Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the meetup.com model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.

References

James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Links
Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.




The Trunk in the Attic, or, Designing a Digital Legacy

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Communication is, and always has been, a negotiation; technology and society parrying and thrusting, demand and counter, proposition and accommodation. Folks feel a communicative urge and hunt around for a communication container capable of holding the symbols necessary to ease said urge. Speech, text, painting, sculpting, music and math all met communicative, conceptual, needs and claimed specific amenable space on paper, canvas, stone, metal, or in the melodious air. It is, in part, those past successes that articulate the next expressive opportunity; the evolving expressive capabilities of technology are themselves hints at how our communicative tools might be best employed.

The gradual, expressive, maturing of the digital environment makes me hopeful that an old communicative fantasy of mine may be edging toward reality. I have always been delighted by the creativity of others. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to be in the presence of another’s insight or expression and find myself reduced to a state of delighted confusion: How did they do that? And, how did they even think of that? The desire for real answers to those questions often drives me to Google to find an author’s or artist’s or musician’s or scientist’s email address and ask them. You would be amazed at how often they respond. The problem, of course, is that on occasion they have been so rude as to die before answering my questions – sometimes decades ago. The frustration of their ultimate inaccessibility always reignites my desire for a “virtual biography.” I want to know what Einstein ate, what the streets he walked along looked like. I want to share the music to which Georgia O’Keeffe listened; I want to hear the sounds of London that Shakespeare heard. I want to be able to participate in some way in the experiential reality that must have shaped the creative flame within those souls. And I want to feel the firelight and hear the wind that whipped around the farmhouse winter nights in South Dakota when my father was a boy. I want to see the pages of the books that entranced my mother as a young girl in rural Pennsylvania. I want interactive, real time biographies that move beyond words on a page or flickering images sprung from the imagining of filmmakers and TV producers.

Such living histories would be incredibly difficult and expensive to create. To reassemble the past from fragments of mostly discarded data, to attempt to reconstruct from them a facsimile of the creative, reflective, experiential reality of one long dead is a daunting, if not impossible, task. However, assembling such works to chronicle lives in the present, using digital technology, has become surprisingly feasible.

Think about it. All you really need is a “capture device” – something that can record the visual, auditory and textual experiences of a life, a “structuring device” – something that allows one to edit, order and organize those collected experiences, a “storage device” – someplace to store both the collected data and the constructed representations, and a “publishing-distribution device” – something that allows for the sharing of the constructed representations with others. A simple hardware configuration meeting all those requirements would be a video cell phone, a laptop computer with a broadband connection, and a large external hard drive. Apple’s iLife and Microsoft’s Office would take care of the software. You could, naturally, beef up each portion of that configuration as need and desire dictated, but those simple pieces could get “the job” done.

The next question is “What does ‘the job’ look like?” To which I respond, with great certainty, “I’m not sure.” I see two major divisions in “the job.” One is really a database. I like to think of it as a huge digital trunk in the attic. You know, that trunk that had all those funky things from when your parents were young, or better yet when your grandparents were young. You could dig through it and actually touch a bit of that time. Chronology and use of the items wasn’t always obvious, but many essential components of the past were there in that trunk. Our digital trunk, stored on the huge hard drive and backed up on the appropriate back-up medium de jour, would contain the digital components of our life: images, sounds, text, whatever is eventually available to record and store.

The second part I think of as a journal. Again consider the parallel to the trunk in the attic: In the trunk you find a journal that tells the story of a life, and in doing so refers to some of the items in the trunk – the data is structured in a way would allow an observer some insight into those two questions with which I am a bit obsessed: How did they do that? And how did they even think of that?

But what is the appropriate structure for this journal? Remember, we are the folks filling the trunk, writing the journal for those kids – biological, intellectual or philosophical – who we hope will one day climb up into our attic. What should we include in this story of our lives? Again we are meandering through somewhat unknown territory. As I mentioned in my last column here in Flow, we don’t really even understand the language yet. But I have revisited the works of several master storytellers recently, and from their efforts draw some reasonable guidelines.

