The Gap

* Currently, the present battleground for artistic space in media, is along the boundaries of the emerging Internet. Definitely the gap between hype about this new media and its present reality is enormous. Points of view have split off into strong neo-Luddite and counter-Luddite camps, while enormous fortunes are being made and lost. Technical knowledge needed to make a truly creative use of the Internet is often restricted to those with strong University/Corporate connections. Widespread computer literacy is being hampered by inertial resistances much like print literacy was with the advent of print culture.

Much of this 'esoteric' technical knowledge is in a special, obfuscating language which requires a long, and Masonic-like initiation rite to totally grasp. The 'how-to-do-it' FAQ articles and easy-to-read popular books (which are being published by the landfill-fulls) are often at such a simple level, that the techniques which they described have already become tedious cliches. One could argue that this kind of information is purposely obscured by those few who want to remain in control over the landscape of their economic investments, much like the science of celestial mechanics needed for navigation was kept obscure by the maritime trading companies in the 17th century.

The issues which are presently being raised about the Internet concerning empowerment and creative freedom are the same that have been brought up many times before with previous forms of media 'revolutions.' Charles Bernstein points out in his essay, 'WARNING -- POETRY AREA: Publics Under Construction,' that there is always only a very small amount of public space ever available to a society in which 'new' or 'difficult' works are allowed to survive. The duty and responsibility of any artist therefore is to probe society's blind spots and weak areas -- to seek out those nooks and crannies where forms of expression that run counter to the status quo can grasp a foot hold. An artist then has to struggle to maintain these areas, keep them open by sheer will and force of mind. They have to nourish whatever may spring up in order that the gap does not collapse and individual expression as whole is crushed out of existence. That a new technology will allow such spaces to widen because of its supposed increased capabilities to communicate is a misconception. With such expanded capabilities (actual, speculated, or hype) is the very real increase in power to monitor for non-standard forms of expression which are contrary to the goals of those selling the new media.

Obviously, the system which supports such a new service will want to recoup its investment. The Internet, like all the electronic media forms proceeding it, is not about the distribution of new ideas, education, or any of the other myths which we use to delude ourselves that something is not just good old fashion supply and demand economics. Much of what we see now on the World Wide Web resembles a street plastered with bill boards and posters telling us to 'Buy More Stuff.' Highly touted innovative Web uses such as interactive serial fiction sites (for example, The Spot), exploit the expressive potentials of hypertext in a sophisticated and seductive manner. Yet, they have a distinct resemblance to nineteen fifties TV situation comedies (such as 'Burns and Allen' and 'Jack Benny') in the way that they work a product which they are advertising into the story-line.

In Martin Spinelli's essay, 'Radio Lessons for the Internet,' he makes the argument that the same utopian rhetoric which was once used to promote radio is now being used sell everyone on the Internet:

Three common aspects arise in a close examination of the independent popularization of radio and the Internet: (1) the emergent medium is instilled with hopes of initiating utopian democracy, providing for universal and equal education, and bringing a sense of belonging to a community; (2) cultural investment in these hopes is encouraged by people in power and exploited for commercial gain; and (3) the rhetoric of these promises obfuscates any real understanding of the material place of the emergent medium in society (such as who has knowledge of its use, how is it used, how is it produced, how is it consumed, how it addresses both basic and inessential needs) and ultimately defuses any potential for social change the emergent medium might have had.

Spinelli goes on to point out that the founders of the use of radio as a public media, conceived of it not as a public service but a consumer product, and that the radio networks which developed were owned by the same people who sold the radios to the public:

David Sarnoff, the future president of National Broadcasting Company, is often given credit for being the visionary employee of the Marconi Company who first imagined popular radio. In 1916, in a letter to the company's general manager, he described the "Radio Music Box" which would "make radio a 'household utility' in the same sense as the piano or phonograph." This letter, notably empty of ideas of public service, concludes with a generally overlooked table of projected radio sales which figures that $75 million can be made selling radio sets in the first three years they are put on the market. This document of the seminal moment in American radio shows only a profit motive driving the production of radio.

A related issue here is bandwidth. Access to Internet bandwidth mimics the stratification of society. Those at the bottom have the slowest possible connection with complete desynchronization of image, sound, thought, and action. The Internet that is usually represented in the commercial media, is one which only exists for the select few. Reasonable synchronization of image and sound which barely equals the quality of our older consumer media is still a somewhat costly proposition at the moment. It is a situation which does not appear to have any great improvements on a general level in the immediate future.

Being sold on the belief that slow-scan, black and white video and inferior, low bit rate audio is 'better' because it coming from your personal computer connected to your phone line, makes for some rather curious television and magazine advertisements. We are being sold much the same stuff that we can get from the other medias, only at much poorer resolutions and access times, and we are made to believe that 'it is better' in some way.

True, accelerated bandwidths via high-speed protocols that allow reasonable quality audio and video to be transferred over a network do exist such as with MBONE(Multicasting backbone) and ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), though it will be several years before such capabilities will be accessible by the general public. Meanwhile Internet traffic is spiraling out of control at logarithmic rates and overall net performance moves closer to a stand still.

Faster and more powerful consumer machines that are constantly dropping in price are sold by the hype that they have improved Internet performance. While in actually, the 28.8K baud limit of the home consumer phone line is hardly adequate for many Internet needs -- it is too slow except for the poorest display of video or near-unintelligible audio. Downloading files that can be played later at higher rates, is also an enormously slow process as well. Waiting around for Web pages with elaborate graphics, numerous links, etc. to 'come up' on a slow phone connection is a lot like watching the grass grow. This does not preclude the possibility for someone to do works in a low-tech 'funk,' parody sort of vein with this kind of crippleware technology. However, for those hooked on the need for more bandwidth and speed, the next step in connectivity is ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), but this is a costly exercise for the average home consumer who is already overburdened with monthly utility and entertainment charges. ISDN is an improvement over the standard phone line audio modem, but not near fast enough to allow the transfer of information which would match the data rates of the mere common, house-hold variety TV.

What one is paying for with all this they are told, is the interactivity, though there is the question of what one is suppose to do with such interactivity once they get it. This technology is being sold from a 'bottom to up' approach -- it is an answer waiting for a question. That one can have all this functionality and freedom does not automatically create a new form of expression. As we have been saying here, the older known forms of expression are going to be exploited first. So naturally, we see the Internet being used to transmit pornography (the most common first use of any new technological form) and the rehashed concepts extracted from slick magazines and old television.

For artists on a shoestring budget, access is not exactly impossible, however the limited resources are often exhausted rather quickly when such access is attempted. Much of the artistic access to high-speed network connections tend to be curiosities or demonstrations of a particular protocol's capabilities rather than a new development in art. They have a transitory existence like the simulcast quadraphonic radio/video broadcasts of the seventies or the occasional broadcast of 3-D TV for which one could get the special polarizing glasses as part of some advertising gimmick. To prevent such net experiments going the way of these previous technical curiosities, one would hope that such events would be continued so that the net would not become as closed and incestuous as the other media forms.


Last Modified 28 January 1998