Chun and Galloway on Freedom

On: February 4, 2008
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About Tjerk Timan
During the last couple of years, I have been involved in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven, both on the theoretical as well as the physical/practical side, always working on the boarder between the digital and physical. After an internship at Mediamatic, I wanted to get more involved in the digital side of new media. Currently, I am investigating the complex realm of new media [at] the master course New Media, UvA. With a thesis focus now on ‘objects that blog’ within the context of an internet of things, the challenge is to investigate the agency and influence of things. Especially when these things, being digital or physical, are capable of sharing, posting, editing, deleting content. And on who’s account? Within that same line of thought, the digital is often taking itself for granted maybe too much, where often the step towards WHO and HOW data is manipulated is left out of the loop. Taking these things back into the (design) loop is one of my missions, with the statement in mind that the way content is created and consumed has at least as much importance as the technology driving it. Furthermore, I am currently active within the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I do some occasional freelance work, where disciplines differ from web-design to workshops to product design.


Both authors contribute strongly towards the definition of freedom, and misconceptions of freedom within a networked society.
Galloway argues that the founding principal of the net is control, not freedom. [Galloway, p142]
But it is a different kind of control than we are used to; it is a control that is based on openness, inclusion, universalism and flexibility. Protocol is theoretically based on a contradiction (rhizomatic versus hierarchical). In a ‘reality check’ this contraction also becomes visible: for Protocol to be politically progressive, it must be partially reactionary [Galloway, p143].
Galloway is proving the misconception of the Internet being an anarchistic free environment and shows that in order to be free it needs structure. Protocol is this shaping force, and can also be seen as management style for life. Therefore it is more political than just technical. Moreover, Galloway wants to demystify the net and show its ruling basics, which are more similar to life itself than we think.
Chun’s larger argument is that we need to analyze the dichotomy between control &
freedom. Cyperpunk represents both at the same time, thus gets beyond this contrast.
She is looking for representations that are more useful than the paranoic fantasies of total control or freedom. In doing so, she takes a broader, more encompassing view on the matter discussed. Chun argues that different and often-conflicting agoraphobic cover stories – which combine freedom and control – underpin representations of fiber-optic networks as public. All these narratives assume that individuals precede public spaces, so that vulnerabilities result from contact with corrosive public air.
Fiber optics expose and involve us with others before we emerge as users.
In Keenan’s words: fiber optics allow for publicity, and publicity functions as a language; language allows for presentation and representation.
Chun goes further, by stating that fiber optics are more than merely a language, they act as a language that cannot be seen or heard. Where classical media studies assume computer-mediated communication, it actually is on its own, only sporadically allowing humans to read it; it creates an archive that defies our senses.
Moreover, users are not operating individually; they are actually being used.
Chun phrases that cyberspace is a literary attempt to narrativize, map, to know this seemingly unwelcome public [Chun, p250]. Chun has stated ways in which control-freedom has thrived on a paranoid knowledge that focuses on the technological rather than the political, and that relies
on racial profiling [Chun, p290]. Freedom has more to it than its often-metaphorical meaning. Freedom exceeds rather than complements control and is a spacing that constitutes existence; it is not the lack of relation, but the very possibility of relation; it cannot be separated from fraternity or equality. Freedom does not produce anything; it is a self-initiating being. The dream of an ever-giving, never displacing well of generosity uncannily resonates with the Internet as infinite capitalism. ‘Freedom entails a decision of life and death’ because biopower has been made symbolic.
A link is made to Kittlers’ claim that humans no longer have a singular claim to language, but it is moving towards machines, where programmability replaces free will. Not willing to go that far, Chun states that we do have a role in creating machines and their languages in the future. In order to do so, we must reject current understandings of freedom that make it into a gated community and we must explore the democratic potential of communications technologies, that stems from vulnerability rather that control; we must seize freedom with determination.

In retrospective, some questions remain unanswered, like what kind of Internet is envisioned by both authors? Yes, we do have to take a different approach in looking at our (post?) control society, and it apparently is not the open, free place it wants us to believe it is, but what then needs to be done to make it an open, public space? Are fiber optics democratic space, and need they be? Where Galloway would state that the non-interpretative protocol will sort itself out, always looking for the ideal, universal state, these questions will answer themselves in time, Chun would state that a mayor shift/ review has to take place if we want the Net to become a true public space, and that in a public space, the value lies in vulnerability, where we need to decouple the political from the technical.

Protocol – How Control Exists after Decentralization” by Alexander Galloway.
Control and Freedom – Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics” by Wendy Chun.

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