First, the digital journal of our lives must aim for experiential veracity. Isaac Asimov in his 1953 work, The Second Foundation, introduced millions of readers to the idea of the Prime Radiant – a virtual reality projector that enabled social scientists to actually walk around inside an incredibly complex equation describing the past and future of all human/galactic society. They could reach out and shift elements of the equations and see the impact on the whole, in real time. They reached back in time and actually shared the creative experiences of the other Second Foundationers who had preceded them. I have never met anyone over 35, involved in new technology environments, who is either unfamiliar with, or uninfluenced by, those five or six pages.

Second, understand and share, to the best of your ability, your own formative moments. Louis L’Amour points me to this particular guideline. Yeah, yeah, I can see you looking down your nose. But I would suggest reserving judgment until folks buy more than two hundred million copies of your books. The man was an incredibly gifted storyteller. And his dependable structure was part of his gift to us. A Louis L’Amour story often starts in the protagonist’s childhood. The incident that solidifies the protagonist’s core characteristics is recounted and the rest of the work is an unfolding of how those characteristics guide a usually admirable life. Remember we are trying to explain to the folks who come rummaging around in our attic why we do the things we do, why we think the things we think. Hence, we need to share with them the “what and why” of our own core characteristics.

I draw the final characteristic – multitextuality – from Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, to be precise. In this particular work several textual, vocal and instrumental themes flow around one another, over-lapping and intermingling to create a synthesis that is not only greater than, but also different from, its various component parts. Most narratives about life and creativity are cast in one medium. They begin at point A and proceed to the Z of our lives or creative endeavors. The reality is that our lives and creations are entities and events of complexity, serendipity, planning and surprise. We have the best chance of discerning and representing that process with accuracy. So the constructions we pass along – the journals we leave in the trunk – should reflect as much as possible all the experiential, cognitive, and creative streams that combine in the expressions we seek to preserve.

What I am talking about is the conscious creation of a personal digital legacy, compiling a personal history of unparalleled richness, accuracy and complexity. If such legacies were to become a common cultural practice, how much more profound would be our insight into ourselves, and our world. Certainly I would like to know the intricacies of the lives of the giants of our times, great artists and thinkers whose works I so admire. But at least as precious would be the legacy of my family. My father is 91, my mother and older brother have already died. How wonderful it would be to know that they had left me a trunk in the attic, a digital legacy of inexhaustible memories, moments and perceptions to comfort and to guide me. Sadly, my father cannot construct such a legacy, and my mother and brother took their trunks with them. I will leave mine for my daughters.

Links
Robert Schrag’s Online Journal
Prime Radiant
Images from the Prime Radiant

Please feel free to comment.




Sculpting a Digital Language

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

A number of responses to my last Flow column wondered what form the “digital language” I advocated might take. The question took me back to a very non-digital experience. It was a singular moment — unexpected on two levels. First, it was surprising that the show, featuring more works by Auguste Rodin than had ever been gathered in one place, was at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Second, as a lifelong Rodin-groupie, I didn’t expect to see a “new-to-me” work. But I turned the corner and there it was, Fallen Angels. It was love in an instant. Totally blind-sided, I stood and stared. I wanted to laugh and cry. Breathing was difficult, but what little air I could inhale seemed like Spring. I put out my hand and a museum guard quickly materialized, fixing me with a restraining glare. I returned to the show many times, spending hours just gazing at the Fallen Angels. It seems paradoxical that that ecstatic experience has come to define for me what we must avoid as we seek a new language for the digital environment. But, let us begin at the beginning.

I believe in Louis Sullivan’s assertion that form follows function — in skyscrapers, scissors and language. Language should be con-formed to its essential function: manifesting the perceptual-conceptual moment. And what, you ask, does that mean? Good question.

I often ask my students to consider the most powerful moments in their lives: when they fell in love, or realized that love had left; the birth of a child, the death of a parent; the moment they sensed a divine presence, or came to believe they were alone in the universe. Then I ask them to define what kind of a moment it was. A text moment? A picture moment? Tactile or olfactory? Musical? Eventually we agree that it was all of those at once. It was a multimodal moment.

Next I ask them where this moment occurred. Not the physical location that stimulated the perception, but where the perception bloomed. After a seemingly mandatory detour through the idea that a person with an artificial heart can fall in love, we fix this multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment [MPCM] in the brain; locked within us. Yet, we cannot leave it there. Often these peak MPCMs are communicative crystallizations, internal personal epiphanies that we are driven to share. That is the function of language. But what kind of language?

