New Community Networks

Wired For Change

 

 

Chapter 7

Send us your thoughts on this chapter.

 

INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

James Madison

In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it.

David Byrne, "In the Future"


COMMUNICATION AND TECHNOLOGY

For thousands of years the complex symbolic code known as language has allowed humans to share thoughts with one another. Even before written language, humankind communicated orally and pictorially, through paintings on cave walls, for example. Communication--including state news, sports reports, and gossip--helped hold the Roman Empire together for five hundred years (Stephens, 1989). Communication can also help hold a marriage or community together as well. As modern technology is radically transforming the reach and speed and methods by which individuals and organizations communicate, it is useful to inquire whether this new global web can be used to hold communities together or whether it is serving the needs of modern day empires exclusively.

We use technology every day to inform and to be informed. We watch television or listen to the radio for entertainment and for information. We talk and listen to people across town or around the world using the telephone. Increasingly we send and receive faxes, use e-mail, and use electronic bulletin-board systems or commercial network services. Some of us may even use video conferencing systems or correspond with others using electronic mail that contains graphics or video clips.

Humankind's thirst for communication and information is seemingly unquenchable, and technology is playing an increasing role. The speed by which these new technologies are advancing should cause many of us to pause and ponder some fundamental questions about new communications technology. The means with which we communicate and the policies that guide their use may not be as neutral or as beneficent as we think. Besides allowing us to share our thoughts, our media systems may be shaping them.

Shaping Consciousness

The commonplace nature of familiar modes of communication prevents us from looking at them objectively and, often, from thinking about them at all. The simplest question we can ask about them is "What does the technology allow us to do?" In other words, when the technology is operating correctly, "What do we use it for?" In the case of the telephone in its conventional use, two people communicate with each other synchronously using sounds--usually voice. A television, on the other hand (in its conventional use) allows people in one location to watch and listen to moving pictures and sound that are broadcast from a different location. The converse of the previous question, "What doesn't it allow?" is rarely asked, although it's a very useful question to consider. We can't smile at a person whom we're talking with on the telephone, for example, and expect to receive a smile in return. And although the rare television program allows viewers to telephone in to a live show to express an opinion or ask a question, television is generally used for broadcasting, and viewers are never participants in any real way. People have been known to talk back, yell, or, even, shoot their television set, but these attempts at feedback fall on deaf ears. Television is a one-way street.

Although we're not accustomed to thinking along these lines, technological systems (and modern mass-media systems are certainly technological systems) affect us in many ways. Don Norman writing in Things That Make Us Smart (1993) describes this phenomenon quite clearly:

Technology is not neutral. Each technology has properties--affordances--that make it easier to do some activities, harder to do others: The easier ones get done, the harder ones neglected. Each has constraints, preconditions, and side effects that impose requirements and changes on the things with which it interacts, be they other technology, people, or human society at large. Finally, each technology poses a mind-set, a way of thinking about it and the activities to which it is relevant, a mind-set that soon pervades those touched by it, often unwillingly. The more successful and widespread the technology, the greater its impact upon the patterns of those who use it, and consequently, the greater impact upon all of society. Technology is not neutral; it dominates.

Although Norman describes constraints imposed by the technology itself, the actual technology is just one aspect of mass-media communications systems we generally take for granted. To understand the system as a whole it is necessary to examine political, social, and economic aspects as well as the technological aspects. In this light, much of the irrelevance, vulgarity, commercialism, and lack of balance of the mass media can be viewed as a natural by-product of the pattern of near monopoly ownership and commercial dominance. While the prospect offered by community networks for overturning corporate dominance is small, it may be possible to develop alternative media systems that are community-oriented, open, accessible, and democratic that co-exist--however precariously--with the traditional closed media systems.

The Influence of Television

The birth of mass communication systems has made radical changes in our consciousness that we're just beginning to contemplate. As the prospectus from the Cultural Environment (CEM) explains, "For the first time in human history, most children are born into homes where most of the stories do not come from their parents, schools, churches, communities, and in many places, not even from their native countries, but from a handful of conglomerates who have something to sell" (CEM, 1995). This passage notes the relatively recent appropriation and overwhelming control of cultural symbols and messages by what former University of California at San Diego Professor Herbert Schiller calls the "global cultural factories." University of Pennsylvania professor George Gerbner, the founder and chair of the Cultural Environment Movement organization has conducted extensive research that reveals how far the effects of media extend. For one thing, the constant barrage of television, print ads, and billboards has helped to stamp product mottos, jingles, and images in our consciousness. Ninety percent of all U.S. six-year-olds, for example, can identify the Joe Camel character and most 10- year-olds can name more beer brands than U.S. presidents. Gerbner has been studying the effects of television on our collective consciousness for over 25 years. At the core of his research is exhaustive analysis of thousands of prime time television shows involving tens of thousands of characters; his analysis revealed patterns that are wildly inconsistent with reality. The incidence of crime and violence, for example, is 55 times more likely to occur on television than in real life, while elderly people, a rapidly growing and powerful age group in the United States, are shown infrequently and in stereotypical roles that are often silly, impotent, or irrelevant (Waters, 1982). That television helps to promulgate these views throughout society is strongly implied by Gerbner's research. In one experiment, Gerbner and his assistants devised a multiple-choice questionnaire designed to learn how close the world view of the test-taker matched actual real-world statistics. The conclusions were clear--and cut across all age, income, level of education, and ethnicity distinctions: The more television a person watched, the more his or her world view matched the phony world view that beams continuously into the minds of hundreds of millions of viewers.

 

Funding for the Media

While some may quibble at some of Gerbner's conclusions, the actual and potential effect that the consciousness industries have on what we think about and how we think about it is staggering. Thus Gerbner recommends that we think both about what the current media is doing to us, and what the media could do, both to us and for us. He believes (1994) that cultural policy that addresses these issues explicitly belongs on "center stage . . . where it has long been in most other democracies." Although the idea is absent from public consideration in the United States, countries in Europe and especially in Scandinavia often levy taxes on theater admissions, videotapes, and other cultural events and artifacts (such as commercials!) which are paid into a fund that loans money for independent productions. Community computer networks would obviously be good candidates for such public funding and there would be scores of other viable candidates. Talk of public funding along these lines is not currently fashionable. Politicians, corporate media moguls, and right-wing radio talk show hosts uniformly denounce public funding options of any type. Rejection of this option, however, virtually guarantees that global corporate fare will increasingly shape the images, symbols, and messages that people see, and as a consequence, the parameters of acceptable thinking.

 

A VIEW OF TODAY'S MEDIA

The trouble with newspapers is that they don't know the difference between a bicycle accident and the death of a civilization.

 

George Bernard Shaw

I'm the slime oozin' out from your TV set.

Frank Zappa, "I'm the Slime"

Many of us read, listen to, or watch the news as part of our regular schedule. While the companies and organizations that produce this news are undoubtedly proficient at what they do--gathering information from around the world, organizing and packaging it, maintaining a worldwide organization, employing advanced technology, soliciting advertisers, and presenting annual reports to stockholders or owners--it is less clear why they're doing it. The ubiquitous nature of the mass media generally prevents people from posing important questions, and the owners of mass media systems are unlikely to provide forums that could challenge their modus operandi. Nevertheless, the question should be asked: What use is the news?

Let's begin this query by looking at the product itself--the news and the system that produces it. Is the reportage accurate? Is it biased? And why is one story newsworthy while others are not? Who makes those determinations and by what criteria? And, finally, if we could redefine or reorient "information and communication"--the media--to enhance the role of the citizen and community, what would this new medium look like? To begin to answer this question, let's first examine some of the deficiencies of the existing mass media systems.

