Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Lowcast Media and the Public Sphere

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The focal point for many of the activities of the media be they mainstream or alternative can be found in the often different and varied ways in which media practitioners relate to the communities of which they are a part (“communitas” those sets of ideas and practices which frame the boundaries of community at a conceptual, imaginary and everyday level). Below, I will briefly explore lowcast media cultures and suggest a general conception of the citizen as a creator and/or participant in community life through local media.

In trying to set up a conceptual base for the examination of community and lowcast media one of the most important places to start is with the notion of community. The way we approach this analysis will depend on the perspective which we take to the lived practices of community life. Irrespective of the many and often conflicting ideas which govern the construction of community as a concept the truth of whether or not there is actually community in the pure sense of the word, means less than the ideals which make the concept resonate with importance. This sense that there is something important about community must be explored historically and with clear reference to concrete lived examples. It is a matter of nuancing the rather transparent use of the term and examining the implications of its appropriation for political and social change.

In speaking of community do we mean village (as in global or local)? Is there some sort of pastoral dream of innocence and togetherness behind all of this? I ask this in order to more properly understand the motivations and choices behind the desire to create togetherness and community. The notion of people coming together is based on a further conception of “connectedness.” In talking about connectedness what do we mean? There are many different possible approaches to this question. It is not within the scope of this article to examine all of them. Suffice to say, for the moment, that nearly every facet of community life is governed by the ideals of connection and communication.

If we take the family as an example, failure or success is measured by the depth and truthfulness of the connections which family members have with each other. Or, what about a small rural community which centres its activities on a local church or service organization? There, the connections may be implicit or explicit, but without a defined set of ideals which circle around connection, the community would see itself as a failure. All of these links and the ways in which they are practiced and experienced define and redefine the many different dimensions of community life. Until recently there were a set of communicative tools and strategies available for keeping the community aware of its own activities. These ranged from local newspapers to community meetings to bulletin boards in public places to word of mouth. The advent of lowcast media like video, local radio, local cable access and now internet access has dramatically altered the frame of reference within which communities can think about their role in the larger society of which they are a part. The local develops into a nuanced set of possible meanings, contingent in large measure on the knowledge which community members have about each other. There are now many more ways in which communities define their activities and this encourages the local to be thought about in a multiplicity of ways.

Historically, many of the assumptions which analyses of community media have used are related to enlightenment ideas of rationality and in particular to the idea of modernity gone wrong, of loss of status and relevance for individuals and community members who have come to expect that political activity geared toward elections and representative government will actually produce results. The initial idea of modernity as the model for more and more institutional structures which would support the development of communication, representation and rational institutional practices (most fully incarnated by the legal apparatus) was quickly replaced with governmental structures and practices remote and insensitive to the needs of the citizenry.

This notion of communal ties broken - the idea that with those breaks individuals and communities lose their ability to define their own lives and give substance to their experience as members of communities - this leads to alternative conceptions of empowerment (most fully exemplified by the profusion of local media productions in both developed and less developed countries) which are proposed as a response to the crisis of subjectivity and institution. Many of the alternatives proposed by a variety of different groups centre on the media as one of the crucial spaces within and through which this recovery of personal and community power can take place.

The questions and debates which have dominated grass-roots communications and the interaction of lowcast technologies within the public sphere need careful examination. There has been an intersection of ideas and practices which have been oriented toward the development of new forms of expression, communication and representation broadly defined as community based. The technologies which need to be discussed range from portable video to radio and sound, from zines to desktop publishing and from cable access to artistic experimentation with video and new imaging technologies, as well as telecommunities centred around Freenets and the World Wide Web.

Decentralization, along with distinctions between mainstream and alternative media, has been of fundamental importance for local use of lowcast technologies. Claims of participatory democracy and advocacy are generally cast in opposition to state and corporate control. This is linked to interactivity and heterogeneity the notion that local cultural control more fully expresses the needs of the community in all of its diversity. These decentralized cultural expressions, it is assumed, communicate across the boundaries of class, gender and ethnic difference and are a reflection of the particular interests and identities of the various groups which make up the community.

Much of the work done in this context, however, is far more subtle than these debates would suggest. The patterns of production and viewing are not predictable. The way lowcast media are distributed doesn’t follow in a direct line from locale to constituency. In other words, there are widespread differences not only in the use of the technologies, but in what is actually produced. There are further differences between the various conceptions of community which practitioners engage with and notions of democracy within specific contexts. A crucial number of examples come from indigenous media where the Inuit in Canada and Aboriginal peoples in Australia have incorporated and appropriated video into the specificity of their own cultural life. Further work in this area will have to develop a new explanatory model for lowcast technologies and try to more fully understand their effects on the communities in which they are used.

