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Content '96. May 16, 1996

Remarks by Larry Daressa, California Newsreel

If asked to describe what independent media will look like in ten years. I'd have to say that it will be totally unrecognizable but in all essential ways unchanged. I'm not simply invoking the old French bromide plus ça change, plus ça même chose. This paradox is rooted in the fact that we live in an age of technological revolution but social stagnation and even reaction. What makes independent producers independent is not that we are independent of the dominant technical infrastructure, but of the dominant social and cultural discourse (namely the market.) Independents are marginal and will remain marginal as long as social change is marginal and as long as civic society is eclipsed by consumer society. If there were a commercially viable audience for our products, then commercial interests would presumbably service those markets - probably more efficiently than we could. Independents' problem has never fundamentally been the technological problem of access, of means for reaching an audience; rather, it has been the political problem of developing an audience, a community, which will welcome the opportunity to use programming outside the commercial media culture. Therefore I'd like to use this opportunity not to predict the effects of new technology on independent media but to suggest ways we can proactively shape this technology to overcome our present marginalization and help build a more robust civic culture.

From these comments it should be clear that I am not a technological determinist. I'm suspicious of all technological Utopias (and Dystopias) because I believe they distract independent producers and media activists generally from our main challenges which remain political and social. I am neither an Information Age Cassandra warning that the Information Superhighway will pave over free expression in this country nor a CyberSiren singing the praises of interactive technology as the salvation of democracy. Four times already in this disillusioning century, with the coming of film, radio, television and cable, we have heard the "blue skies" promises of the avatars of a telecommunications Utopia and each time been disappointed. For many of its proselytes, new information technology is not just a deus ex machina as a machina ex deo, a machine from God, which will magically create audiences for independent work. Anyone who thinks that the latest technological revolution will be any more enlightened than the previous four is either extremely credulous or has a vested interest, psychological or financial in new technology. We might formulate a new law governing the social impact of new technology which we might call, borrowing from a fortuitous pun, the Law of Mediacrity. It would hold that new media will be no more or less mediocre than the society which implements it; it will merely amplify (or translate into a new medium) the existing conversations of that society.

I would suggest we need to focus not on the technology of the new interactive, multi-media platforms of the future but on their purpose. We need to explore non-commercial uses of new media, uses of the media which bring people together as users not viewers to develop active, dynamic communities. The problem, as I see it, is not primarily the creation of a consumer market for independent work but of a reinvigorated civic sector, an anti-market, which will want to use media not as a commodity or consumer good but for social and personal transformation. Similarly, we need to rethink the concept of audience (literally listeners) from passive consumers to potentially active citizens, from individual viewers to members of a community. Media activists' efforts and independent producers' creativity need to shift from radicalism in the content of the production, to radicalism in the context in which that production is received and used.

Independent producers have, not surprisingly, tended to fetishize production or programming as the most important component of an independent media. Independent distributors have similarly privileged the distribution systems for these programs as the key element for reaching new audiences. But the intrinsic problem confronting any independent media (a problem intrinsic in our very virtue of being an alternative to the mainstream, the hegemonic discourse) is that we are, in a sense, making films for an audience which only exists in potential - and sometimes only in our imaginations. I am suggesting that we reverse our focus from finding an audience for our programs, to making programs which can develop new audiences for a new civic sector. When we speak of audience development therefore we should not be thinking primarily about developing an audience for our work but of developing in that audience, through media, the capacity and motivation to build a new, civic society. Thus independent work can only be guaranteed an audience if it becomes dependent and accountable to the task of building these new audiences and alternative contexts for using media.

Thus I think our ultimate challenge is to build communities not audiences. Not just any communities, but communities explicitly joined together to explore new more empowering identities, joined together around concrete community or personal development goals. We need to organize the interactive, multi-media platforms of the future around communities of interest such as parenting, education, neighborhood improvement, immigration, recovery, aging, unemployment. Thematically-based sites would find a ready audience in existing community-based organizations and, in turn, could potentially provide the communications infrastructure for emerging civic dialogues and movements. The organizers of these sites would see media not as an end in itself but as closely integrated into pre-existing community development efforts. It is for this reason that I remain skeptical of current efforts to start an independent or progressive channel. A channel organized as an "alternative to the mainstream media" or a "progressive response to right-wing programming" rather than around a concrete, broad-based civic activity, would tend to attract only those who already identified themselves as progressive. It might be alternative television but it would still just be television, only the content would be changed.