A Black Box

The first thing we notice about the mass media is that it's a "black box." A black box performs a function, but since it is black, the mechanism inside it can't be viewed and how it works remains a mystery. The media industry, exemplified by the medium of television, gathers information, determines its entertainment-worthiness, and packages it behind the scenes. News production is their business while news consumption is ours. When we consume "the news," we assume that what we see is accurate and, less obviously, that it is news. Conversely, what we don't see isn't news. These black boxes are extremely powerful, as they play a large part in defining public consciousness. And since the box is opaque, the community neither understands nor participates in the process.

Profits over Value

Commercial media has to make a profit in order to stay in business. This is, of course, an economic truism of capitalistic society. A stronger statement, but an element of conventional wisdom nonetheless, is that a company's primary--if not sole--obligation is to maximize profits. This stronger form has serious implications for an industry that in theory carries the responsibility of providing citizens with the information they need to actively participate in a democratic society. If a violent television program, for example, on the average can deliver more viewers and hence more advertising revenue than say, a science program for kids, the violent program will be aired. And since advertisers financially underwrite television programming, their influence over what gets aired will be far greater than that of community members with special communication and information needs.

Disjointed Offerings

Sometimes television stations or networks broadcast documentaries or "specials" on some vexing problem of society. The topic might be homelessness, drive-by shootings, youth violence, substandard education, or some other popular tragedy. Although these shows are often intended to entertain--rather than engage--they are generally more honest and useful than much of television's usual fare. However valid these documentaries might be, their context can only be described as arbitrary and schizophrenic. For example, a special on the short life-expectancy of homeless children might pop up on a Wednesday at 9:00 p.m., preceded by an hour of situation comedies and followed by half an hour of Wall Street news. The audience was not prepared for the show in any way (except possibly for a few sensationalistic teasers) and no discussion, update, or sequel followed it. It was a unique and unrelated event in history, lost in a series of other unique and unrelated events.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, there is literally no use to the news. While there are sporadic exceptions, news is generally useless in that there are no reasonable ways to follow up on a story, get more information, or to become involved in some positive action. As we will see in the next section, there are useful alternatives.

 

A VIEW OF NEW MEDIA

What is needed . . . is a new media "movement"--a consumer consciousness not unlike the recent nutrition movement that has revolutionized not only the way people eat, but ultimately the food industry itself.

Elizabeth Thoman (1989)

Media can be useful. It need not be disconnected from society like a hallucinogenic dream world on the other side of the looking glass. It can be integrated into society and into community life, in a genuine and meaningful way. Today, the standard forms of media, however, are largely disconnected from everyday community spheres. They are largely disconnected from the people they serve, and from any community program or goal, outside organizations, or activities; or with other media forms that can provide complementary approaches. Schools generally have proscribed series of events within a class (a lesson plan), across several years (a curriculum), or within a degree program (a sequence of classes including required and optional classes). With very few exceptions, the media has no analogs to this type of analysis, planning, coordination, or purpose.

Integrative Media

When a form of medium begins to connect to community activities, it becomes integrative. Fortunately, there are many ways for television, radio, or newspapers to become better integrated and enmeshed in community and civic responsibilities, and community networks can play a strong role.

Let's say that Channel 6 is showing a program on the hundreds of tons of hazardous waste that the U.S. Department of Defense has strewn over the State of Washington over the last few decades. Channel 6 could make the transcript and program notes available on-line. The program notes could contain bibliographies, addresses of organizations, lists of whom to contact in the government, and other information that would help people explore the issue in more depth or become active in dealing with the issue. Channel 6 could also tell people when the show would be repeated and how to order the videotape. It could announce upcoming shows on similar topics, even if they were being shown on other channels.

Contribution-based Networks

The media integration could go further than providing information, however. By using the community network's electronic forums, discussions could precede the airing of the show and be integrated into the show itself. Similarly, there could also be on-line discussions after the show, and people who appeared on the show could also be available on-line to answer questions and to facilitate discussion. In this scenario, a television show could be augmented by introducing an additional medium--that of an on-line community network system. By incorporating additional media--including newspapers, radio, and a variety of face-to-face meetings--interesting, exploratory public experiments could be implemented. These experiments have been tried in some locations: "We the People," in Wisconsin, is one example. The "Puget Soundings" project in Seattle, which combines community television, radio, and community networks, is another.

Discussion forums on computer-based systems encourage conversations in which public dialog is constructed in ways unlike that encountered with other information and communication technology. Forums--both moderated and unmoderated--are based on contributions from participants, and each contribution is captured and becomes a permanent part of the forum itself, a record that can be printed or distributed and may contain seeds upon which additional discussion is spawned.

Unmoderated computer-based discussions (and moderated ones to a lesser degree) reject the producer-consumer model. Any potential "consumer" of information, commentary, issues, or questions in an electronic forum is a potential "producer" as well. Compare this to television news programs, where an organization numbering in the hundreds dispenses its version of news to people numbering in the tens of millions. In the United States this consumer-producer ratio has been steadily shrinking in recent years. According to Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley (1992), "twenty-three corporations control most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books and motion pictures."

The current Internet model seriously undermines the "information as commodity" world view. Millions of people routinely supply information--facts and opinions--into a shared and increasingly global knowledge resource. Additionally, new tools such as Mosaic, gopher, MUD software (see Chapter 9), and the like are being distributed without charge. Without direct financial reward, millions of people are making available information, services, and technology that is not only cheaper, but is often of higher quality than the commercial competitors (Schickele, 1993). Whether this model will endure is a matter of speculation, however, as there are strong efforts underway to commercialize many of these services.

The Public Journalism Movement

In the last few years the concept of public journalism has been raised as an alternative approach that could circumvent some of the problems with current mass media (Rosen and Merritt, 1994; Miller, 1994; Austin, 1994). Public journalism promotes a more participatory approach to journalism in which the media acts as an agent to help citizens develop their own agenda and address their own problems. NYU journalism professor, Jay Rosen explains that "the newspaper's willingness to intervene, its concern for the resolution and not just the existence of the dispute, its determination to create discussion where none existed, its aggressive style of proactive neutrality--are all signs of a public journalism approach."

Public journalism strives to be professional and neutral while shifting the focus to solution-driven from problem-driven journalism. For example, when potentially divisive disputes arose in Charlotte, South Carolina between users of a popular city park, the journalists at the Charlotte Observer worked with community members to develop an op-ed page that carried suggestions for solutions and commentaries that reflected the points of views of all the concerned parties. People in the area credit the newspaper with averting a confrontation. The park was reopened the following weekend and a panel was initiated to study the park situation and develop new youth programs.

The Charlotte Observer also launched inquiries into some of Charlotte's systematic problems, such as the city's crime rate, which had risen to nineteenth in the country although its population ranking was thirty-fourth. The city's six-month "Taking Back Our Neighborhoods" initiative combined newspaper and radio coverage, town meetings, and efforts of neighborhood organizations to help understand Charlotte's crime problem and begin devising community solutions.

Two newspapers, the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle and the Charlotte Observer are in the forefront of the public journalism movement, but the effort is spreading to many other locations including Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, and Boston. Many newspapers are active in election issues, in which citizens are being encouraged to develop a political agenda that suits their needs rather than the politicians'.

Although these efforts are far from being commonplace, there are indications that wide-ranging experimentation in new forms of public journalism are happening at the same time that newspapers and other information purveyors like radio stations are "reinventing" themselves. One interesting aspect of this change is that different types of media organizations often collaborate on a project--two rival newspapers, or radio and television stations and a newspaper, for example. Newer electronic forms like e-mail and collaborations with community networks are being explored, and "old-fashioned" venues such as salons and neighborhood parties are being revived as forums for public discussion of civic issues. In Spokane, Washington, the Spokesman Review newspaper purchased pizza for 500 groups that met in local homes and backyards to discuss concerns, hopes, and suggestions for the future of the region. The newspaper published summaries of these meetings and sent the comments to elected officials.