In the previous column I asserted that the evolution of communication technology is a bartered negotiation between cultural needs and technological capacity. Language, too, grows from a negotiation between society’s communicative needs and the capabilities of the media that hold language. It is most often a negotiation in which the medium — the language container — dominates; “form follows function” turned upside down. The functional ability of the container determined the form of the language. Paper holds words and numbers and images, stone and wood hold carving, instruments hold music. Thus, we began a millennia-long drift away from the ideal of a holistic representation of the MPCM. Instead we inclined towards language containers that held powerful unimodal expressions of the MPCM. The innate inflexibility of the container drove the drift; but there were other important factors at work. Among them were the tyranny of task and the hegemony of the marketplace.

Tyranny of task is the temporal pressure that accompanies every communicative need. If my sudden need is to communicate to my hunting partners that there is a mastodon the size of Montana around the bend, and I don’t want to alert the critter; sign language gains immediate primacy. If I need contracts and trade records to maintain the viability of my commercial interests, writing swiftly ascends. Painting and sculpture are effective in conveying the teachings of mystics to an illiterate populace. From the beginning of human time to Tuesday’s faculty meeting, we have always needed tomorrow’s communication tools yesterday. The driving need to get the task done puts the buggy beta version of the language swiftly into our hands. The crafting of language has never been a leisurely, reflective undertaking.

The hegemony of the marketplace becomes apparent when we realize that language systems and media do not merely facilitate commerce — they are themselves commodities. The wealthiest man in America is not Sandberg’s “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” He is a communication broker — a trader in computer hardware and software. Dominant corporations no longer fabricate steel, they stretch fibers of pure glass and fill them with messages designed to amuse and beguile us. Communication — the tools that facilitate it; and the words, sounds and images that define and construct our truth — has become the primary commodity of the 21st century. And the languages that dominate in that marketplace are not those that best express the MPCM; they are the ones — from computer operating systems to blockbuster films — that generate the most revenue.

And finally, there is the intimidation of genius — which takes us back to Rodin’s Fallen Angels. Genius uses a single mode expression to instigate a multimodal perceptual cascade in the mind of the audience member. Rodin’s sculpture, O’Keeffe’s painting, Mozart’s music, Balanchine’s choreography — all communicative acts from previous centuries that pour such power and perception into a uni- or bi-modal communication container that, in a kind of holographic transformation, we respond as if we were suspended in the totality of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. These are acts of expressive genius that recreate the holistic MPCM from a fragment of its parts. They leave us with the notion that such communication is “normal,” when, in truth, it is rare beyond imagining.

These, then, are the barriers that stand between the languages we have inherited, and the language we should create to fully express the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment in the digital environment:

∑ A history of unimodal languages developed to conform to the capabilities of existing communication containers.

∑ The tyranny of task prompting a “crisis-management” approach to language development, which favored quick and dirty language solutions over elegant expressive tools.

∑ The hegemony of the marketplace that currently fosters the development of technologies, languages and content that gain primacy based on profit.

∑ The heritage of genius that implies that we already have the expressive tools we need, if only we had the necessary “gift.”

Those are daunting obstacles indeed. Which is why I advocate simply walking away and starting all over. Seriously. I look around my campus and talk with colleagues near and far, and see little chance that we will succeed in “evolving” a new language for the digital age. The old barriers are simply too high. The tyranny of task confronts most academic endeavors: Use technology to solve the pedagogical challenges we cannot fix with bricks and mortar, right now! The purely expressive endeavors — art, music and animation (even in the rarefied atmospheres of Annenberg and MIT) — presume levels of funding that only government or industry can provide. Not surprisingly those efforts often result in products that primarily profit the military, the government, or the media cartel.

So here is how I would start over — if I had Bill Gates’ money. I would build a Digital Language and Expression Development Center in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Why there? Because I like it there. This is my fantasy. Initially, there would be two populations at the Center. Since the function of digital language is to manifest the multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment, I would find the most creative traditional artists I could — in all the arts — and bring them to the Center. They are already manifesting the MPCM with damaged languages. They bring function. Then I would bring the best programmers in the world to the Center. They would be responsible for creating the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artists. But the artists would lead — form follows function, remember?

