michael naimark

EMERGEncy 1.4
published by www.creativedisturbance.com


Symmetrical Media

Michael Naimark


In 1991, Francis Coppola said: "To me the great hope is that now these little video recorders are around and people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form."

Pretty liberal stuff from the guy who once owned the sixth largest helicopter fleet in the world, in the name of professional filmmaking. I doubt the little girl’s allowance she receives from her father would cover that. But the dream that Francis Coppola articulates so well has been a major driving force in high-tech R&D labs for several decades.

This dream, often attributed to social philosopher Ivan Illich, is where the means of production and the means of distribution are symmetrical, in terms of access to tools. He called this dream "conviviality." Conviviality, it was argued, is the key to open the doors of creativity and empowerment. The relationships among conviviality, creativity, and empowerment are complex and noteworthy. History has some lessons and the future hinges around some of these issues.

Perhaps the first big dose of contemporary conviviality came with the birth of portable video in the late 1960’s. Sony released the PortaPak, the first affordable video camera. Artists, educators, journalists, and independent filmmakers believed this was the beginning of the end of television: No more junk programming, we could now control what we watched by making it.

The ratio of video displays (television sets) to video cameras plummeted during this period from millions-to-one to thousands-to-one. Public Access television and video art were both direct results of the PortaPak. Today the ratio of video displays to cameras in the US is less than ten-to-one. Everyone is a video-maker. It’s almost as easy as watching video. One could say that television has become a convivial medium.

This, of course, is only partly true. Broadcast television is as popular and shameless as ever, and much of the material produced by the millions of camcorders is "write only," never to be viewed, or edited. Even so, a decade later, the birth of the PC and the Mac was fueled by the dream of convivial media. As computers entered the workplace and the home, more people produced. By the late 1980’s, almost anyone could publish a book, mix music, or create a multimedia program. Conviviality was the legacy of the most creative R&D labs during this period, including Xerox PARC, Atari Research, and the Apple Multimedia Lab.

In 1992, one of the earliest efforts launched at Interval Research was to explore how to make media more convivial. This effort was code-named "Symmetry." It was tempting to label telephones and email as "good media" and television and moviemaking as "bad media." Could we make moviemaking as easy speaking or writing?

One day during this period, a guest presented videos made by Star Trek fans. They were all based on editing Star Trek visuals over popular songs, such as Broadway show tunes, in a strictly literal way. For every line of vocals, a different Star Trek snippet would appear to "illustrate" the line, edited in always on the beat. This algorithmic approach made me seethe, but it wasn’t until the speaker used the word "creative" that I exploded, "This is about as creative as making Betty Crocker brownies!" Several of my colleagues booed me. One called me "elitist."

This bothered me for weeks. For one thing, Betty Crocker brownies are pretty good. So what if they’re easy? So what if they give the illusion of creativity? I finally concluded that access is not to be confused with ease. Symmetrical media may give the little girl in Ohio access to video tools. She may even be happy making video birthday cards from "brownie mix" style template programs. But it’s highly doubtful she’ll be the next Mozart by doing so. Conviviality may foster creativity, but doesn’t replace the need for passion, sensitivity, and hard work.

A similar and timelier issue involves the relationship between conviviality and empowerment, particularly as it relates to Web access. Enthusiasts see the Web as the ultimate leveler, giving everyone access to everything, and equally important, giving everyone their own voice. Villagers in Africa will have their own Web sites. Basket weavers in the Philippines will sell directly to their customers. Children, the elderly, and neighborhood groups will write newspapers which look as good as the New York Times, and be every bit as accessible to anyone on the planet.

Nonsense, cry the cynics. The Web is essentially another mass medium and just as imperialistic as television and newspapers. It won’t lead to web sites from Africa; it’ll lead to African kids experiencing consumer opportunity, MTV, and American porn.

The resolution, perhaps, lies precisely in the notion of conviviality, measurable by the degree of symmetry. My home DSL provider advertises "up to 1.5 Mbs, upload speed up to 384 Kbs," meaning the download bandwidth is about four times the upload bandwidth. A prominent, well-meaning, global satellite Internet provider advertises a 45 Mbs "forward channel" and a 256 Kbs "reverse" one, a network clearly optimized for "content" coming down and "key clicks" going up, nothing but television with a big dial. It clearly stacks the deck against little girls in Ohio, or villagers in Africa, seeking empowerment through creating their own Web sites.

There is little question that some conviviality is better than no conviviality, that more symmetrical media are better than less symmetrical ones, and that the Web is more creative and empowering than television. The sheer increase in production, in virtually all electronic media, is its own testimonial.

But what about quality? Where are the Apocalypse Nows? Is professionalism dead?

Not long ago I crossed paths with artist Laurie Anderson at a large international electronic art symposium, which had an enormous art exhibition. Stuff coming out of nowhere, we agreed. We also agreed that while the absolute number of people making such art has skyrocketed, the "signal-to-noise ratio" has plummeted. There's a lot of really bad stuff (in part due to brownie mix software). But when one adds things up, is the net result more good work or less? We both agreed more. The little girl in Ohio may be the next Mozart, but she may also be harder to find.