While public journalism is just one aspect of the solution, it is an important one. But public journalism is not without disadvantages and risks. For one thing it may be costlier in some ways because preparing information for use rather than consumption takes more time and demands critical skills. Preparing graphic presentations of statistical information that help convey complex information requires artistic, mathematic, and communication expertise. A more serious danger, however, could come from a media that adopted the mantle of neutrality and public interest while practicing flawed public journalism by presenting information based on false consensus, bias, exclusionary participation, or sloppy reporting. There is no solution to this problem except a new community that expects and demands excellence from the media.

Cooperative Media Explorations

In Seattle, KCTS/9, the local Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliate, has initiated a variety of telecommunications activities as part of their "Puget Soundings" project, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and USWest as part of CPB's Community Wide Education and Information Services (CWEIS) initiative. The Puget Soundings projects are centered around local community-affairs programming. Broadcasts used in the first year have included "TeenTalk," "State Budget 101," "Ask the Governor," and "Act Against Violence: Volunteer." The Seattle Community Network (SCN) will be hosting forums on each, with television program participants agreeing to take part in these forums. Bibliographies and other information will be made available on-line as well. KUOW-FM, the National Public Radio (NPR) station on the University of Washington campus, will also host a series of short shows on the topics. Print media like the Seattle Times newspaper, as well as community newspapers, television stations KCPQ-TV and KYVE-TV, local schools, and libraries are also involved with the project.

The National Capital Free-Net in Ottawa offers another connection to traditional media forums by providing an on-line "Letters to the Editor" section on their community network. Readers send their responses to articles appearing in The Ottawa Citizen, Le Droit, The Hill Times, The Ottawa Xtra! or several others to the community network, which doesn't have the severe space limitations that plague traditional newspapers. Also, the letters can provide a more persistent record on a community network than their print-based counterparts can provide.

This intermedia approach is interesting on several counts. The first, of course, is the heightened public knowledge and engagement over an issue. The second interesting point is that the people themselves will be aware that an important civic experiment is taking place in which they are both observers and observed. Since the issues will be taken up in several different ways by several different media, the public will be in a position to think about how various media presentations--using different technology and reflecting different policies and political persuasions--meet their individual needs.

MISANET: Independent News on a Budget for

Southern Africa

People throughout the world are mounting efforts that attempt to reclaim some local control of the news that their community creates and receives. Southern Africa, home to some of the poorest people in the world, is also isolated from the rest of the world, due at least partially to very high communication costs. A three-minute telephone call from Dar es Salaam to Johannesburg, for example, costs $18.75. A subscription to an international magazine could cost more than half of a journalist's salary. From the perspective of information and communication, citizens of that region are being held hostage to a concentration of newspaper ownership within the region and a handful of news services outside the region. According to their prospectus, "It is a harsh reality that Africa's concept of Africa is mediated by the news agendas of London, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia" (Cohen, 1994).

The Media Institute of South Africa or MISA is a collective of seven independent African newspapers, including the Misa head office (Namibia), the Namibian (Namibia), Nmegi (Botswana), Weekly Post (Zambia), Savana (Mozambique), Weekly Mail (South Africa), and SJA (Angola), that is working to reduce the concentration of media control. Each of these newspapers is struggling financially. Their very low operating budget has forced them into low-tech, low-cost "desktop publishing." The Weekly Mail (now the Weekly Mail and Guardian), for example, was completely typeset on Apple Macintoshes and printed on LaserWriters in 1985. The low cost and relative mobility of this approach helped the paper survive despite several government attempts at closing the paper because of its antiapartheid stance. Building on their experience with home-grown technology, Misa is currently developing an ambitious large-scale, low-cost information and communication infrastructure using network technology to serve independent journalists in Southern Africa.

A wide-range of on-line services has been planned by the collective (Fig. 7.1). These include the standard capabilities like a news photo service of current event photographs and a news wire service with selected articles, to more comprehensive and general capabilities that would help undergird an entire alternative press infrastructure for the region. These projects include a forum on press freedom, a job forum for journalists, and a training forum containing information on education and training opportunities for journalists. Although the primary intention is to strengthen independent media, it is interesting to note that the planned services address almost all the core values of a community network.

Planned Services for MISANET

1. An electronic newsletter

2. A general information exchange forum

3. A contact list of independent media and important institutions in Southern Africa

4. A press freedom forum

5. A job forum for journalists

6. A training forum with information relating to Southern Africa

7. An archive of key media information relating to Southern Africa

8. A photo archive containing current-events photos

9. A news photo service containing current-events photos

10. A news wire service with selected articles from the Southern African independent press

Figure 7.1

 

Although strong political and economic pressures continually nag their efforts, they currently now have some e-mail capability and they publish an on-line "MISA FREE PRESS" (see Appendix B), which carries news of the continuing struggle for freedom of press in South African countries. Their vision--as underscored by the planned services listed in Fig. 7.1-- transcends their current technological achievement and continues to motivate their own labors, while at the same time providing an inspiration to other communities, both rich and poor, large and small.

 

IMAGES AND EFFECTS

Children would probably watch public torture if it occurred on their way home from school, but that does not make public torture in the public interest.

Ben Bagdikian (1992)

We've noted how unresponsive and inattentive the mass media is to community needs. Unfortunately, the situation is often much worse: In many cases the mass media actively battles against civil life and community values. Often the media will place the focus on some aspects of a situation, artificially elevating those aspects while ignoring other possibly more important aspects. National Public Radio senior editor Daniel Schor describes the focus that CBS television executives chose to place on the issue of poverty in the United States when he worked for them: "When I offered stories on abject conditions, news executives came back with demands for stories on welfare cheating and misappropriation of poverty funds" (Schor, 1995). Nowhere is this misplaced focus more obvious than in the media's grotesque fascination with death and violence.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

When a person is murdered, especially if the person was rich or famous or the method itself was particularly gruesome or novel, the gory details are disseminated quickly and easily through the media and, more importantly, into our consciousness. This act of violence becomes central to the lives of many, and society's resources are marshaled toward its reportage, discussion, and judicial and penal ramifications. While the details of one crime are forgotten until the next one occurs, the lingering mood is one of fear and suspicion. The incessant barrage of violence in the media has taken its toll. While crime has actually decreased somewhat in recent years in the United States, people perceive increased danger and hence experience fear and mistrust. Unfortunately, there is no analogous chain reaction or fanning out of influence accompanying the good or humane act. In the words of social critic Neil Postman, we Americans seem to prefer "amusing ourselves to death." Bad news makes good news, but good news is no news at all.

As Bagdikian has pointed out, people will view graphic violence if it's made readily available. It is also known that some people in certain age groups are more likely to gravitate towards violent entertainment than do people in others. According to George Gerbner's research (1994), the ratings of nonviolent television shows are--on the average--higher than of those violent shows and that difference increases as the amount and severity of the violence increases. But younger viewers (who are more desirable to advertisers) seem to prefer the more violent fare, and this provides the financial incentive for continued bloodletting on the screen. Gerbner quotes the producer of the megadeath movie Die Hard 2 as stating that "violence travels well around the world." Jokes might not translate well and sexual themes can run into trouble with local censors, but violence is apparently universal. Exporting boosts the profitability of any television show and violent shows are more likely to be exported. Gerbner's findings reveal that crime/action shows comprise only 17 percent of domestically shown programs but 46 percent of the exported ones. Violent American shows can now be regularly seen throughout the world. Thus, the consciousness of non-Americans is now being altered according to unhealthy stereotypes and distorted views of reality manufactured in the cultural factories of America.

