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Caught in the Net.

Remarks on a film by Lutz Dammbeck
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This is a film about the cultural tendencies of the last 50 years; tendencies determined by the development and introduction of the computer and thus by USA think tanks, but also by dreams of the range and boundlessness of progress, and of as yet inconceivable possibilities for life – a film about contradictions spurring each other on; contradictions with explosive force; contradictions seldom voiced, let alone visualised.
Changes in science and in mentality often interlock in a way that proves hard to disentangle. Is there a direct route to the One World where everything appears ordered with a glacial clarity?
*
The film begins with Gödel’s statement on indeterminacy, and at the end there is a diagnosis concerning Gödel’s death – paranoia. In between we view a departure into the spirit of CHANGE NOW, with numerous variations. No place can hold people - the utopia of mobility turns into a film scene, and we accompany Dammbeck on a plane, in the deep chasm of New York’s streets, in a tunnel, in the expanses of the west coast landscape, viewing the forests of Montana.
He wishes to track down the promise of limitlessness that is bound up with the Internet culture, something familiar to him from the artistic avant-garde of the 60s. Our eyes are constantly redirected to the notebook in which he attempts to arrange the links in a network of tracks.
His own route begins in New York – visiting John Brockman, who was part of the multimedia scene from the outset and later established a successful cyber elite.
Dammbeck’s first interview is with Brockman.
He recalls the enthusiasm of the beginnings; a media festival with Rauschenberg, John Cage, an industrial network of so many creative people. It is said that people must adapt themselves to technology. “Your brain is a computer”. A terrorist attack is made on his company, the information scientist David Gelernter is badly injured. The final interview of the film is with Gelernter.
Gelernter talks of his fascination with a system – recalling Hobbes - involving millions of people, a system that can be illustrated and made comprehensible using software. But he is a victim, he has become a media critic, he laments the fact that the “moral component” is lacking.
He does not wish to talk about his attacker - a former professor of mathematics, Ted Kaczynski -, whose “wanted” name was the “Unabomber”. He does not consider him a “counterculture phenomenon”. And he does not draw any parallel between the vision of the ONE WORLD and his criticism of the media. Other interview partners refuse to debate the attacker’s motives even more vehemently than Gelernter. This gap seems to challenge Dammbeck’s research.
*
The director’s route leads him through various enthusiastic and sobering stages.
In the former fishing village Sausalito - famous for its hippie houseboat settlement - he meets Stewart Brand, the inventor of the term “personal computer” and publisher of the WHOLE EARTH CATALOGUE, which advertises for an alternative way of life. At that time, in connection with research initiated by the military, the trip went from “acid test to acid test”.
Inspiring ideas for a new life in the country (goat husbanding was provocative slang from this period) were rapidly swept aside.
People stayed on the road and protest culture up to Attac emerged. However, the context of cultural change becomes increasingly clear – war, the procreator of all things. Norbert Wiener’s calculations concerning the movement of bomber aircraft during the Second World War represent the genesis of cybernetics.
A chatty garden-gnome type enthuses about the amazing feeling of security conveyed by “SAGE, the largest computer every made”.
Robert Taylor appears: a Pentagon project manager and therefore one of the inventors of Arpanet, precursor to the Internet. People did not want to be surprised again, as they had been by Sputnik (1957). He believes in the progress of knowledge – lack of knowledge generates fear. Dammbeck meets Heinz von Foerster, who worked on a blending of biological and technical systems. He is concerned with the systemic, by contrast to the divisive aspects of traditional, older science.
Even in his wheelchair, he enthuses about the series of logical deductions that lead into infinity, in theory. He refuses to recognise boundaries in reality – “Reality, where have you got that?”
*
This retrospective view encounters groupings that resemble conspiracies.
During the sixties and seventies, there was a fast and furious series of informal meetings and festivals when people from the cultural field came together with computer experts and strategists.
It was a matter of a new, cyber spirituality and of an open society. The Horkheimer-Adorno study on the “authoritarian character” of fascism lent impulses to research on interventions into the psyche aiming to operate on and remove the old values responsible for totalitarian behaviour, replacing these with self-regulating re-education. It is a matter of “America’s mission”, formulated in a title by the highly-decorated military expert and Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray. This includes series of tests with LSD, in which Timothy Leary participates. Other tests investigate the behaviour of selected elite students in extreme situations. One of them is Ted Kaczynski; his cover name is “Lawful”. The relevant documents have disappeared.
The sequence of locations and interviews is interspersed by passages from letters Kaczynski wrote from prison. The author responds to questions in a sober tone - why he retreated to that forest cabin in Montana that could have originated from the alternative catalogue, and there became no Robin Hood, but a terrorist.
His Manifesto against the industrial society has been circulating since the mid-nineties. It conjures up the danger of utopias for the further survival of mankind. There is also reference to holes in theories and to the unpredictability of complex systems and their behaviour. He says that mathematicians are not scientists at all, but players. These letters appear to be an attempt at finding language on the very limits of knowledge; a point at which Kaczynski, like Gödel, obviously sees himself.
In his opinion, people have a right to self-defence against the structural violence of the technological society. The fact that it is a matter of finding language in risky territory is indicated more than once by the emphasised statement that he has no authentic available version of the Manifesto. Touching, on the other hand, is his wish for a German-English dictionary.
We have encountered some dangerous questions on the way into the new world. These are the old questions: about the relation between law and violence, the grey area between knowledge and madness, science and art. In the case of representatives of the open society – a wall of silence. As a contrast, we have a failed individual who isolated himself from all his neighbours and those close to him, yet wants to be heard more than anything else. He lands up in a high security wing.
*
Moments between the fronts: a victim of the events talks of morality,
and the lack of it. Does he mean the old values that were to be abolished?
Or new ones – do they exist?
After a flight from places and words, a last shot: the inner courtyard of the prison where prisoners are taking their daily exercise.
Utopia ends with in a desolate cycle, leading nowhere.

Helmut Kohlenberger
Salzburg/Freilassing 2004


 

 


 

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