Media and Empowerment

Empowerment is a key word which crosses the boundaries of nearly all of the activities of lowcast media practitioners. “For those who fight for democratic empowerment, for environmental values, and social justice and economic fairness, for people of colour, for women, for all groups historically disenfranchised, PUBLIC MEDIA CENTRE (PMC) tries to give each of them a voice, an opportunity to be heard and understood.” (From publicity by the Public Media Centre, San Francisco, a non-profit advertising agency) PMC uses any instrument of communication which it finds useful to deliver its messages. It is at the cutting edge of a vast media advocacy movement whose extensive activities in developed and developing countries are not based on reaching a mass audience, but instead are quite content with reaching a few hundred. The premise is that alternative sources of information both express and lead to a diversity of viewpoints which give an otherwise disenfranchised citizenry an informed base to make decisions about their lives and about the institutions which make up their communities.

The use of media for empowerment mixes the local with the national. Images are used for purposes of mobilization. Information becomes subversive: alternative ideas presented through lowcast media encourage access both for the viewers and practitioners; local experiences can be shared between members of the same or different communities. This leads to increased awareness, to networking and to a reconceptualization of the place of the media in the public sphere. The fulcrum for many of these ideas is a creative notion of dialogue. Images encourage exchanges between members of the community in the context where they are shown Ñ public meetings, for example. The notion of dialogue takes on an even richer quality through the rapidly expanding base of telecommunities (see The Promise and Challenge of a New Communications Age ) where town hall meetings can take place on the Internet. There are many other examples of lowcast dialoguing and these include VCR networks, small radio transmitters and cable access as well as the significant role played by Art Centres in the creation and distribution of experimental as well as issues-oriented videotapes, sound cassettes and journals.

Empowerment is about audiences and can include an orientation, in a training and learning sense, toward the internal needs of community organizations. The assumptions underlying the use of video images for teaching and training are related to advocacy and political ideology. With respect to video, the simplicity of recording and playback encourages and supports the use of the technology in highly mediated local contexts where the audience can participate in the viewing either through commentary as the tape is running or more direct and personal feedback after the video has finished.

Empowerment through the use of lowcast media is also about policymaking at the local level and efforts to link local politics with the inter-local and the national as well as with the international. It is about another way of constructing local history and providing narratives which are more personal and directly related to the experiences of communities and the people who live in them. One of the problems with this conceptualization of the relationship between media and community is that it assumes a measure of disenfranchisement which has to be recovered. It locates the political and practical orientation of the lowcast media producer outside of the supposedly weak discursive strategies of the community as a whole. In this respect, information is meant to fill the gaps which other forms of local expression have left empty.

One possible way of thinking about this issue may be to challenge the idea of empowerment as it has been articulated by lowcast media practitioners. When a community worker asks, ‘how do we create opportunities for culturally diverse groups to speak to each other’ they are in essence, marginalizing existing forms of communication and exchange. They may not be able to recognize the presence of creative alternatives located in cultural spaces quite different from the ones they are used to. There is a spontaneity to local culture which far exceeds the descriptions and analyses which can be made of it. The process is in constant evolution and by its very nature challenges preconceptions of subjectivity, public discourse and modes of communication. There are many examples of this including the use of grafitti for political purposes, eclectic and highly localized zines, college radio stations, local rock bands, as well as rock ‘movements’ like straight-edge. Reading and photography clubs, free local newspapers, freenets and cassette culture through which music and the spoken word are created and marketed at very low cost and then distributed within and across various communities round out this picture of intense cultural activity. All of this, and I have cited just a few examples, speaks about types of enfranchisement which are not located in conventional political or cultural strategies of communication and representation.

Video / Technology / History

The premise for introducing new media technologies into cultures and communities which have had a marginal interest and investment in their development is about utopian ideals of accessiblity and communication. Of singular importance here are the various ways in which the use of these technologies have encouraged a widespread culture of non-professionalism. In fact, much of the political impetus for the use of video in the community has come from presumptions about its ease of use and the presumably simple way in which it can be appropriated by diverse groups with varying backgrounds and motives.

There are many good texts which explore the history of the video movement from its inception until the present. My interest is in the role played by imaging technologies like video in creating and sustaining the idea of a lowcast communicative sphere. It is not, as has often been argued, the case that media technologies have altered the communities which have made use of them. Rather, general cultural conceptions of the role of technology have been transformed by experiences with them. New technologies fit into a set of pre-existing frameworks of a philosophical and ideological character. The presence of this cultural, geographic and political space means that technology is not the sole engine for change in isolation of many other factors. This is even more so with imaging technologies which should be examined as extensions of print technologies and not as interruptions to, or destructions of, a supposedly earlier phase of greater literacy. In the same way as one cannot talk about rock music without talking about jazz and blues, one cannot approach video or multimedia as the focal points for a radical break with the past without talking about performance, theatre, cinema and other forms of public spectacle. These have conditioned, and been conditioned by, very particular notions of communication and community, art and the role of public and private discourses about culture.