 

Mass Media as Diversion

Carl Jensen of Project Censored (discussed later in this chapter) and others use the expression "junk news" for the wide variety of entertainment (whose subject might include Lady Di, "new" Coca-Cola, or the O.J. Simpson murder trial) that goes under the guise of news. This was anticipated, of course, in 1984, George Orwell's distopian treatise on totalitarian possibilities. In 1984, the production and distribution of cultural material was based on the existence of two distinct social tiers. For party members, the ostensible citizens, the Ministry of Truth supplied "the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels--with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child's spelling book to a Newspeak dictionary." The party member of 1984 corresponds most closely to the intellectual and political elite whose opinions do matter and whose high positions and power make them indispensable allies in maintaining the status quo. For the rest of the people, the masses or proletarians in 1984:

There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole subsection--Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak--engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.

Although private corporations--rather than the state--orchestrate and define current "proletarian culture," the results are remarkably similar to those in 1984. Graphic violence--sometimes coupled with sexuality--is apparently the pornography of choice in present-day America. (The action movie Die Hard 2 featured over one thousand on-screen murders!) Violence and sex can provide a fleeting "sugar high" that removes the person--at least for the moment--from a life of deprivation, boredom, and lack of purpose or meaning. Unfortunately, this approach rarely offers even a glimpse of any social problem or a community response to a community problem. At the same time, it helps breed an entire class of apathetic, uninformed, and disconnected people who are singularly unprepared to deal with community problems.

Beyond Text

While discussion is at the base of a democratic society, new forms of electronic network involving film, video, audio, and computer-manipulated images are becoming increasingly widespread. It is important to consider what effects these new media will have on society and whether they can be used to support the new community. One of the first questions to ask is: Who can participate? Words--both spoken and written--are easily produced by commoners as well as kings. The written form, moreover, is particularly amenable to replication and distribution in books, newspapers, pamphlets, and on community networks.

It should be noted that although text is in itself easily produced and replicated, the average person's access to an audience of potential readers has traditionally been severely limited. This is expressed in the adage about the freedom of the press being limited to those who could afford one. It is this barrier--the distribution barrier--that has been breached by computer-mediated communications. Electronic BBSs, Fidonet echoes, conferences on Usenet, and community networks all provide nearly unlimited forums for the free exchange of ideas using text.

Multimedia information, however, changes the equation. Each aspect of the media system--its form, content, production, distribution, and access--is changed with the increased emphasis on non-textual information in the on-line world, altering the "affordances" in various ways. The first consideration is what can be portrayed by the medium. Postman (1986) argues persuasively that text is ideally suited for ideas and dialogue, while dynamic images (like movies and television) are better suited for entertainment. In terms of production, multimedia artifacts such as movies or television shows have been produced for broadcast by teams of people working together with ample resources. Historically, at least, the more complicated the artifact is, the more expensive it is to produce and distribute, and the more likely it is to be a well-funded corporate effort designed for profitable mass consumption.

It's true that multimedia technology is becoming increasingly available. Prices are dropping rapidly and tools are proliferating that make tasks such as editing video much easier. It's estimated that one in six households in the United States now owns a camcorder, an estimated 16 million having been sold. Since many households do not even own telephones, it seems unlikely that every household will be able to mount its own video productions any time soon. The availability of increasingly affordable and usable technology does mean that community centers, schools, libraries, and public access television centers could lend equipment and provide inexpensive or free training to community members of varying income levels.

A Video Revolution?

Availability is just one part of the picture, however. Another aspect is use. Will people use video technology for democratic and community ends? While there are some examples of that community orientation, much of the evidence suggests that today's camcorder users record "family documentation and ritualistic leisure practices, just as they did with the home movie camera and the Brown Box Brownie," according to media critic Laurie Oulette (1994). Oulette points out that the "video revolution" was hailed as a tool for democracy in other countries such as China and Czechoslovakia, while both the professional media and the video technology producers themselves stress more prosaic use within the United States.

Lastly, there are questions of distribution and demand. While independent video producers have been active for years, their work has been largely ignored. The first problem is distribution: What good is access to the means of production if distribution fails? The other problem is demand. Although it's relatively difficult to see independent and alternative productions, they can be viewed if people are persistent in their efforts. But if the large majority of people would rather "amuse themselves to death," as Neil Postman suggests, then neither increased access nor distribution would make any difference.

 

RECLAIMING MEDIA FOR COMMUNITIES

. . . newspapers are rapidly eliminating their place names. For example, in California, which has more daily papers than any other state, two thirds of all the daily papers have no city name showing on page one of their title.

Ben Bagdikian (1992)

Community-network participants have aspirations, needs, and issues in common. When the community owns the community network, it naturally will reflect these shared values and concerns, promoting creative and useful interaction within the community. As Boston area activists Paul Resnick and Mel King explained in their "Rainbow Pages" telephone-based community-network system essay (Agre and Schuler, 1996).

There is no such thing as a poor community. Even neighborhoods without much money have substantial human resources. Often, however, the human resources are not appreciated or utilized, partly because people do not have information about each other and about what their neighborhood has to offer. For example, a family whose oil heater is broken may go cold for lack of knowledge that someone just down the block knows how to fix it.

Community-oriented information such as "want-ads" on the community network could help address these basic needs. Other useful information includes calendars of events that are searchable by topic and date; bus schedules and routes; disaster preparation advice; carpool information; question and answer forums conducted by doctors, nurses, lawyers, recycling experts, master gardeners, weavers, and automotive mechanics; community maps; and community resources including social services, job banks, and after-school and summer activities for kids and families. Of course, community-networks systems must be readily accessible from public as well as private locations, and they must be free to use or have very low usage fees in order to serve all community members.

People also provide input in subtle ways that makes itself known over time as well. Franois Bar of the Communications Department at the University of California at San Diego tells an insightful story about how important these effects can be.1 Earlier this century--almost impossible to believe in retrospect--the corporate view was that the telephone would play the role now held by phonographs, and phonographs would play the role now held by telephones. In other words, people would record messages in their homes as a type of "audio letter," which they would mail to their friends or relatives. After that they might ring up a number on the telephone and listen to a live concert. According to Bar, it is users who shape the ultimate use of a service or technology, and any attempt by companies to dictate uses in advance would be misguided and financially ruinous.

Bar further believes that the larger the number of users on a future information superhighway, the more services will be developed and enhanced by users. For this reason, network providers should embrace interconnection of their systems to avoid fragmentation of network services that would limit access to these services. Furthermore, Bar explains, telephone companies and other providers should push for universal access as an opportunity that will help them immensely to understand the media, rather than a threat that could hurt their bottom line in the short term.

Communities require community media for a variety of reasons. Ben Bagdikian (1992) has pointed out that national newspapers and television stations cannot adequately report on issues and candidates in each of the 65,000 local voting districts in the United States. Without local community media, people in these districts must rely on political advertisements or no information at all.

The InfoZone

Located high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Telluride, with just over 1500 permanent residents, seems to be an unlikely hub for sophisticated telecommunication use, yet the combination of a high degree of computer ownership and literacy, relatively high income and educational attainment, coupled with a strong interest in the "ecology of the information environment," seems to be providing the necessary ingredients for an ambitious and imaginative project. This project, the Telluride InfoZone, is a community-network system that "intends to be a site-specific pragmatic response to Telluride's needs and desires," according to program director Richard Lowenberg (1995). The community in this case is actually a "community of communities" that includes a wide diversity of people from Montrose, the most populous city in the region (15,000 people), to tiny towns like Placerville and Sawpit. As Lowenberg explains, the Tellurcentric orientation is slowly diminishing as the InfoZone expands to serve the entire region.

Located in a spectacular setting, Telluride is a former mining boom and bust town now embarking on a potentially similar course through skiing and development. Telluride's economy is driven primarily by real estate development. The hope is to become economically more diverse without bringing in pollution or other deleterious side-effects at the same time. A November 1993 Business Week article on telecommuting explains that "the trend is making Telluride, along with other out-of-the-way places, into unofficial testing grounds for the new technology."

