Interview with the Dutch-Australian media theorist and critic Geert Lovink to be submitted for a special issue of Internet Histories dedicated to Internet and the Web in the 90s (see the CfP), edited by Valérie Schafer and Benjamin G. Thierry (second semester of 2018).
Valérie Schafer: First of all, could you tell me when you discovered computers and computer-mediated communications?
Geert Lovink: My first encounter with the world of computers was at the end of my primary school, in the late 1960s. This was a rather intense time for the Magic Centre of Amsterdam and the hippie movement, a rather turbulent time. I got influenced by the promises of computers from the hippie perspective, how people can communicate, influenced by the psychedelic movement, which of course one can read back in Fred Turner’s book. This context is closely tied to the questions of how software should look like and how the user should be positioned in there. This topic is something I was really intimately familiar with when I grew up.
VS: Did your parents work in this field?
GL: No, I grew up near the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, behind the Concertgebouw. Almost next door to my primary school was the Hilton hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed when the hippies took over the park where I played, in 1969. Of course, I’m not from the ‘68 generation, I’m younger, from the punk generation, I entered the scene in 1977. But as a child I was very influenced by the counterculture that happened in front of where I grew up. My first direct encounter with computers was somewhat odd. I was twelve, thirteen years old. With a friend of mine I decided to become a member of a rowing club in Amsterdam. We started rowing on the river Amstel and while we were doing these explorations from the water we came across a strange metal junk yard where the first generation of mainframe computers were dumped and recycled. We could access the yard via the water. We often went there to have a look at these machines. At that time, my friend and I were interested in DIY electronics, in particular transistors. We then traded the large circuit boards we took from there with our friends.
A couple of years later, when I studied political science in Amsterdam at the university, of course I encountered these mainframes again. That was in 1978-1979. We had to learn SPSS and data processing. This was done in the tradition of the Baschwitz institute, which studied public opinion. Kurt Baschwitz is one of the founders of mass communication and he was introducing computers in social sciences. We had to do questionnaires and then process the results using these mainframes.
Around 1983-1984 the personal computer became affordable and available, with the introduction of the IBM PC combined with MS-DOS, the Microsoft operating system. We started to use it. We were running a weekly magazine for the squatter’s movement in Amsterdam and very early on we used the computer to do text processing. Friends of mine also started to use the computer to build databases in the early 1980s, to trace neo-Fascist groups and map housing speculators. These were early database and mapping exercises. The use of computers and databases in social movements goes back a really long time. Activists gathered names, dates and observations. There are archives that try to conserve the autonomous social movement heritage and I’m also playing a role in this preservation effort at the International Institute of Social History (IISG), which is in Amsterdam. IISG has extended its archives, which focused on Marx, Bakunin, early trade unions and the Spanish civil war to contemporary movements such as feminism and ecology.
When the squatter’s episode of my generation came to a close, in 1987, with the help of my father, I purchased my first personal computer.
VS: Did you feel early on that there was a need to archive this history?
GL: My studies started with a visit to the Institute of Social History. The first paper I wrote, I was 19 years old, was on the history of the provo movement which I had witnessed as a child. Back then I was too young and I couldn’t really understand much of it. I went back to the archives, to study that movement ten or so years later – a movement that had had a big impact on Amsterdam and was foundational to the squatter’s movement. Archival work has always been an important task for social movements to pass on collective experiences, images, concepts and debates.
VS: Would you say that your investment in digital cultures and social movements is a continuity of this starting period?
GL: For sure. We’re aware of similar struggles before WWII. But we also knew, in particular in the city of Amsterdam that was so severely hit by the Holocaust, that the rupture of WWII and the following decades of conservative reconstruction created a gap in the collective memory. We met few people in our field, only one or two, that were able to bring the memory of the pre-war back. It was a bit more common with the 60s movement. Memory and its transition from one generation to the next, a strong theme in the work of Bernard Stiegler that I admire, were at the forefront when I grew up.
VS: You bought your own computer in 1987.