The artists would spend their days doing art, and the programmers would watch. At breakfast and lunch the artists and the programmers would negotiate the digital form to contain the expressive function of the artist’s medium. The programmers would be responsible for making sure that the various expressive digital palettes would be integrated: Musicware works with Artware with Filmware with Textware with Sculptware, etc. Eventually we get Expressionware — an open-source digital language that can contain all the elements of a multimodal perceptual-conceptual moment. Over dinner we would do “show and tell.”

Next we would conduct workshops for people from all different walks of life, painters, politicians, pursers and publicans — and jobs that start with other letters too. Each workshop would explore how Expressionware could be used in that arena, expanding it to include new or unique concerns and requirements. And thus, over the years, we would sculpt a new digital language, thoughtfully and reflectively.

I, naturally, would live at the Center, wandering, wondering, watching, and learning — because it is my fantasy.

Links
Auguste Rodin biography
North Carolina Museum of Art
Slacker HTML

Please feel free to comment.




Desperately Seeking Bandwidth

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Until last winter, my home had been internet-free by choice. I had plenty of the stuff at work, it seemed to me. But then one morning my laptop, sitting on my dining room table and unconnected to anything, unexpectedly began retrieving my email all of its own accord. Mystified, I poked around a little and discovered that a neighbor had installed a wireless network in his home, and my laptop had detected that network and auto-connected. Broadband internet had chased me down into the privacy of my home.

And then it seduced me. My neighbor’s signal would fade in and out, but when it worked, it was oddly compelling. Yes, it was convenient to be able to check the movie schedule online, or send an email the moment it occurred to me. But there was something more, a craving, a constructed lack, evidenced by an outsized sense of frustration and annoyance when my neighbor’s system suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, leaving me in a state that had only a short time before seemed entirely satisfactory. Work on an online course gave me an excuse to give in to the urge and order broadband. But in the back of my head, I knew it was just an excuse. Really, I was responding to a compulsion.

My first try was with Verizon DSL. After a promising start ordering direct from their website — might friction-free ecommerce be a reality after all? — I ran in to problems. I went through countless rounds of vague robotic phone messages left on my answering machine (”Verizon has determined that we are unable to provide service to your address”) and lots of tinny Vivaldi while I sat on hold waiting for tech support. After three weeks I finally arrived home one day and found a phone message in the sonorous voice of Verizon spokesperson James Earl Jones, welcoming me to DSL and encouraging me to start my service. But then I picked up the phone. No dial tone. Every phone line in my house was dead. From hopes of high tech to no tech at all. It occurred to me that the message on my phone had the voice of Darth Vader.

No one needs broadband in the home. Plain old telephone service is cheaper, more reliable, and much more useful in life-threatening situations. Broadband belongs in the category of discretionary spending — alongside psychotherapy, mag wheels, and Barbie dolls. So why did this frustrating experience make me only more determined to get broadband?

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, telecommunications was just there, an unchanging part of the landscape. Phones were uniform, indestructible things solidly attached to the wall, and they all worked, pretty much all the time. As a child, once you’d learned the basics of dialing a rotary phone, there wasn’t much else to think about. We called the phone company “Ma Bell,” because it just seemed an inevitable and unchanging presence in the background of life, neither interesting nor worrisome (which perhaps also says something about how we understood motherhood back then). Those were the days of the AT&T monopoly, when one giant phone company owned just about everything, including the wires in your walls and the phones attached to them. That monopoly, established approximately a century ago and fully consolidated in the 1920s and ’30s, had by the 1950s provided the U.S. with the cheapest, most reliable phone system in the world.

But it also turned out to be against the law. In 1984 the U.S. Justice Department broke up AT&T into several regional divisions dubbed the “baby bells,” and made it legal to compete with the phone companies at multiple levels, from long-distance service to consumer devices. That event, combined with ever cheaper microchips and their derivations like microcomputers and modems, ushered in the era of answering machines, phones in bubble packs at the corner store, and dinner-time harassment from competing providers of long-distance service. The era of humdrum, reliable communications was over. The days of constant, eerily fluctuating ways to communicate had commenced.

