Category Archives: newmedia

another chapter in the prehistory of the networked book

A quick post to note that there’s an interesting article at the Brooklyn Rail by Dara Greenwald on the early history of video collectives. I know next to nothing about the history of video, but it’s a fascinating piece & her description of the way video collectives worked in the early 1970s is eye-opening. In particular, the model of interactivity they espoused resonates strongly with the way media works across the network today. An excerpt:

Many of the 1970s groups worked in a style termed “street tapes,” interviewing passersby on the streets, in their homes, or on doorsteps. As Deirdre Boyle writes in Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (1997), the goal of street tapes was to create an “interactive information loop” with the subject in order to contest the one-way communication model of network television. One collective, The People’s Video Theater, were specifically interested in the social possibilities of video. On the streets of NYC, they would interview people and then invite them back to their loft to watch the tapes that night. This fit into the theoretical framework that groups were working with at the time, the idea of feedback. Feedback was considered both a technological and social idea. As already stated, they saw a danger in the one-way communication structure of mainstream television, and street tapes allowed for direct people-to-people communications. Some media makers were also interested in feeding back the medium itself in the way that musicians have experimented with amp feedback; jamming communication and creating interference or noise in the communications structures.
Video was also used to mediate between groups in disagreement or in social conflict. Instead of talking back to the television, some groups attempted to talk through it. One example of video’s use as a mediation tool in the early 70s was a project of the students at the Media Co-op at NYU. They taped interviews with squatters and disgruntled neighbors and then had each party view the other’s tape for better understanding. The students believed they were encouraging a more “real” dialogue than a face-to-face encounter would allow because the conflicting parties had an easier time expressing their position and communicating when the other was not in the same room.

Is YouTube being used this way? The tools the video collectives were using are now widely available; I’m sure there are efforts like this out there, but I don’t know of them.
Greenwald’s piece also appears in Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, a collection edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland which looks worthwhile.

meanwhile, back in the world of old media . . .

One of the most interesting things about new media is the light that it shines on how old media works and doesn’t work, a phenomenon that Marshall McLuhan encapsulated precisely with his declaration that a fish doesn’t realize that it lives in water until it finds itself stranded on land. The latest demonstration: an article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. (The version in the International Herald Tribune might be more rot-resistant, though it lacks illustrations.) The Times details, with no small amount of snark, how the conservatives have taken it upon themselves to construct an Encyclopedia of American Conservatism.

We’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing encyclopedias on this blog. What’s interesting to me about this one is how resolutely old-fashioned it is: it’s print-based through and through. The editors have decided who’s in and who’s out, as the Times points out in this useful chart:

who is in and who is out of the conservative encyclopedia

Readers are not allowed to argue with the selections: American Conservatism is what the editors say it is. It’s a closed text and not up for discussion. Readers can discuss it, of course – that’s what I’m doing here – but such discussions have no direct impact on the text itself.

There’s a political moral to be teased out here – conservative thinking is dogmatic rather than dialectical – but that’s too easy. I’m more interested in how we think about this. Would we notice the authoritarian nature of this work if we didn’t have things like the Wikipedia to compare it to? Someone who knows more about book history than I can confirm whether Diderot & d’Alembert had to deal with readers disgruntled by omissions from their Encyclopédie. It’s only now, however, that we sense the loss of potential: compared to the Wikipedia this seems limiting.