These civic sector sites would bring together a range of media formats of different degrees of interactivity and a variety of information providers, many of whom are not presently thought of as media producers. Some public broadcasters are beginning to call these multi-media community service platforms "teleplexes." They intend to open up these community service "neighborhoods" or platforms to non-profit groups in their geographical areas. I'm suggesting that we expand this idea of local teleplexes to include national organizations and at the same time narrow their focus to specific areas of organizing. Such sites would not just be platforms but highly structured environments, analogous to community centers or schools. A given site, let's use the example of one dedicated to daycare, could contain bulletin boards and a chat room for daycare providers, scholarly journals on childhood development, a 'zine produced by teleplex members, a daily newsletter from HEW, interactive in-service training courses, small business advice and systems, a consumer's guide to childcare products, local listings of centers, jobs and ride-sharing, games or activities for down-loading, a political lobbying organization for daycare providers and consumers, in addition to conventional linear videos on child-rearing. These teleplexes would not need to be programmed by one centralized entity like a television network; rather they would link research institutes, community service organizations, government agencies, grassroots membership organizations and net users in an open-ended process of community development. But they would also need to be carefully integrated with each other and the teleplex would continually have to reinforce and redefine a clearly articulated user identity.

Obviously, linear video, like previous technologies, for example, books and radio, will survive, though in a less hegemonic role, this new telecommunications regime. But the existence of these new contexts for viewing (or, more properly, using) could also stimulate certain innovations in linear video programming itself. Some observers point out that linear video need no longer be experienced as a self-contained viewing experience over which the viewer has little control; viewers can now not just consume video but edit, excerpt, intercut and otherwise interact with it non-linearly. Independent producers' stories will no longer require closure, rather they can be just proleptic moments, even footnotes, in larger stories which net-users are telling and writing for themselves and for their communities. At the same time, I think most viewers will have little trouble resisting the temptation of becoming videographers. Instead, I think the most significant change for producers will be that our programming will be experienced not just in theaters or submerged in the daily television schedule but will flow out of and back into larger, structured environments with well-defined community objectives. This can only increase the social effectiveness of our productions. They will no longer dissipate into the ether of post-modern hyper-reality but can be directly linked to concrete opportunities for civic involvement. And we will have the perhaps dangerous opportunity to have the actual social impact of our work evaluated more accurately.

It is, however, inevitable that this focus on the audience itself, on its self-development and subsequent social action, will result in a certain subordination of the media text or program to the audience's own creative readings or use of it. This self-effacement is the price media makers must pay if we are to convert a media consumer into a media citizen. As a corollary to this subordination of the text to its context, one can even envision a situation where the conceptual framework, the "user personality" a teleplex interpellates, could be at least as significant as the information or content to which it provides access. I'm not talking here simply about the user-friendliness of the platform or the power of its navigational tools - though these will be essential. Rather, what may distinguish the successful teleplex from the merely functional will be how excitingly and usefully it joins together its various multi-media applications around a larger, well-defined community project, social identity or personal quest. The teleplexes which flourish will be the ones that can develop the new social roles, skills and interconnections which can build dynamic, participative, civic communities. It would, again, be naive to believe this would happen through spontaneous generation out of the technological élan vital of the net, without some sort of deliberate political intervention. In an age of increased access to proliferating sources of information, the need for professional packaging, curating, indexing and promotion increases rather than decreases. In an age of increased interactivity, the need for skillfully focused networks only becomes more critical.

Therefore the role of independent mediamakers can no longer be limited to expressing our own point of view, or to speaking for the voiceless or even to giving the voiceless a chance to speak for themselves. Rather we must develop the heuristic environments in which people can learn to say more useful things about themselves. These teleplexes must become places these communities can discuss not just who they've been but who they'd like to be - and develop the concrete programs to make this happen. System architects must design environments which encourage these kinds of social interactions. System moderators must constantly shape amorphous conversations into focused dialogues, pointing out relevant resources and sub-sites along the way. Contrary to popular wisdom, the outstanding creative talents, the real innovators, of these new multi-media platforms may therefore not be the content providers so much as the editors, moderators and architects who provide the context, the discursive regimes, in which that information is used and alone can achieve meaningful independence and real life.

Independent producers and distributors, such as myself, may well not be the people best qualified by temperament or education to develop these new interactive civic spaces. After all, the filmmakers craft has traditionally been to absorb audiences into our stories or arguments not to integrate our programs self-effacingly into our audiences' own lives and thoughts. Nonetheless, those of us irrevocably condemned to linear video will have an important role to play as one among an ensemble of media technologies. There is no need to wait until these multi-media platforms are in place to develop these teleplexes: that would again be to presume that social change could be technologically driven. We can begin to form these networks now, on the internet, through PEG channels, even through thematically focused videocassette distribution. But it does require that we begin to think of ourselves not so much as independent producers or cultural advocates as grassroots organizers helping to reconstruct vigorous civic organizations through new civic fora in cyberspace. This in no way means surrendering our independence from the dominant commercial culture and marketplace, only our isolation from the audiences we purport to serve or create. It means generating projects not just out of personal passion but from a hard-headed assessment of the most urgent media needs of particular communities. It means designing projects not just to win festival prizes but to fit most conveniently and effectively into the actual daily tasks of community building. The next ten years will undoubtedly witness a revolution in media technology; it remains for us - among many others - to determine whether it will be matched by a corresponding change in its social function.

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