[Reader-list] We Are the Data We Swirl In

raqs raqs at giasdl01.vsnl.net.in
Fri Dec 21 01:38:29 IST 2001

Dear Readers

This is a text on Net.Culture that we have written and would like to share 
with others on the Reader List. A shorter version of this text is due to 
appear soon in the Art India magazine.

we look forward to responses to this text.


Raqs Media Collective, New Delhi
Raqs Media Collective 
(Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula & Shudhabrata Sengupta)

We are all algorithms. We are repeated instances of attempts to configure 
meanings in a world densely packed with signals and messages. We are 
transmitters and receivers of data, couriers of images, vectors of 
information. We carry within us the databases of our lives.

The streets of our cities, and the pathways of our daily lives are jammed 
with  traffic. The skies we live under are criss-crossed with cables, the 
ground beneath our feet is a cobweb of mud, rocks and optical fibre. Traffic 
and data traffic, wires and wirelessness, codes and codecs, define the way we 
are and will be from now on, at least for the foreseeable future. We live, 
work and play with data. Data is the mine and we are the miners, we are 
workers, thieves, masters, priests, rebels and exiles of data. We hack, we 
hoe and hope with data. We are the data we swirl in. 

This condition of our lives, this shifting contour of the nature of everyday 
networked existence that is the mundane reality of a twenty-first century 
urban space, suggests that we make communication, data itself, a subject and 
criterion of cultural practice. Net.Culture, the body of cultural forms and 
interventions that emerges out of computer and Internet mediated 
communications technologies is a recognition of this condition as a fact of 
life, labour, and creativity.

Net.Culture works with the assumption that all images, sound, text and 
signals can be reduced to elementary and modular forms of data (within 
computer based systems, to binary code: zeroes and ones). This means that 
different fragments of data can join or enter each other to form new clusters 
of different levels of complexity. A data cluster can take the form of a 
chinese box (with fragments inside fragments), or be rhizomic (nodes 
connecting to nodes to form a chain), or be arranged in loops and labyrinths. 

Net.Culture locates itself in the public domain, where creativity is not 
hemmed in by proprietorial protocols; primarily because it walks new pathways 
on the world wide web into existence. From their very inception, the web and 
html (hypertext markup language) which is the lattice that threads the web, 
were attempts at the creation of a digital commons: a space that is unbounded 
in political terms, in the sense that it respects no borders, and in 
economic-cultural terms, in that html remains the kind of language that no 
one can own, that anyone is free to use, download and modify to their own 
purposes. Just as traditional common lands were maintained in common usage by 
walking on them, the digital commons of net culture are maintained by 
insisting that the terrain of digital  cultural content be open  for walking 
in by the cybernaut.

This open nature of  the Internet engenders an array of challenges to the 
notions of copyright and intellectual property. After all, if a data cluster 
is always amenable to access and reiteration, in combination with new 
material, then  the notion of  the integrity and identity of a data cluster, 
say a work of art or a text (and correspondingly of its authors), is itself 
laid open to question. 

The most significant challenges to intellectual property have come from the 
free software movement, and hacker subcultures within net culture.  Stephen 
Levy, in the 'Hackers Ethic' (1984), puts the claims of this challenge 
succintly when he says, "All information must be free...access to computers, 
and to anything that might teach you something about the way the world works, 
must be unlimited and total."

The advocates of "free software" insist that software must not only be open 
to access, use, distribution and replication outside the regimes of control 
and ownership, but that it must always also be open to modification. In some 
cases, authorship is maintained even as the work itself is open to general 
usage and enjoyment, while in others, authorship becomes a collaborative and 
dispersed enterprise.

The arguments against intellectual property which began in software culture, 
have now begun to make themselves felt in a broad spectrum of cultural and 
intellectual practices - so much so that we are now witnessing concerted 
campaigns to "free/open" science, art, law, publishing, social science and 
music from propreitorial control. If the  recent controversies over the 
shared peer to peer distribution of music by networked communities of fans is 
any indication, then it seems that the global apparatus of the culture 
industry is quite nervous about the way in which entire communities of users 
might begin re-writing the rules of cultural production and consumption to 
their advantage.

Finally, Net.Culture gives us the possibility of rejuvenating older forms of 
cultural practice by emancipating them from autarchic control. How might this 
happen? Simply, as a result of the possibilities that suddenly become open 
when we combine the dispersed, non-located  nature of the Internet. The ease, 
for example, with which it allows for the  downloading of free sound editing 
software to make sound works that can then be broadcast on Internet radio, or 
by using freely available publishing software to make cheap broadsheets and 

This makes for constellations of intermedia or hybrid media practices, in 
which print, radio and other older media forms combine with the Internet to 
make for a powerful and horizontally linked democratic culture of networked 
communication. Anyone can enter this network of cultural production from the 
street by going into the nearest cybercafe. One doesn't have to see oneself 
as an artist, or as a writer, or as a critic to make a dynamic contribution 
to Net.Culture. One simply logs in, and becomes a participant in online 
communities where there are few canons as yet, and the attempt to inscribe 
rules is constantly held open to question. 

In this sense, Net.Culture is truly net(worked) culture. It could be said 
that net (worked)culture was born when the first carrier pigeon took to the 
sky. When the first "runner" packed his bag full of messages in nineteenth 
century India and the first postage stamp was licked, or the first crackle in 
a radio broadcast was heard. 

The Internet itself is only the latest instance of a practice of the 
networked transmission of images, in which the distinction between receivers, 
and transmitters, viewers and users, artist and audience becomes difficult to 
sustain. Net.Culture then becomes simply that arena, that very public domain, 
 where signals meet and multiply. 

Any practice with images, sounds, signs, and texts that addresses the fact of 
networked transmission of symbols using media technologies (including minor 
media like radio, telephony, postage, signage, graffiti and public address 
systems) can then be seen as a work of net(worked) culture

Net.Culture  cannot live in galleries, or academies or in markets alone. It 
will have to sneak into the terminals of twenty three million people (who are 
likely to be online by 2003 in Indian cities) if it is to be Net.Culture. 
Multiply that by ten if you take in cybercafes,  with millions if you take in 
streets that become adorned with signs that are printouts from websites - a  
form of graffiti that moves easily between pixels and paper. 

Today, we need a mode of cultural practice that can enlarge our sensory, 
intellectual and emotional horizons in order to make space for acts of 
reflection on our lives as data-bodies. As fluid and floating clusters of 
information and meaning. We need a sensory context in which we can examine 
how we are reflected and multiplied in the compound eye of the apparatus of 
signs and information that surrounds us and streams through us. Net.Culture 
suggests that this act of reflection can be undertaken. We may all be 
algorithms, but we are not intractable ones.

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