Review: ‘Das Netz’ __ein Film von Lutz Dammbeck

das netz

Lutz Dammbeck’s Das Netz is a highly commendable and intriguing work of research, drawing from Internet, archival and interview sources, in which we are taken on a journey to examine early Internet history and its less savory or more hedonistic, cultish and covert government protected aspects. Themes generally underexplored in the Net’s military, artistic and industry lineage are brought to life in Das Netz. It is a deeply thought-provoking documentary deftly weaving an abundance of esoteric information into numerous pernicious subplots for a moving picture of the most innovative largely American, if not Californian and “white privileged male” communications tool to date.

“What is it that hippies, LSD, and computers have in common?” queries Dammbeck at the start.

In later probes he takes up alliances between European postwar intellectuals from Norbert Wiener to Heinz von Foerster and their anti-fascist beliefs; delving momentarily into a document published by the Frankfurt School on the “totalitarian personality” and its curious influences on a secret history of research known as the Macy Conferences. Designed to study the workings of the human mind and its authoritarian social psychology, these Conferences invited Margaret Mead, Norbert Wiener and psychologist Kurt Lewin, among others and later, avant-garde artists such as John Brockmann, Stuart Brand, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller to exchange views on hippy generation concepts such as “mind expansion”, open systems and human consciousness. The Macy undertakings wound up influencing a period of psyop testings most notably performed by Dr. Henry A. Murray at Harvard University on Ted Kaczynski – elsewise known as “the Unabomber” – as well as the CIA’s MK Ultra project.

At the cross roads of Dammbeck’s journey is a continuous theme – one of the counter culture’s technology v. anti-technology sentiments – most directly expressed in footage of the Whole Earth Catalog’s pages shot to show the hawking of the alternative lifestyle of the “the sixties” – everything from pamphlets on how to farm your own goat’s milk to how to build a log cabin in the wilderness; to ads for the personal computer. This romantic and utopian counter culture of “back to nature” and escape from civilization ; is poignantly addressed by Dammbeck’s lengthy foray into Ted Kaczynski’s criminal activities and involvement in Murray’s psyops testing while a promising Harvard math student.

Das Netz seeks to explore the varied social philosophies contributing to the parallel development of the Internet. With the filmmaker’s extensive research, this work opens up dialogue around the Net’s arrival as a broadly conceived and arguably, “experimental” tool. The film, however, omits naming any fundamental and vital connection between countercultural consciousness and the pursuit of a techno-utopia; the era of Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community, notions of the digital commons and “information wants to be free” – or even to elaborate on the extraordinary meaning of “the Well” (Whole Earth eLectronic Link) – a conceptual groundwork essential to the Internet culture wars and cybercultures as they stand today.

Finally, few films take up the subject of the Net in any seriousness. With the exception of Revolution OS a lengthy essay on the open source movement focusing on Richard Stallmann, Linus Torvald, Steve Wozniak, and numerous others, all interviewed, there are really none of much merit. In this context, it is the brilliant collection of interviews conducted by Dammbeck himself for Das Netz – where we get John Brockmann, Stewart Brand, Bob Taylor, Heinz von Foerster, and David Gelerntner which contribute to an outstanding cinematic cyberhistory and which draw connections rarely made between the worlds of cybernetics and ARPANet; Unabomber victims and their achievements; social theory and “the California effect”. The film’s appeal is as this original and relevant untold story. Referencing many, many artists and thinkers, Das Netz is a “must see” for creative network enthusiasts and those interested in cyber theory, post cold war history or similar subject matter.

There is also a book by the same maker, entitled, Das Netzavailable from Editions Nautilus.