How do imaging technologies take on a public character? How and why do they become relevant to the everyday lives of widely divergent groups of people? Taking a contrarian point of view do they effectively work against change rather than for it? It may be the case, for example, that community video and other lowcast technologies like radio, effectively undermine the very changes which they are searching for. They take what Leo Marx has described as a “disembodied entity” like a machine or a technology and ascribe powers to it which effectively disengage people from the power to do anything about them. The best evidence for this lies in the fact that imaging technologies are devised and created within professional, engineering contexts which rarely work to demystify their operations. Some of the best computer technologists of the moment are striving to make the computer an “invisible” part of everyday life. The result will be machines which in a metaphorical sense don’t exist, yet have an effect on the user. As the machine disappears, what happens to relations of subjectivity and identity? Where can the use be located? What are the boundaries between machine (the rules and codes which have been built into its structure), culture and change?

An extension of this argument can be found in the assumptions of local radio units which are increasingly important in developing countries. In this instance the local functions as a justification for creating a variety of communicative strategies to an ill-defined concept of community which exists in geographic proximity to the radio station. The technology disappears, but the voice remains. How can the various histories of subjectivity be traced in communities which have found themselves involved with and presumably affected by the appearance of radio? The question is not simply how does information come to play an important role in their lives, but how the dissemination of knowledge takes place at all? From what vantage point and at what level can we examine the role of information in the communication of ideas to large groups of people? These questions address fundamental issues of technology and form and subjectivity and in particular may well challenge the definitions which have been made of the local, the transcultural and the individual.

Digital Utopias/Informal Conversations

In thinking about these issues of community, media and change we will have to focus on the growing interrelationship between “electronic communities of interest” and cross-cultural forms of dialogue and conversation within the evolving public space of community based freenets, innovative multimedia and interactive laboratories and artist run centres for video, theatre, performance and publishing. It will be necessary to bring together the discourses which surround these activities, ideas about the future, communicative practices and their results what is actually created with historical and critical analysis of the process.

The work of Howard Rheingold , Douglas Brent, George Landow, and Richard Lanham is of particular importance to all of this activity. In particular, Rheingold’s claims about the impact of virtual communities on the functioning and daily life of people connected to cyberspace challenges many of the original assumptions which guided community activists when they appropriated lowcast media for political work. Many of the assumptions which guide Rheingold’s work including claims that computerized networks destabilize conventional forms of human interaction.

Douglas Brent develops an argument which suggests that the entire area of electronic interchanges of information not only becomes independent of geography (though it may be necessary to counter that argument by reflecting on the way it elides the specificity of context and local history) and instead encourages spontaneous “networlds” which are leaky and built on foundations which change so often that virtually all of their rules are in constant flux. He sees this as the nexus for a new set of boundaries which recast the conventional definitions which our culture has made not only of community but the activities of culture and daily life. The philosophical premise for all of this is a radically redrawn conception of interconnectivity and networking. So, for example, an artist run centre in Toronto could presumably put its videotapes on- line (through the World Wide Web) and encourage people to comment on the tapes. The comments could lead to new ideas, new ways of making or remaking the material already shot or an entirely different video could grow out of the feedback. This process of annotation changes the domain of knowledge attached to the videotape. It also transforms how and what we think of audiences and spectatorship. It broadens the potential of the video and at the same time weakens the proprietory relationship of author to his or her creations. It also casts the centre itself into a different light. Conventional hierarchies (e.g., creation, sale, marketing, distribution, and consumption or viewing of cultural creations) which tend to focus the production of knowledge in specific locations become dispersed. This dispersal challenges what we mean by community and the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Most importantly, it connects what might have been an obscure or eclectic video with communities of people who have by design or serendipity “discovered” the video as they browse through cyberspace.

It is an irony that much of what is described as cyberspace is a place where accidents are more common than not and yet that space is nevertheless dependent upon highly complex computerized structures. The scaffolding for so much of cyberspace rests on the shifting sands of much older technologies like electricity. This is not meant as a capricious comment. Anyone who has experienced their computer screen fading out as the electricity goes off knows how helpless the network can be.

So many of the issues which have haunted and motivated a generation of artists and activists, freedom of expression, access to information and ideas, democratic forms of community involvement and the incorporation of political ideas into artistic experimentation are now up for grabs through networked computerization. One of my most brillant students did a project in which he designed a World Wide Web Home page for the course and put his own fanzine on it. The fanzine is in the form of a hypermedia production. In discussions with him he mentioned that he rarely reads books not because they didn’t interest him, but because he was now so used to being able to move around in hypermedia environments that he had become impatient with “ordinary” books. His fanzine is about a rather large community of people devoted to straight-edge rock culture. His biggest thrill was examining the log for those people who have looked in on his work. His orientation is not to be dependent on the technology nor to overstate its value, rather what he is searching for is a way of remaining in continual contact with the growing network he is helping to create.

It is in this context of community, media, computerization and the creation of networks of connection and communication that a dramatically new public sphere is being constructed. My preference is to talk about communicative spheres in conjunction with lowcast media in order to draw the picture of a shift in community politics and culture. Further articles in this area will look at a number of concrete examples, an ethnography of real and virtual spaces even as the distinctions between the real and virtual break down.