So here I was deep in the new era. The next day, after being treated to more Vivaldi on my office phone, I asked the Verizon DSL tech support person, can DSL really wipe out someone’s phone service? He ticked off a list of what were to me incomprehensible technical phrases, and then concluded, “yes, it could happen.” He directed me to local phone repair office. “Should I tell them this might have been caused by DSL?” I asked. “Off the record,” he replied, “I’d say definitely not. If they think it’s the DSL division’s fault they might send you back to us and you could get stuck in an infinite loop between divisions. Just tell them your phone’s out, and let them figure it out.” As a Franz Kafka fan, I knew to follow his advice.

The local phone repairman who showed up to restore my dial tone, “Bill” (not his real name) was a pleasant, quiet man. He concluded he needed to put in completely new lines from the trunk. Watching him work, I was impressed by the fluid skill with which he stripped and wrapped wires, fitted boxes, and manipulated tools while high on the pole. At one point he looked at the wires in my basement and said, “That connection is older than me, and I’m almost fifty.” Bill’s expert craftsmanship was a legacy of the old era, embodying a century of institutional experience with copper wire telephone technology. And that skill was valuable; I needed it. As he left, I thought about the way the new era impacted him: phone company employees have been fighting a twenty-year, usually losing battle against downsizing and cutbacks, while their upper management simultaneously wildly inflates their own salaries and gropes for ways to replace their employees with nonunion workers and machines.

Having lost confidence in Verizon’s abilities to handle new-era technology, I then moved on to a new local start-up snappily named “Soundtivity,” which offered internet service that involved wirelessly beaming a signal to my rooftop from nearly a mile away, completely leapfrogging the old-era infrastructure. A few days later, a twenty-something young man stood at my doorstep in shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes, a coil of odd black cable over his shoulder: “Jeremy Ward, Soundtivity CEO,” according to his business card. Behind him stood Richard, “Director of Marketing” (which, judging by appearances, meant he was the guy who carries the ladder). “This shouldn’t take more than an hour,” said Jeremy confidently.

A month later, Jeremy and Richard had been to my house close to ten times, so often that they’d become friendly with my nine-year old son and familiar with where I kept the Cokes in the fridge; they were beginning to feel like roommates. There had been much drilling, fiddling with cables, servers, and antennas, and repeated scrambling in and out of my bedroom window to reach my chimney. It took them about a week to get a some kind of internet signal into my house, but it was slow, only a fraction of the 1.2 mbps they had promised, so they persevered. I’d been watching fairly closely, at first out of curiosity, and then out of fear for the integrity of my home’s walls, as it became clear that their installation skills were not exactly well-honed. Watching Jeremy balance at the top of the ladder, a laptop in one hand while grasping the chimney with the other, I wondered if he could afford to buy himself health insurance.

Jeremy sometimes called and asked me to test my connection speed using a special website. I began checking the site obsessively. You go to the site, click on a “test” button and, after a few minutes, a bar graph appears, with the kbps speed of your connection graphically indicated in a red bar, in between a series of green bars representing other typical speeds. The bars also have labels: the shortest green bar, 33.6 kbps, the speed of a modem on a slow phone line, is labeled “ugh.” As the bars get longer, up into 200-400 kbps range, the label shifts to “OK.” But the label “broadband” is reserved for 500 kbps and above. Curious, I eventually tried running the test on my laptop in a wireless-equipped coffee shop: over 2048 kbps, which earns the label “fast,” just below the green “very fast.” And then, on campus in mid-summer with no students to slow the network down, I jacked in my ethernet cable to a site which I knew to have extra-high-speed connections: the result, well over 5000 kbps, is labeled, “Dude!” Broadband’s perfect wave.

In the broad historical view, that 1960s “Ma Bell” sense of stability was really just a brief moment of calm in a longer history of weird turbulent change in how we communicate. From the spread of the telegraph in the 1850s to radio amateurs in the ‘teens to rural satellite dish aficionados of the 1980s, there have often been periods where manic tinkerers take the lead in exploring new possibilities for telecommunications, while the more stable, lumbering institutions struggle to adjust. Yes, it is driven by vertiginous capitalist forces, but not in a way that can be neatly reduced to need or rational economic calculation. As U.S. household penetration of broadband internet creeps towards fifty percent, it’s worth remembering that what economists call “demand” and what film theorists call “desire” are just as clearly related as they are different.

