public intellectuals: the cyberspace generation

Thursday, September 21, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street

A new 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.

How Slashdot (Dys)functions
Jeff Bates will discuss the evolution of his geek-oriented Webzine Slashdot.

The New Public Sphere: Pillar of Democracy or Tower of Babel?
Stephen Duncombe 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
Annalee Newitz 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 Internet.


Jeff Bates is a co-founder of, and executive editor of, which covers online communities and has been chronicled in several publications including the Wall Street Journal, Time and Time Digital, Wired and Rolling Stone.

Stephen 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.

Annalee Newitz 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, 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, The Industry Standard, Gear, and other online publications.


Stephen 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."

Duncombe 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 and as examples of media outlets created by their users (see Jeff Bates below for more about

But there 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 ancestors.

Duncombe 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."

Jeff Bates told of being executive editor of the Web site 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."

Comparing 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 pessimism."

Annalee 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, (a reference to MIT's own early artificial intelligence project, ELIZA) and 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., for example, is a parody of a site called

While parody 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 (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 for radicalism.

Compiled by Brad Seawell