The InfoZone offers several telecommunication technologies to the residents of the region. For one thing, it offers a community-network system with free dial-up access. This aspect of the system (which uses the First Class BBS software) is currently used by over 1,000 people (including over 500 Telluride residents--approximately one-third of the city's population) for e-mail, forums, and access to local and Internet information caches. There is also extensive local information that would be useful in a number of different ways, including town council meeting agendas, land-use codes, as well as educational and health-oriented services. Local media have a strong presence on the network as well. Telluride's weekly and daily newspapers both accept letters to the editor on-line and publish articles on-line on an occasional basis. The entire Anonymous Underground Newspaper, an alternative newspaper from Telluride High School, is published on-line (and in hard copy) using the system's only anonymous account, and KOTO, the public radio station in Telluride, has published the transcript of its daily local news program on-line every day since July, 1994. The InfoZone also offers an Internet point of presence to local residents (through Colorado Supernet) and provides support for Web pages (such as the one containing the town map shown in Fig. 7.2) on its Linux (public domain UNIX operating system look-alike) server. Those pages contain information about the Telluride and the regional community and geographic environment, and about the InfoZone's future plans ("conspiracies"). It should also be noted that the InfoZone has established Tetherless Access, Ltd., a TCP/IP spread spectrum wireless system which connects six community public access systems at up to 160 KB to the Internet point of presence.

Lowenberg and his associates are concerned with the physical and community "ecologies" as well as the information "ecology" of the region. Lowenberg explains that he is "a true believer in ecology" who is "interested in our interactive place in the larger environment." Applying this philosophy has many consequences. One example of this is the proposed project to the National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) to provide citizens of the region with critical geographic (GIS) information that will be made available in a variety of formats including tabular and map-based graphical ones. The spatial data will be used for long-term economic and demographic analyses, for growth-management decision-making (which uses watershed, air quality, natural resources, and animal and plant inventory information), as well as for comprehensive regional planning. In addition, they're currently developing a regional cultural master plan on-line.

The Telluride Institute is concerned with research as well as action. Lowenberg stresses that learning is a key aspect of the project that can and must occur through experience. Ecology is a science of interrelationships. Information affects both the internal and external environments, and community networks may help to determine in the future whether these ecologies are harmonious or out of balance.

Plugged In in East Palo Alto

Like many other projects described in this book, Plugged In, located in East Palo Alto, California, is difficult to pigeon-hole. Like other community networks described here, Plugged In uses computer technology to help address its primary mission of supporting the community. Their work is grounded in the belief that low-income communities are at a grave risk of being cut off from economic and other opportunities as new technologies increasingly become key to economic success and political participation. It helps develop educational programs and helps community residents develop their own stories, which are distributed electronically.

East Palo Alto has very little in common with its more affluent neighbor, Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University and one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. East Palo Alto's average family income is approximately one-third of Palo Alto's and its unemployment rate is 31 percent. Eighty-seven percent of children growing up in East Palo Alto qualify for free or reduced-cost school meals. Plugged In offers residents of the East Palo Alto Community a way to become comfortable and adept with the modern and often expensive high-technology equipment that they are unlikely to encounter ordinarily. Plugged In offers access to the technology through introductory workshops and on a drop-in basis.

Plugged In also develops and offers a variety of after-school team programs for children, teenagers, and families. The projects are remarkably congruent with the educational values discussed in Chapter 3. These projects, including Alien Cows, Community Kids Storybook, and Sand Castle Kingdom, are done in groups, are multidisciplinary, help develop critical thinking skills, and facilitate the expansion of the students' world view. The student projects generally engage the "real world" in a critical way. For example, their Proposition 187 Slide Show, available on the Web (Fig. 7.3), presents arguments that show a wide range of negative implications of the restrictive illegal alien bill that was recently passed by California voters. Participants in these programs also developed a critique of how the mass media--particularly the commercial media--portray and target low-income people.

 

MEDIA CONTROL/MEDIA MESSAGES

Every culture has its official folklore. In ancient times medicine men transformed tribal legends to enhance their own status. The twentieth century is no different, but the high priests who communicate mythic dogmas now do so through great centralized machines of communication--newspaper chains, broadcast networks, magazine groups, conglomerate book publishers, and movie studios.

Ben Bagdikian (1992)

Before widespread communication technology, news was much more likely to be informal and community-oriented. A ferry disaster in the North Sea or a bus plunge in Bolivia now are more likely to take center stage. Why do we have the media we do? The answer centers around the issues of who controls the media, how this control is manifested, and how it operates. When these issues are better understood, community members will be in a better position to wrest away some of this control and shape a media that educates, encourages participation, and supports the community.

Ben Bagdikian has probably done more work than anyone else in sounding the alarm on the ever-increasing concentration of ownership of the nation's mass-media systems. Bagdikian documents the trend and describes the danger in the passage below from the 1992 edition of The Media Monopoly.

The highest levels of world finance have become intertwined with the highest levels of mass media ownership, with the result of tighter control over the systems on which most of the public depends for its news and information.

While Bagdikian is immensely concerned about the effects of concentrated ownership on public discourse (charging that "public information" has been reduced to "industrial by-product"), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky go one step further by asserting that "size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media" is but one "filter" of five that together define a model of systematic propaganda, which they feel is required "in a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest" (1988). Although explicit government censorship is lacking, in the United States the dominant role of the mass media today is, in their view, "manufacturing consent."

The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky is as simple as it is chilling. They propose the existence of five major filters that act in powerful ways to define what is news and what isn't and that help ensure that the right "spin" is put on what does get reported.

The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news "filters," fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism.

Herman and Chomsky make it clear that their model is qualitative, not quantitative, and that it isn't total. Individual books, articles, and periodicals attacking government or corporate wrong-doing do get published, but these are exceptions. Chomsky, himself, is booked several years in advance to standing-room-only audiences, yet rarely is noted in the mass media. The fifth point, "anticommunism" as a primary orienting force has recenty lost the force that it's had for the last fifty years. Is there a new ideological orientation that will step in to fill this "void" or will the model survive without one?

There is not room for an exhaustive study of the propaganda model here and so readers are invited to investigate the model on their own. Some of the evidence is stunning. One example, the extent to which the U.S. Air Force contributed to shaping opinions and consciousness in a single year, is listed below.

140 newspapers, 690,000 copies per week

Airman magazine, monthly circulation 125,000

34 radio and 17 TV stations, primarily overseas

45,000 headquarters and unit news releases

615,000 hometown news releases

6,600 interviews with news media

3,200 news conferences

500 news media orientation flights

50 meetings with editorial boards

11,000 speeches

Note that the United States has three other branches of armed forces, each with their own public relations programs. In 1971, the Pentagon was publishing a total of 371 magazines at an annual cost of $57 million. Herman and Chomsky add that in 1968 the Air Force had 1,305 full-time public relations employees in addition to thousands with "public functions collateral to other duties." They note by way of contrast that the American Friends Service Committee, a humanitarian and pacifistic organization of the Quakers, in 1984Ð1985 ran a national office of 11 staff people. It will be interesting to see how the military's vast public relations machine changes in the years following the collapse of communism. Until their media budget is decreased, they will probably continue to be influential, at least in the foreseeable future.

The concept of "flak," the fourth filter of the propaganda model, is an important item to consider. According to Herman and Chomsky it is an attempt to "condition" or shape the media. Flak refers to negative responses to a program or negative statement in the media and is often generated by institutes established for this very purpose. Flak can be a very powerful tool. Faced with it, advertisers can be persuaded to drop their sponsorship or politicians to abandon their political support. Telecommunications technology can greatly aid in flak proliferation and talk radio hosts are well-known for their ability to mobilize their troops to produce flak on demand.

Interestingly, computer networks such as Usenet have historically been somewhat resistant to flak because of two basic factors. The first is the decentralized nature and prevailing attitudes on the net; the second is the lack of experience of corporations and public relations experts regarding the use of computer communication technology.