After four months, I’m getting a reliable 600 kbps speed from Soundtivity. Jeremy recently told me that he’s “deemphasizing” residential service (if every installation went like mine, I’d guess, he’d be out of business in no time). He’s noticed that, because Verizon is putting mid-sized broadband providers out of business by using its deep pockets to undersell them, DSL routing equipment is appearing at bargain prices on EBay. Nimble entrepreneur that he is, he hopes to send wireless internet signals to the tops of mountains and then use the recycled DSL equipment to run the service to farms and other isolated rural spots that the big companies do not want to bother with. But to his credit, he is not giving up on me. He’s proposed bumping my system up to a higher band, which might get the speed he originally promised. I don’t really need it. But it sure would be cool.

Links
Soundtivity
Wikipedia: “Bandwidth”
How DSL Works

Please feel free to comment.




The Invasion of the Screen People

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

It was late summer in the Heartland. A simpler time, with only vague fears of Y2K troubling my anticipation of brisk breezes and the deepening color of autumn. Thunderstorms decorated Iowa’s western horizon. I had pulled into a mega-gas station at the intersection of I-80 and I-29. Scores of semis towered above the SUVs and sedans, all swilling diesel, ethanol and high test before easing out to follow the blacktop’s broken white line through the gathering dusk and into the night. I faced the sleek screen embedded in a wall-sized pump; touched the credit payment icon, swiped my card, tapped “no receipt,” lifted the hose and jammed the nozzle into the side of my pickup. Gasoline fumes opened my nostrils and hit the roof of my mouth, mingling with the sweet perfume of distant rain. My eyes slide across the ranks of pumps to the unbroken cornfields that surrounded the incongruous concrete intrusion. And Peter Jennings spoke to me: “Tensions heightened in the Middle East today . . . .

I spun around to locate the celebrity anchor, stunned that he would join me out here on the road. He was nestled – as serene and composed as ever – on the touch screen perched above three grades of Texaco. I stared in disbelief as he inserted the news of the world between the bass rumble of Kenworths and the soprano squeal of travel-tired children. It was a macabre moment, like encountering a chimpanzee in top hat and tails, dining in a posh Manhattan tearoom. But my disorientation was swiftly banished by an unbidden thought: “I wonder if you can change the channel?”

That was when I realized that The Screen People had successfully infiltrated Earth. The last six years have only affirmed that realization. Screens have become the primary communication interface in the industrialized world. As I write these words, several screens assist me. The iBook’s screen reflects the words of the essay, and allows me to toggle to internet maps that refresh the memory of my Iowa trip. The TV screen gleams off to my left, enabling me to keep an eye on both the Olympics and a line of thunderstorms moving through the area. My cell phone screen identifies callers, making it possible to accept vital calls while relegating others to voice mail. Last night I watched a film projected on a large screen overlooking the lawn of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Earlier today I shot photographs, composing the images on the LCD screen of my digital camera. “They” are everywhere.

This ascendancy of the screens raises a number of questions for those of us who study the intersection of technology and communication. Consider, for example, the notion that people maintain four essential communicative guises in relationship to mediated messages: creator, consumer, assessor, and facilitator.

Creator is the active guise; participating in the making of a message. The process can be an individual crafting a personal expression for another individual, a group, or an audience of millions. It can be a group effort. It can range from purely presentational to dialogic; a transactional negotiated process between creator and audience.

Consumer is predominantly an individual, passive guise; one person chooses to consume a message or experience created by another – reading, listening, or observing. Consumption can be interactive. Interactive consumption ranges from performing works authored by another, to participating in virtual space constructed by, and dependant upon, another.

Assessor embodies the observational, analytical, reflective guise. Assessment is the individual’s reasoned, supported evaluation of the impacts, effects, implications and relative merit of messages structured by others. Assessments are often delineated by objective, medium, area of social or political influence, academic heritage, inclination or method.

