How do new media technologies affect politics and culture? Views about those effects, always deeply divided, have been further polarized by the financial crisis and the opposition it has engendered. At the extremes, social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, are seen as at least necessary conditions for the Occupy protests and the revolutions of the Arab Spring; alternatively, those same technologies are viewed as the agents of intrusive commodification and dumbing-down, deployed against people’s deepest subjectivities, which they have been duped into displaying in a privatized space where everyone’s every move is spied upon. Mute magazine, based in London, has been examining the interconnections between new technologies, politics and culture since 1994—that is, from the moment when the internet was revolutionized by the introduction of web browsers that unified its interface, and rapidly brought large numbers of users online. It was founded by two art-school graduates, Simon Worthington (who had studied at the Slade) and Pauline van Mourik Broekman (Central St Martins), who took up the name from a periodical published through the Slade between 1989–92. The formation of Mute’s founding editors not only ensured that art was discussed on equal terms, and in its complex relations, with technology and politics, but also that the magazine had a strong design, conceived as a visual object with a conceptual dimension as well as a set of ideas.footnote1
A large collection of Mute’s articles has been gathered into a book, exploring the magazine’s confluence of major themes: the ideologies of the net and social media; online art and its precursors; cyborg realities and fantasies; privatization and the commons; the relations, sympathetic and antagonistic, between art and business; city, slum and gentrification; class and immaterial labour, among others.footnote2 Though Mute’s general position is on the far left, it has no fixed party line, encouraging debate and often throwing opposing views together. When its editorials are not merely jokey, they seek to explore the interactions of culture, politics and technology in its rapidly evolving complexity, while steering clear of broad-brush utopian and dystopian views alike. Proud to be Flesh contains a distinctive mix of topical articles, witness reports, skits and sustained analytical pieces; it is organized in thematic chapters, which has the great advantage of allowing the reader to track the magazine’s sustained engagement with particular issues across its run, although at the cost of suppressing much clear sense of Mute’s chronological development.
In its first incarnation, Mute was printed in broadsheet form on the Financial Times’ presses, using their famous pink paper. It later moved to a more conventional magazine format, with the aspiration to carry advertising from major companies, and to emulate the look—albeit with a large dash of irony—of a lifestyle rag, on the model of Wired or more pertinently Adbusters. The staid design of the book, with its illustrations largely corralled into a few sections of colour plates, gives little idea of the striking visual character of the magazine. Its bold, often garish graphics decorated a strange mix of hip theory, radical politics, technology news and fashion shoots; the latter protected from too much critical interrogation with a thick layer of camp. Later still, from 2005 on, Mute prioritized online publication, and moved to a print-on-demand magazine, which contained a selection of pieces from its website. Funding from Arts Council England (ace) permitted this change in which all its content was offered without charge.footnote3
Why did Mute ever print its content? After all, discussion groups such as Nettime have covered much of the same ground with email exchanges, and their debates are lively, fractious, well informed and timely. Mute printed on paper for reasons of access, quality control, volume, design and comfort: in the 1990s, of course, access to the internet was much less ubiquitous than it is now, and far harder and more expensive to obtain on the move. Nettime was moderated but not edited, and so presented its readers with dozens of daily emails which they had to filter according to their own interests, while working out what some obscurity or oddity of English might mean; many people printed out Nettime emails to read in comfort (remember, too, the quality of 1990s screens), and few people had the fast data-connections necessary to view design-heavy webpages. Nettime, indeed, found it worthwhile to print its own anthology.footnote4 So Mute’s editorial selection and look made sense on paper, though those advantages were eroded as online technology became faster, cheaper and more widely available.
Mute contains a good deal of news comment, and the long—in new-media terms, positively epic—temporal scope of the collection reminds us that current concerns about new technology, activism and consumer culture have been discussed for many years. The claims made about technology and the Arab Spring, for example, were also made about the revolutions against the dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc. The Argentine anti-neoliberal revolt of 2001–02, like the current Occupy protests, had a highly decentralized character, and its most prominent demand was negative: that the corrupt political class should go.footnote5 David Garcia, one of the original theorists of Tactical Media (on which, more later), commented on the role that new forms of communication played in the collapse of the ex-Soviet regimes:
It was as if the Samizdat spirit, extended and intensified by the proliferation of do-it-yourself media, had rendered the centralized, statist tyrannies of the Soviet Union untenable. Some of us allowed ourselves to believe that it would only be a matter of time before the same forces would challenge our own tired and tarnished oligarchies . . . it came to be believed that top-down power had lost its edge.footnote6
Garcia was sounding a note of caution against such wishful thinking. One of the prevailing characteristics of Mute has been its informed scepticism about a series of influential utopian waves that have swept through the discourse of new-media technologies—both those imagined and sustained by marketers trying to sell people things, and by theorists seeing a quick and bloodless route to radical social change.