We may learn, to our dismay, sometime in the near future that the net is not invulnerable to flak. Indeed, it may be particularly susceptible, as many factors work in favor of flak purveyors. Institutions with deep pockets could easily pay people to surf the networks looking for objectionable information. When this information was located, it could be called in question or marginalized in some way by way of a response. More drastic measures might include contacting the poster's employer or school (assuming the person was not posting from a private account or public network). Or a flak purveyor could be under the employ of a large corporation but posing and posting as a private citizen. In this way, the response would probably be interpreted by others as one from a free agent, unfettered by corporate allegiances.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ, 1994) some corporate monitoring of computer networks is already happening. Dell Computer Company and others pay employees to cyberspace-surf electronic bulletin board systems, Usenet newsgroups, and commercial computer networks. They are looking for references to their employer's products in order to help solve customer problems, change negative perceptions, protect the company's reputation, or just to "get bits and pieces" (of relevant information) from a vast, free-floating electronic focus group.

Herman and Chomsky's model effectively destroys the objectivity myth of the media. If the media were somehow neutral, then we should expect an equal number of pundits and hosts and guests from the political left as well as the political right, much as if darts had been used and most choices clustered around the political middle. If that were true, then it might be possible to have a "Rush Limbaugh of the left" with his or her own radio or television show. Surely somebody from the left could be found that could articulate progressive perspectives as well as Limbaugh does for the political right. Historically, popular commentators on the left have been forced out for one reason or another, sometimes to make room for less popular and less knowledgeable ones on the right (Jackson, 1993). Commentators on the right generally support corporate interests and spend their time going after "soft" targets. The targets for attack are rarely corporations or government­business joint interests, but can be immigrants, gays, feminists, environmentalists, African Americans, the poor, the homeless, gang members, or liberals of any stripe. Texas journalist Molly Ivins points out that "Rush [Limbaugh] consistently targets dead people, little girls and the homeless--none of whom can fight back" (Ivins, 1995).

Increasingly, the target of these commentators is government. This is because a weakening of government is seen as a strengthening of business. (Note that the current rallying cry is less government--not better government!) Not only can government's role as regulator (when it does act in that role) be reduced, but government occasionally intercedes, however imperfectly, on the behalf of the poor or the disenfranchised. Bagdikian's research (1992) reveals this tendency:

The pattern is clear in American journalism: In general, items are more likely to be pursued in depth if they portray flaws in the public, tax-supported sector of American life, and less-likely to be pursued if they portray flaws in the private corporate sector.

Accordingly, a local television station in Seattle regularly exposes "waste, fraud, and abuse" in government (offering financial rewards for "tips"), while turning a blind eye to similar problems in the private sector. While pointing out government shortcomings is essential in a democratic society, subjecting the same scrutiny to corporations is also essential. Corporations exert enormous influence on almost all aspects of living and ignoring this powerful force invites tyranny.

Uncivic Discourse

While the traditional media, including daily newspapers, broadcast television, and radio, have intrinsic conservative biases, as Herman, Chomsky, and many others have demonstrated, most politicians and media pundits on the right still prefer to incant the idea that the media is "liberal," possibly because some newspapers or other venues are less right-wing than they are. The large upsurge in popularity of right-wing radio stars, including Rush Limbaugh (on 650 stations nationwide) and scores of other lesser-knowns who boast millions of regular listeners, has succeeded in shifting the fulcrum of political discourse in the United States further to the right. In all major cities, and in many suburban and rural areas as well, one can hear an unbroken chain of radio talk show hosts representing variations on the right-wing point of view.

Rush Limbaugh has helped to transform home-grown, knee-jerk mean-spiritedness into a political movement. Ironically, Limbaugh trumpets the "democratic" aspects of his show. After all, some citizens' voices are heard by other citizens. Since all callers are screened for (right-wing) political correctness, before they're allowed to talk and Limbaugh can hang up at will, there is little question that the agenda is controlled almost entirely by Limbaugh himself. (The format has been called "guestless confrontation.") It is risky placing political faith and judgment in that of a single person--especially one with neither accuracy, objectivity, or empathy to recommend him as a journalist. (See The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Errors, Rendell, Naureckas and Cohen, 1995, for a good compendium of Limbaugh's preposterous inaccuracies and misstatements.) It is particularly dangerous if any significant percentage of the population subscribes uncritically to the mindset of another person, as do Limbaugh's followers, proudly self-proclaiming themselves as "dittoheads."

Limbaugh himself has been outflanked by others more to the right than he is. John Schlosser, "commander" of the Colorado Free Militia, interviewed by Peter Boyles on Denver's KNUS, thinks that Limbaugh is too much an "insider," and many talk-show hosts go well beyond Limbaugh's jocular derision. Chuck Baker, host of Colorado Springs, Colorado, radio station KVOR, regularly mimics the sound of a pistol's firing pin while he rails against the government or discusses shooting members of Congress (Jorgensen, 1995). On "Hot Talk" radio station, KSFO in San Francisco, "General" Michael Savage argues against hiring people with disabilities, while another host, Ken Hamblin, refers to James Brady, who was permanently disabled in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, as "the cripple guy" (Smith, 1995). Although hate talk is protected under the first amendment, there are some things that could be done to improve the situation. However unlikely the current Congress is to enact this type of legislation, something akin to the old "Fairness Doctrine" (in which citizens could demand equal time for rebuttal) could be brought into play again. Barring that, citizens could exert pressure on those stations in various ways, for example by writing letters to station managers and program sponsors.

In addition to the lack of access to the agenda, the complete lack of balance, the day-in and day-out saturation bombing of the nation's consciousness, the talk-show commentators (most are right-wing politically) offer little or nothing that is constructive. When anger, derision, and hate are the operative themes, there is literally nothing to build with. A genuine dialogue on health care, crime, education, the family, or the environment, where citizens rationally discuss programs or ideas, will not be found on "Hot Talk" radio.

Censorship Comes in Many Flavors

A democracy depends on the free flow of information for its survival, and most Americans take vague pride in this freedom without giving the matter much real thought. While overt government censorship surfaces only intermittently (but regularly, the gagging of the press during the Gulf War, for example), other more subtle forms of censorship are more frequent--and just as dangerous--to a democratic society. These include censorship to please a sponsor, a perceived audience, the corporate owners, a political party, or elected officials. When a journalist kills a story or aspects of a story because of anticipated censorship, that is a form of self-censorship. When an audience refuses to hear one side of a story, that is also self-censorship. When a society allows a full rein of censorship activities to cut across all aspects of their media--as described in the Herman/Chomsky model--that too, is self-censorship.

The influence of advertisers on the "free press" should not be overlooked or underestimated. A study published in the journal Editor and Publisher (Kerwin, 1993) reveals the extent of this phenomenon. Of the 150 editors surveyed, 93 percent stated that advertisers tried to influence the content of newspaper stories and 71 percent reported that advertisers had tried to kill some stories entirely. Thirty-seven percent of the editors admitted that on occasion they themselves had succumbed to the pressure. Interestingly, the pressure used did not always come directly from the advertiser. Fifty-five percent of the editors acknowledged that there was pressure from within their own organizations to tailor stories to better suit the (presumed) needs of the advertisers.

Why are these forms of censorship dangerous? For one reason, those acts of censorship often are directly related to miscarriages of democracy. For example, one of the "most censored" stories (Jensen, 1993) involves the tracking of big donors of George Bush's 1992 election campaign. Not only were many of the donations over the legal limit, but many were tied to direct favors in the form of appointments to ambassadorships and federal advisory appointments, high-level intervention on regulatory matters, and import-export assistance. Censoring this type of news for any reason is detrimental to the democratic process, as it shields offenders from the necessary scrutiny that citizens and media must focus on our government.

In 1976, Bantam Books published Inside the Company (Agee, 1976), a book on the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which the United States government reviewed prior to publication. Governmental censors prevailed and the book was published with many blank sections sprinkled throughout (the entire unexpurgated book was available in Canada). The lawyers for Bantam persisted in ongoing efforts to have excised text replaced and each legal challenge resulted in the appearance of more text, which the publisher usefully printed in boldface to make it easier to find.

Since 1976, Carl Jensen, of Sonoma State University in California, has located those bits of text that the American mass media purveyors have chosen to leave blank, and published them in a form of boldface. His book, Censored! The News That Didn't Make the News and Why (1993), not surprisingly, was rejected by over fifty publishers. Every year Jensen solicits nominations for the "top-ten" stories, which are then voted on by a panel of judges. (Incidentally, they decide on the top-ten "junk-food news stories" as well--those news stories that had received high visibility while providing little or no value.) In addition to providing a small "oversight committee" to the gigantic media industry by showcasing important forgotten stories, Project Censored provides support to fledgling reporters by disseminating "hot tips." Since the distribution of censored news stories, the "hot tips," and other information is a major problem, low-cost access to networks could play a major role. Jensen has begun to explore various approaches and has recently made some of this material available on the World Wide Web (see Appendix B).

Increasingly, cyberspace is becoming the battleground of new censorship issues. In the Washington State legislature, for example, a "decency" bill that would make it virtually impossible to run any on-line service that allowed unscrutinized conversation among adults and minors is being pushed. It is fueled by fears of largely imaginary enemies, especially a legion of "pedophiles" that presumably haunt cyberspace. Prodigy and the other major commercial services have already wrestled with this issue and the First Amendment apparently lost the match. All messages intended for forums are screened first by in-house censors. This is why users can only post in English on some commercial networks!

Commercial Networks

Apple Computer and Microsoft each have recently begun network services of their own. Microsoft will be bundling client software that communicates with its on-line Microsoft Network into its new operating system (OS) Windows 95. This will enable users of the new OS to nearly effortlessly communicate with Microsoft Network only, which is much like buying a television set or radio that only receives signals from stations that are licensed or otherwise approved by the television or radio manufacturer. Whether Apple or Microsoft uses censors to police the language of its users (or to determine whether their "cyberspace citizenship" should be revoked) will depend to some degree on whether "anti-decency" legislation similar to that originally proposed by Senators Exon (of Nebraska) and Gorton (of Washington) becomes a reality, on the policies established by the owners (the "new lords of cyberspace"), and also by the users themselves, who have vast potential, though typically somnambulant, clout.

The Microsoft Network developers are carefully blending a collection of special interest providers--including Christians, martial arts aficionados, womens' rights activists, New Age spokespeople, animal lovers, magicians and on-line merchandisers (including both QVC and Home Shopping Network) into a cybernetic brew that they hope will entice the public onto their information super-tollroad. Commercial services typically return a percentage of the money that they've earned from users at home to the service providers who've successfully lured the user to their neck of the cyberspacial woods. Whether or not a service provider is allowed to set up shop on the network will largely depend on how much revenue that service will bring in. Thus in the new commercial on-line services, as with television and other mass media, the ability to derive income (along with ideological preferences of the owners) will determine the shape of the "on-line community" in a commercial network. Because the bottom line is the dominant criteria for the on-line content and the mix of offerings is being assembled at corporate offices, the commercial network is as close to an on-line community as a shopping mall is to a real community.

In the conclusion to his chapter "Public Information as Industrial By-Product" in his book, The Media Monopoly (1992), Ben Bagdikian explains the main problem with media monopoly (of which the commercial on-line networks might ultimately be part). "The deeper social loss of giantism in the media is not in its unfair advantage in profits and power; this is real and serious. But the gravest loss is in the self-serving censorship of political and social ideas in news, magazine articles, books, broadcasting and movies." A democratic society demands open communication of ideas. Censorship--through either government or corporate imperative--invites fear and ignorance, both strong enemies of a civil society.

 

NEW AND ALTERNATIVE VOICES

As important and powerful as private capital and the state are, there is a third, potentially more decisive force. It has been called "people power." It is the American people, ultimately, who will have to decide.

Herbert Schiller(1989)

Many people believe that community networks can help increase the strength of "people power" and that community networks can provide a much needed participatory media that is relatively free of government or corporate control. People power should also address and support diversity of opinion. Any idea at odds with conventional wisdom--enforced by either custom or by law--is a dissenting idea. Dissenting ideas have included Galileo's belief that the earth rotated around the sun; that women should be allowed to vote; or that African Americans should be able to ride at the front, middle, or back of the bus, at their discretion. Any current dominant belief was once a dissenting belief.

Paper Tiger Television

Developing a critical consciousness about the communications industry is a necessary first step towards democratic control of information resources.

The power of mass culture rests on the trust of the public. This legitimacy is a paper tiger.

The Paper Tiger Collective(1991)

In the evenings, viewers of New York City's public access television stations in all five boroughs can flip to the weekly Paper Tiger Television (PTTV) show and see a welcome and unpredictable exception to the corporately controlled product that generally defines television in the United States. PTTV is the product of a collective of media activists whose specialty is producing Alice in Wonderlandlike "media about media." Hence their programs are often about other programs or other aspects of mass media, including television soap operas, talk shows, the portrayal of primates in National Geographic, the media packaging of the Gulf War, a seven-part dissection of the New York Times (by Herbert Schiller, who calls the Times "the steering mechanism of the ruling class"), race relations in "Star Trek," or high school students' reaction to the television program "Beverly Hills 90210." Their programs on cyberspace (in which they ask various New Yorkers on the street for directions to the information superhighway) raise many important issues about access and use of telecommunications technology. PTTV programs generally begin with the rhetorical, "It's 8:30 p.m. (or whatever time it happens to be). Do you know where your brains are?" and end with a blackboard that shows the episode's budget (Fig. 7.4), a ridiculously minuscule amount, especially when compared with other media offerings.

"Professionalism in broadcasting" states NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, "systematically spoils the audience for anything other than the current level of slickness" (1994). PTTV helps to reverse this by throwing away the book on how to create professional television shows: Their titles are often hand-printed, cues can be heard, and the crew can be seen. Instead, they've written their own book: ROAR! provocatively subtitled "Rarely Organized, Always Radical" (Paper Tiger Collective, 1991), an invaluable guide to television media activism that is now available on Paper Tiger's Web site. ROAR! contains essays on media activism as well as helpful hints on using camcorders, building backdrops, and developing programs that aren't cut from a corporate cookie-cutter.

Although PTTV may have a limited impact, there are some valuable lessons for community-network developers. The first is that it is possible, and sometimes desirable, to do things inexpensively. A community network can't compete with blockbuster motion pictures of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg costing tens of millions of dollars. The second lesson is that professionalism and its accompanying high costs can actually be damaging to the "third places" that Oldenberg describes, whether electronic or actual. A third lesson is that media work can be alternative, creative, and fun. The PTTV collective has been following their principles and making programs that aren't cut from the mainstream cloth for nearly 15 years. The last lesson is that perseverance is important; it will always be a struggle to develop alternative media.

SF Free Press, SHRED, and the Vocal Point

The Internet has long offered the potential for new types of publishing enterprises. In recent years, the World Wide Web has helped to realize that potential by providing a simple way to access information on remote computers without passwords or knowledge of arcane UNIX commands. The information also is more accessible since it now can include graphics and, increasingly, sound or video. As the following three examples demonstrate, the World Wide Web can allow people and groups who traditionally have not been able to reach a wide audience to make their stories broadly available (without guaranteeing delivery, of course) to millions of people that point Web-browsing software in the direction of their site.

In early 1995, the workers at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper went on strike. Normally, when newspaper employees are on strike the newspaper isn't published until the strike is over or the striking workers are replaced. This time, however, the striking newspaper employees took advantage of the World Wide Web capabilities on the Internet and published an abbreviated "Strike Special Edition" of the San Francisco Free Press, which was available to anyone in the world with a Web browser on the Internet (Fig. 7.5).

Gay skateboard-riding political activists living in San Francisco's Skid Row rarely have a platform from which they can expound their views on politics, living in the city, or on anything else, for that matter. However, SHRED, a "general purpose skaters' (as in skateboard) union," using the World Wide Web, told the story of the rough and tumble neighborhood in which they live and gave their advice on political activism and working the media (as it related to their urban squatting actions in a derelict absentee-owned warehouse in the Yerba Buena area of San Francisco). Also, in a report replete with photographs, they described their ill-fated visit to an "incredibly stupid" Skin Heads' picnic in Napa Valley.

High school newspapers are rarely noted for high circulation or relevance. The K-12 students of the Boulder Valley school district, however, seem to have succeeded at both with the electronic edition of The Vocal Point (Fig. 7.6) that's available on the World Wide Web. According to their home page on the Web, "The newspaper creates a forum in which the youth of Boulder can express their ideas and be heard ... throughout the world." The monthly Vocal Point covers topics of immediate and looming importance to high school kids, including reflections on violence, racism, and employment after high school. The October 1994 edition that I perused contained articles such as "White Supremacy on the Rise," "Do computers and violence mix?," and "Is TV too violent?"

As a medium of communication, the World Wide Web is more like television than e-mail could ever be. The Web provides the electronic ocean for "Web surfing" just as television provides the opportunity for channel surfing as a way to idly (and often passively) wend your way through a wide range of attractive choices. (Television, we are told, will have 500 channels, while the World Wide Web is currently orders of magnitude more complex and growing more so every day.) The World Wide Web is changing quite rapidly; new versions of the software will go beyond the book-page metaphor, and developers are exploring new modes of interactivity between the Web page owners and the Web page users.

There are, finally, two major issues that relate to the efficacy of Web "publishing" for small, independent, and alternative publishers. The first is the question of quality of information and interactivity. To what degree is the Web turning into a new type of television? The second issue is visibility. Because the amount of information available on the World Wide Web is increasing exponentially, the current visibility enjoyed by publishers such as the three examples just mentioned will probably decline. Although independent and alternative information will probably still exist, the staggering quantity of other information, often of a commercial nature, will probably make it increasingly marginal and invisible as time goes on.

 

AGENDA FOR ACTION

Don't hate the media. Become the media.

Jello Biafra

Current information and communication systems suffer from problems that are profoundly disturbing to those concerned about a "free press" in the United States and around the world. Modern media systems (including television, radio, newspapers, and magazines) have been--until very recently--almost entirely distributed through broadcast. They are one-way channels in which citizens are consumers--consumers of a melange of information including realistic murder, rape, and robbery dramatizations, insipid situation comedies, game shows, deodorant and cat food and automobile commercials, and--sometimes--useful information, worthwhile dramatic fare, or educational programming. At the same time, this broadcast stream is owned by fewer (private) companies than ever before. There is virtually no two-way conversation nor community influence or input. While telephones are used by individuals, their use in nearly all cases is limited to a two-person conversation. Until recently, there has been very little in the way of many-to-many communication. Until the advent of "Cyberspace" there has been virtually no "public space" in the vastness of the media galaxy.

Tom Grundner, the originator of the Cleveland Free-Net and the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) describes community networking as a "fourth media." "It's not radio, It's not television, It's not print, but it has characteristics of all three"(NPTN, 1992). He explains that the main difference is that community networks are interactive and that "People can interact with each other and with the issues of the day." Community networks, as Grundner explains, can provide an opportunity to help redefine media, to make it more responsive to individuals and their communities, and to allow more people to participate. This means free or very inexpensive fees and it means free public terminals--in bus stations, homeless shelters, schools, cafes, and retirement homes. From the policy side, it means that forums should exist where anybody can post, and that forums should be relatively easy to establish. Special attention should be paid to marginal voices, alternative voices, and voices not generally heard, so that they can be heard in an unfettered way. While community computer networks may serve as a good focus for new community media, it is clear that "ordinary" citizens need to involve themselves in all facets of the media world if it ever is to become more responsive and democratic.

Opening up communications and information along these radical lines poses threats to civil and community well-being in addition to providing promise. (Theodore Roszak has said that computers are now a "mature technology" in that they provide as much negative potential as positive potential!2) In the "good old days" before computer-network technology, newspapers (such as the New York Times) could be trusted to publish a collection of written reports every day that had some degree of accuracy, using words that were spelled correctly and sentences that generally followed the grammatical guidelines of Strunk and White. There is a danger that information might be less accurate, less reliable (in terms of regularity and timeliness) and less "objective" when every information consumer can also be an information provider. It will become increasingly important (as if life wasn't complicated enough already!) for citizens to sift through conflicting reports, weigh evidence, entertain tentative hypotheses while maintaining a healthy media awareness and skepticism, without becoming stubborn and reflexive. Citizens also will need to learn how to become "good media citizens" by learning how to behave in new information commons.

But a community network is more than a sounding board for individuals (although it is that). A community network can be a tool for the community as a whole and can be used to address community needs using community assets. The community must "own" the community network both legally and psychologically. The community network should be a part of the community, like a park, public market, or familiar landmark. At the same time, the network's communication and information base can be integrated with other media to encourage more public and responsible journalism and politics.

Minimum Community Media Requirements

While super high bandwidth networks, video on-demand, and telemedicine are grabbing the headlines, a wide phalanx of what Community Technology Institute Pat Barry call "rearguard technology" (Fig. 7.7) now exists. Government and business spokespeople, as well as some representatives of public interest organizations, are inclined to focus on the allure of the newest technology to articulate their vision. At the lower end, the "rearguard" are a variety of developers who are working to develop the minimum set of services that could be provided at very low cost to all. This road is ultimately the most difficult, the least glamorous, and the most radical, for its beneficiaries are often the least advantaged. Unfortunately, this approach has precious few effective spokespeople. With this perspective, tasks are grounded in real life--not in some ambiguous future where fancy technology (with no apparent human intervention) magically vanquishes societal ills. These visions--all motivated by similar dreams--form the basic infrastructure for what might be deemed universal access in the electronic age. These visions, as a unifying and collective vision, form a technologically viable and relatively inexpensive base for the media of new communities. History is littered with failed and flawed prognostications of new community-based democratic eras ushered in by communications technology. Walt Whitman in 1856 wrote about the "electric telegraphs of the earth" and "the filaments of the news" (Czitrom, 1982), while years later both radio and television were touted as harbingers of a golden age. Communications technology can be used to help build a platform for human aspirations, but if history is any guide and if current players prove anywhere as powerful as they appear, the success of this vision is far from guaranteed.

 

Varieties of Community Technology

Model

Example

Universal Voice-Mail

Community Voice-Mail

Community Computing Centers

Playing to Win

Community Networks

Seattle Community Network

Homemade Television

Paper Tiger TV

Community Television

Davis (California) Community Television

Community Radio

KBIA (New York City)

Non-commercial Wire Service

Interpress (headquartered in Rome)

Community Network Services Sharing

NPTN Cybercasting

Public Ownership of Delivery Channels

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Figure 7.7

 

History is littered with failed and flawed prognostications of new community-based democratic eras ushered in by communications technology. Walt Whitman in 1856 wrote about the "electric telegraphs of the earth" and "the filaments of the news" (Czitrom, 1982), while years later both radio and television were touted as harbingers of a golden age. Communications technology can be used to help build a platform for human aspirations, but if history is any guide and if current players prove anywhere as powerful as they appear, the success of this vision is far from guaranteed.


 

D Schuler, NEW COMMUNITY NETWORKS, 1996 Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc.

Reproduced by permission of Addison Wesley Longman. All rights reserved.

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