published by www.creativedisturbance.com
In 1991, Francis Coppola said: "To me the great
hope is that now these little video recorders are around and people
who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And
suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the
new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder
and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be
destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form."
Pretty liberal stuff from the guy who once owned
the sixth largest helicopter fleet in the world, in the name of
professional filmmaking. I doubt the little girls allowance
she receives from her father would cover that. But the dream that
Francis Coppola articulates so well has been a major driving force
in high-tech R&D labs for several decades.
This dream, often attributed to social philosopher
Ivan Illich, is where the means of production and the means of distribution
are symmetrical, in terms of access to tools. He called this dream
"conviviality." Conviviality, it was argued, is the key
to open the doors of creativity and empowerment. The relationships
among conviviality, creativity, and empowerment are complex and
noteworthy. History has some lessons and the future hinges around
some of these issues.
Perhaps the first big dose of contemporary conviviality
came with the birth of portable video in the late 1960s. Sony
released the PortaPak, the first affordable video camera. Artists,
educators, journalists, and independent filmmakers believed this
was the beginning of the end of television: No more junk programming,
we could now control what we watched by making it.
The ratio of video displays (television sets)
to video cameras plummeted during this period from millions-to-one
to thousands-to-one. Public Access television and video art were
both direct results of the PortaPak. Today the ratio of video displays
to cameras in the US is less than ten-to-one. Everyone is a video-maker.
Its almost as easy as watching video. One could say that television
has become a convivial medium.
This, of course, is only partly true. Broadcast
television is as popular and shameless as ever, and much of the
material produced by the millions of camcorders is "write only,"
never to be viewed, or edited. Even so, a decade later, the birth
of the PC and the Mac was fueled by the dream of convivial media.
As computers entered the workplace and the home, more people produced.
By the late 1980s, almost anyone could publish a book, mix
music, or create a multimedia program. Conviviality was the legacy
of the most creative R&D labs during this period, including
Xerox PARC, Atari Research, and the Apple Multimedia Lab.
In 1992, one of the earliest efforts launched
at Interval Research was to explore how to make media more convivial.
This effort was code-named "Symmetry." It was tempting
to label telephones and email as "good media" and television
and moviemaking as "bad media." Could we make moviemaking
as easy speaking or writing?
One day during this period, a guest presented
videos made by Star Trek fans. They were all based on editing Star
Trek visuals over popular songs, such as Broadway show tunes, in
a strictly literal way. For every line of vocals, a different Star
Trek snippet would appear to "illustrate" the line, edited
in always on the beat. This algorithmic approach made me seethe,
but it wasnt until the speaker used the word "creative"
that I exploded, "This is about as creative as making Betty
Crocker brownies!" Several of my colleagues booed me. One called
This bothered me for weeks. For one thing, Betty
Crocker brownies are pretty good. So what if theyre easy?
So what if they give the illusion of creativity? I finally concluded
that access is not to be confused with ease. Symmetrical media may
give the little girl in Ohio access to video tools. She may even
be happy making video birthday cards from "brownie mix"
style template programs. But its highly doubtful shell
be the next Mozart by doing so. Conviviality may foster creativity,
but doesnt replace the need for passion, sensitivity, and
A similar and timelier issue involves the relationship
between conviviality and empowerment, particularly as it relates
to Web access. Enthusiasts see the Web as the ultimate leveler,
giving everyone access to everything, and equally important, giving
everyone their own voice. Villagers in Africa will have their own
Web sites. Basket weavers in the Philippines will sell directly
to their customers. Children, the elderly, and neighborhood groups
will write newspapers which look as good as the New York Times,
and be every bit as accessible to anyone on the planet.
Nonsense, cry the cynics. The Web is essentially
another mass medium and just as imperialistic as television and
newspapers. It wont lead to web sites from Africa; itll
lead to African kids experiencing consumer opportunity, MTV, and
The resolution, perhaps, lies precisely in the
notion of conviviality, measurable by the degree of symmetry. My
home DSL provider advertises "up to 1.5 Mbs, upload speed up
to 384 Kbs," meaning the download bandwidth is about four times
the upload bandwidth. A prominent, well-meaning, global satellite
Internet provider advertises a 45 Mbs "forward channel"
and a 256 Kbs "reverse" one, a network clearly optimized
for "content" coming down and "key clicks" going
up, nothing but television with a big dial. It clearly stacks the
deck against little girls in Ohio, or villagers in Africa, seeking
empowerment through creating their own Web sites.
There is little question that some conviviality
is better than no conviviality, that more symmetrical media are
better than less symmetrical ones, and that the Web is more creative
and empowering than television. The sheer increase in production,
in virtually all electronic media, is its own testimonial.
But what about quality? Where are the Apocalypse
Nows? Is professionalism dead?
Not long ago I crossed paths with artist Laurie
Anderson at a large international electronic art symposium, which
had an enormous art exhibition. Stuff coming out of nowhere, we
agreed. We also agreed that while the absolute number of people
making such art has skyrocketed, the "signal-to-noise ratio"
has plummeted. There's a lot of really bad stuff (in part due to
brownie mix software). But when one adds things up, is the net result
more good work or less? We both agreed more. The little girl in
Ohio may be the next Mozart, but she may also be harder to find.