Facilitators provide the interventionist guise: an individual or team utilizing specialized knowledge, skills and/or tools to aid other individuals in the realization of perceived communication objectives. Intervention ranges from interpersonal through organizational to international. It encompasses both technical training and conceptual exploration.

The predominance of screens in contemporary culture will significantly redefine each of those relationships. While their influence is still unfolding; clearly two paths diverge in this technological wood. We can either accept a traditional passive evolution, or bestir ourselves to – perhaps for the first time in history – plan the course of our own social evolution. Let me explain.

The evolution of communication technology has been more serendipitous syncopation than measured march. From speech to mime to music to writing to printing to painting to film to telegraph to telephone to radio to television to computer to Internet, the relationship between society and the tools we use to communicate has been a bartered negotiation. We, the members of continuously evolving cultures, are faced with similarly evolving communicative, expressive needs. Technology morphs to meet those needs. We fill the technologies with content, and in the process discover new needs, which in turn beget new technologies, and so on and so on. It is a negotiation because neither side of the equation determines the final path of evolution. It is a bartered negotiation because each side demands value from the process; society demands better communicative, expressive tools, while the industries that provide the technologies demand profit.

Negotiation implies compromise, and compromise rarely yields the exquisite. More often the result has been merely the mutually acceptable. And so it has been in the bartered negotiation of media evolution. Papyrus wasn’t perfect, but it was better than clay tablets. The printing press had flaws but also advantages over the scribe, the telegraph bartered speed over linguistic complexity, cells phones offered mobility at the cost of fidelity – and all yielded profit to industry and power to government.

Bartered negotiation in the world of the screen people has been the same – only different. When we examine the tools that drive the converged environment of the screen people – whether the special effects in Lord of the Rings or three-way calling on our cell phone – we find ourselves confronting computers, networks and software. And in that world we find a strange confrontation between complexity and elegance. The post-modern world often seems immersed in a love affair with complexity, a celebration of fragmentation. And nowhere is that worldview more manifest than in the design of software intended to facilitate expression. New versions of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Office, proliferate features that regularly relegate former experts to the status of “newbie.” The irony is apparently unintentional, lost in the marketing realization that “more features sell new releases.”

Any experience with an audience – singular or mass – reveals that rampant complexity confuses, while precise elegance empowers the depiction of the most intricate message. As we face the 21st century, the inclination is to allow the marketplace to drive the development of the communicative palette. “It has always ‘worked’ before.” But “before” was never in the hands of so few. Bertelsmann, Newscorp, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, Sony, Vivendi and Reed-Elsevier control most of the content distributed in the world today – from print to the internet. Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia decide the nature of the tools we use to express ourselves. The clout of huge profits in a concentrated marketplace makes quality secondary to popularity for all those companies.

Before was never like now, and the stakes have never been so high. We are not talking about cornering the market on widgets. The issue concerns a few colossal companies that control the communicative content of our world, and who also shape the very languages we use to express the truth and beauty of that world. To date the palette they have provided is flawed in three dimensions: Intricacy – the excessive inclusion of features in software that excludes all but the specialist from fluency. Discreteness – the inclination to provide tools and messages devoted to, and hence restricted to, a single medium, and, Commercialism – the hegemonic power of the marketplace that decrees that whatever the other characteristics of medium or message, significant profit must be among them.

In the film Dead Poets Society, John Keating exhorts his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day.” He challenges them to “do something extraordinary.” It is time for the academy to do something extraordinary. We must reclaim the expressive imperative; we must define the palette. Certainly, the expressive tools provided by the media cartels are fatally flawed. But so are some cherished models from the “teach and publish” world of the academy. We linger in the solid predictability of prose upon the printed page. We are comfortable with formulae unfolding neatly across the board. We treasure heads bent over bluebooks as sunbeams dance with dust motes, reminiscent of chalk dust from bygone years. That world is gone. Yet many of our forays into “courseware” seek to recreate it.

Screens encompass a new world. It is our responsibility to create, to use, and to teach new, powerful, transparent languages and tools for elegant expression in the converged digital environment of that reality. Carpe Diem.

Links of Interest:

1. Roger Chartier on the role of on-screen texts

2. United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force

3. MIT’s web magazine on information technologies

Please feel free to comment.