Leonardo On-Line: home page  Leonardo, the Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology  Leonardo Music Journal: aesthetic and technical issues in music and the sound arts  Leonardo Electronic Almanac: monthly coverage of Internet news and digital media culture  Book Series: innovative discourse on art, science and technology topics by artists, scientists and scholars  Leonardo Reviews: scholarly reviews of books, journals, exhibitions, CDs and conferences  OLATS, l'Observatoire Leonardo des Arts et des Technosciences: key works, artists, ideas and studies in the field  Leonardo / Activities & Projects  Leonardo / About Us




Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive




The Net

by Lutz Dammbeck
Other Cinema, San Francisco, CA, 2006
DVD, 1:55 mins., col.
Sales/Rentals: $24.95, $100 institutional
Distributor’s website: http://www.othercinemadvd.com.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Lutz Dammbeck’s "The Net" begins with invocation of Gödel's incompleteness theorem, "the truth is superior to probability". The filmmaker accepts incomplete answers (and implied, but sometimes barely explored, connections) that emerged when he innocently asked: What brings computers, hippies, and LSD together?

The subjective camera walks in the woods to Ted "the Unabomber" Kaczynski's shack, but soon returns to universities, labs, and think tanks to explore interfaces of computers and art among what interviewee John Brockman calls the "digerati", the computer-savvy elite. In the 1940s, Norbert Weiner postulated that the human nervous system calculates reality, equipped with circuits for feedback, switching and controlling, and this inspired much subsequent computer science. Robert Taylor, leader of the Department of Defense project ARPANET two decades later reminisces, "Those were good years, we knew what we had to do" towards "eliminating ignorance". The viewer starts to notice how many persons interviewed, or their own avowed teachers and mentors, attended the Macy meetings. These were meetings of psychologists and scientists organized by the publisher of an influential 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality; contemporaneous, which Dammbeck notes, with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno founding the Institute of Social Research. The Pacific Ocean retreat Esalen grew out of Macy group scientists Stewart Brand, John Brockman, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage, who all hoped to give a "non-military aura" to many of the ideas being discussed. Hans von Foerster was the secretary of these Macy gatherings, who later (1970) ran the Biocomputer Lab at the University of Illinois. This ontological old contrarian had emerged from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Vienna circle, and with a glint in his nonagenarian eye like Dr. Strangelove, Dr. von Foerster gruffly demands "What is reality? Can you show it to me?"

Kascynski was involved in CIA drug experiments at Harvard in 1958 with Henry A. Murray, studying and testing gifted male students in the "Laboratory of Social Relations". All that remains of its findings is a note that Kascynski was proven to be "lawful". In tests sponsored by the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS), Murray carried forth his work in the ultimate service of a US-driven one-world government, intending to provide its citizens with psychological safeguards against totalitarianism. One might today substitute "totalitarianism" for "terrorism" to obtain similar funding. In Murray’s vision, Americans would all sport an immunized "superego" as a buttress against totalitarian inclinations, with one of the tools of this immunization the psychedelic LSD. The Laboratory’s Dr. Timothy Leary was involved in the counterinsurgent "MK-Ultra" or "Artichoke" project, as well as investigations of the sacred Mexican mushroom from which psilocybin is derived. Laboratory experiments were filmed, but the films have somehow disappeared——"like Kaczynski's test results", the narrator points out. Interviewee Stewart Brand talks of novelist Ken Kesey's Acid Tests as "open systems" and "alternative systems of cybernetics", developed in a moving laboratory on the open road. "Not research, search!" Brand cites Kesey——like Kaczynski——as another subject of US government LSD tests.

The filmmaker intersperses bits of visual poetry, lingering shots of blossoms in Harvard yard in the moonlight, then zooms in portentously until the big pixels of digital photos fill the screen in an abstract design. Kaczynski called math a "monstrous swindle, a game, a reckless prank" and currently sees technology as a dangerous and willful force that adapts human behavior to its own demands After Harvard, Kaczynski did his doctoral work at the University of Michigan. One wonders if he had any interface (surveillance of?) Ann Arbor’s radical White Panther Party, leaders of which were indicted, and later exonerated, for planting a bomb in a military recruiting office. Years later Kaczynski performed "scientific" explosive experiments in the woods, detailed on his own maps of his trails and multiple hideout cabins. Kaczynski's neighbors are glad to be interviewed and happily spied on him for the FBI (one doing so even "before the FBI began cooperating with me"), posed as geologists or truck drivers. We see footage of his 10' x 12' cabin brought on a trailer back to Sacramento for his trial, though his exuberantly-cooperative neighbors mentioned his other "secret shacks".

Whether or not the dissident Kaczynski was truly the Unabomber or not, he raises provocative Luddite issues, and serves as an interesting pivot to the network of connections between the celebrity digiterati and shadowy US government programs. Kaczynski denies he's the "Unabomber", and a dense media collage emphasizes Kaczynski's "schizophrenia", a message that the mass media did its best to reinforce. Shots of western vistas lead us to Florence, Colorado prison where Kaczynski is now housed. Agreement between the defense, state prosecutor, and court resulted in the verdict that Kaczynski would not have a regular trial, no commitment to a psychiatric unit, no death sentence, and no possibility of parole. In one interview, Yale scientist David Gelernter takes angry offense at the filmmaker's interest in Kaczynski, an understandable reaction as Gelernter was irreparably maimed in a Unabomber letter-bomb blast.

The filmmaker gives thanks are to Hans Haacke, John Perry Barlow, John Markoff and Rudolph Arnheim in the credits, and the viewer wonders what each offered Dammbeck. In one of the DVD's extras, open source developer Paul Garrin describes how old media co-opts the Net into the centralized model of cable TV, the content from one edge not reaching the other edge. Garrin recounts the myths of the Internet, how it's really not public but now resting upon private infrastructure, how it does have borders (BGP firewalls serving as its customs police), how it's a loose confederation of private nation-states who agree——but are not required——to exchange info packets. Its center is the root domain, with a very hierarchical authority and corporate control. His Namespace mode is peer-to-peer situation for domains. This extra serves as a brief but interesting introduction to a topic too little discussed, the privatization of the Internet.

Like Linda Thompson's 1993 film "Waco: the Big Lie" (which this viewer saw in an Other Cinema presentation), "The Net" raises serious questions about a criminal of whom the public has been couched by the mainstream media towards the proper conviction of guilt. Dammbeck insinuates, in his silences, that Kaczynski might be no more than an Oswald-like patsy for forces wide and sinister. In an age where the US and UK go to war with the secular Saddam to avoid upsetting petroleum providers who bankroll the Islamic fundamentalist Osama, it is wise to question all drumbeats of "conventional wisdom". Liberatory tools like personal computers and the Internet also have their dark sides, their lurking agendas of control. John Brockman frighteningly reminds us, "We create technology, then we are the technology".




Updated 1st November 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST