appeared in the 1970s and
1980s, expressing the values of various subcultural communities.
These new intellectuals have created Webzines such as Slashdot
and Bad Subjects,
which reach a global audience and enable immediate responses
to political and cultural issues.
will discuss the evolution of his geek-oriented Webzine Slashdot.
The New Public Sphere: Pillar of Democracy or Tower
will argue that new technologies of reproduction and dissemination
-- from Xerox machines to the Internet -- have blown open the
gates of public discourse, as ordinary people become information
producers as well as consumers. But is this creating a new cadre
of public intellectuals? Or is the sheer volume of commentators
and their diverse concerns creating a public sphere that is
Balkanized into interest ghettoes: a world where everyone speaks
but no one listens? Choosing examples from the zine world as
well as the Web, Duncombe will discuss the political ramifications
of the explosion in do-it-yourself media.
Beyond the Valley of the Silicon: Cultural Debris
and Revolt on the Internet
will offer part autobiography and part cultural analysis in
her exploration of the ironic and neurotic relationship between
the booming new economy and subversive communication on the
Bates is a co-founder of Slashdot.org, and executive
editor of Slashdot.com,
which covers online communities and has been chronicled in several
publications including the Wall Street Journal, Time
and Time Digital, Wired and Rolling Stone.
Duncombe is the author of Notes from Underground:
Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture and a professor
at the Gallatin School of New York University where he teaches
the history and politics of media and culture. Duncombe has
been a political activist for more than a decade and is currently
assembling an anthology of writings on cultural resistance.
in 1992 founded Bad Subjects, the first leftist Webzine
to go online. After earning her Ph.D. in American Studies at
UC Berkeley, Newitz taught, worked at Internet shutdown GettingIt.com,
and then took her current position as features editor at The
San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative weekly. Newitz
writes a syndicated technology-and-culture column called Techsploitation
that is available online and in newspapers throughout Northern
California, and is a regular contributor to Salon.com, The
Industry Standard, Gear, and other online publications.
Duncombe said Internet-based discourse on political and
cultural subjects -- the traditional matter of the public intellectual
-- differs from that of the past because anyone -- not just
media professionals -- has a right to publicly express an opinion
on anything; that the range of discourse has expanded beyond
traditional concerns; that the online venue creates a conversation
instead of a unidirectional broadcasting of opinions; and that
media consumers have become producers. "For the first time ever,"
Duncombe said, "anyone can be a transnational media producer."
Duncombe pointed to a few Web sites as examples of cyberspace
public intellectuals at work. These included a site that enables
the Mexican revolutionary group the Zapatistas
to publicize its struggle to the international community, a
site posted by the
Jones Family that presents the "everyday banalities of life,"
and a site dedicated to what Duncombe called "the burning issue
of Pez dispensing."
said that just as fanzines enable readers to participate in
a publication through letter-writing and other forms of feedback,
the Web enables users to help shape a site through their input
and participation. He mentioned the Web sites Slashdot.org
as examples of media outlets created by their users (see Jeff
Bates below for more about Slashdot.org).
are dangers as well as great promise in these new technologies.
The absence of gatekeepers who filter or winnow content may
create an information surplus that causes media consumers to
block out all information, to gravitate to information based
solely on its glossy presentation, or to rely on a new set of
gatekeepers who represent little change from their old-media
wondered if online communication is a genuine catalyst for political
action, pointing out that such communication often has more
in common with advertising than with intelligent conversation,
and is marked by short, declarative statements about one's self
rather by than comments that open doors to meaningful discourse.
In cyberspace, he said, many conversations take place within
small interest groups rather than across them, and this insularity
can reduce public action to a "purely communicative act."
Bates told of being executive editor of the Web site Slashdot.org
which covers online communication issues among other things.
"We post what's interesting to us," he explained. "It would
be a misnomer to call us journalists." Working through as many
as 500 story submissions each day, Bates selects about 15. Once
a story has been posted to the Slashdot site, readers participate
in a moderation system by which they rate different stories
and choose which readers' comments to post. This system of open
moderation in which readers become gatekeepers is a defining
feature of Slashdot, Bates said. "Rather than making gatekeeping
the exclusive domain of a small group of people, we've made
it open," he explained. "Readers contribute to the overall viability
of the discussion."
this system of open moderation (he also referred to it as "open
media" and "open journalism") of online communication to the
technological issue of open code, Bates warned of a chilling
effect on both fronts. With continuing regulation brought about
in part by corporate influence, Bates said, the concentration
of power is "getting worse and worse." The Internet provides
the technology for user-created media, but regulation is taking
it away, he said. "The golden age of freedom on the Internet
is coming to a close," Bates said, noting his own "strain of
Newitz said the widespread belief that the new economy has
eradicated artistic and subversive production on the Internet
is a "simplistic vision" and that "everything online
isn't bad." Pointing to the San Francisco Bay Area as a test
case of the new economy versus a tradition of counterculture
and subversion -- the dot-coms vs. the not-coms -- Newitz said
there is some overlap, but insisted there is still a dialectical
relationship between the counterculture and corporate culture.
"We can learn from the clashes between leftist, artistic, subversive
production and the dot-com monster," she said. Newitz presented
examples of what she called "sort of subversive" sites on the
Web including Godhatesfigs.com,
reference to MIT's own early artificial intelligence project,
ELIZA) and Fuckedcompany.com.
Internet subversion takes the form of parody and satire, Newitz
explained. One tactic is the strategy of misdirection in which
a Web site is created whose URL is similar to a site being attacked.
Godhatesfigs.com, for example, is a parody of a site called
and satire have their place in cultural clashes, Newitz said
that "progressives" have to "understand that just because it's
online doesn't mean it's corporate." As an example, Newitz pointed
to the online magazine Salon.com
(for which she has written). Salon "isn't taking an extreme
anti-corporate stance," she said, but it has included a lot
of "extremely intelligent left-wing essays" and has taken a
strong stance on free software and open code. " And they've
suffered," she said, referring to Salon's business woes. "A
lot of leftists seem to dismiss the Internet and World Wide
Web entirely," Newitz concluded. "We must overcome our prejudice"
against the Internet as an inappropriate or inaccessible space