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Keepers of the Public Domain in Electronic Media: Keep It Up!

Keynote address by Pat Aufderheide

Annual convention in Cincinnati, Ohio of Alliance for Community Media, the member organization of cable access stations nationwide

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today to some of the people I take as my personal heroes, people who are carving out real opportunities for real people every single day, even when none of the hardware will cooperate.

The reason I think of you as the heroes of everyday life is that you have decided, for whatever demented reason of your own, to assume the challenge of helping to inhabit the frontier region of television: noncommercial space. You have looked at one of the most powerful engines of capitalist accumulation in history and said, Oh thanks, I'd rather do the local cricket match. And I'll take the zoning commission. Oh, yeah, and the guy with the hygiene problem too.

Just thought I would let you know that I'm not totally romanticizing the task here. But really: it's an important and guaranteed-to-be-unappreciated thing to create noncommercial television. Most of us think we know what "television"is: it's commercial TV, and it's so predictable, in its general outlines, that at least in my house, I'd like the last click of the clicker to be a little recorded announcement that says, "Honey, why are we subscribing to cable?" It would save me having to say it every time.

But the fact is that more people than ever before are subscribing to cable. And they are about to find out that they don't really know what "television" is anymore, because the paradigm that we've all been waiting to change for so long finally is changing.

You are a big part of our hope that, as we stand on the so-called cyberfrontier, and everybody's doing land grabs, there will be electronic, imaginative public domains out there. That there will be creatively cultivated public places in media. That people are given the chance to be respected, and to use the new possibilities, not just be used by them.

If there are open spaces, public domains, public conversations, it won't be thanks to any of the major players. As you know, the period of great uncertainty, of confusion and disorder, of dueling paradigms and old media vs. new media, all that stuff, is coming to an end. The Telecom Act for better and for worse created enough of a regulatory structure for us to see dimly into the near future.

That future will be, and here's a big surprise, controlled by a few major corporate actors, and you will not be astonished to hear me mention the cable company and the phone company. It will be a communications universe that is much more about networking, at least in its infrastructure, than about mass media. But it will look and feel much more like mass media than it needs do.

The biggest actors will be doing their best to take advantage, for their purposes, of the power of networking--especially to harvest as much data as they can from all of us--at the same time as they do their best to minimize the advantage to us of the same power. Why? Because they're not stupid. They understand the power of networking and they don't want other people to have it. They love the benefits of old media--the gatekeeping, the collection points, the old way of aggregating audiences for advertisers, of limiting consumer choice, of creating enough monopoly power to allow them to relax into their profits.

Still, even if the big players succeed in narrowing our options, they are facing the challenge of playing the game a little differently. With interactive TV, with Internet-based communication, with linked technologies, people have more opportunities to select, or deselect, to discover or to exclude, to confront or to escape, even to develop alternative communications networks, than they ever have had. So now, the game is cultivating and grooming and shaping and creating something that the old guys call audience, and that you call community.

I have a brilliant friend, Neil Seiling, who produces avant-garde TV, and who was talking to me about the problems of programming now. He said that in the emerging media universe, the one basic rule will be simple: "Whoever gets the audience, wins."

This is much harder for them than before, when the big actors in media just divided the captive audience, and when the providers of plain-vanilla, POTS type phone service rented everybody the same black box. Getting an audience: that'll be the challenge. They're still not quite sure how they're going to do that, but they know that it takes a lot more than recycling programming and blasting it out into the void. They're going to try on at least two fronts: keeping you on their farm, no matter what they will eventually grow there; and making you the milk cows. About the farm part: They talk earnestly about "branding"--establishing a presence that people trust and turn to, a Disney presence, a Microsoft presence, an NBC presence, and so on. They're serious about using every new communications resource to shore up the existing mental real estate they've got, and they want and need to colonize more.

They are also very serious about building databases. And that's the milk cow part. I was amused to read in last week's Advertising Age that marketers are designing cute little icons that people with state of the art computers and Internet access can click on to get trivia games and mini-shows. Virgin Atlantic has an Austin Powers icon that you toggle on to play a trivia game. "At the end of the day, it's all about data collection," the marketing manager for Virgin Atlantic said. To sign up for the cute little mini-shows, you have to fill out a form giving them some information on your travel habits.

The other day another friend of mine, Kathryn Montgomery from Center for Media Education, attended a meeting that included Disney folks. When she asked how they were using the information they collect from the little kids who access their website, the rep said something like, "Oh we aren't using that data, we're just storing it." Storing it. Great. So the idea is to build lifelong profiles, to be used differently as people grow up and business strategies change. I don't think any of the big players knows what they'll do with the information they're archiving. But they're planning ahead. I think that you guys have a solid institutional base of experience that gives us much better models than an Austin Powers travel toggle-show or a Disney marketing database for what you can do with sophisticated, interactive communications. And this conference has been full of inspiring ways in which ACM folks are and have been doing just that. I look at Davis, California, where the access cable people and the community computing people joined forces to shape interactive electoral coverage, so that Davis citizens asked the questions they needed answers to and got substantial news coverage too--even on the ultimate horse-race night, the election itself. And where an enterprising multicultural group of young people learned to talk to each other as they made a video that framed cross-cultural issues for a community.

I look at CAN TV in Chicago, which has nurtured and sheltered a growing public space for labor issues. Labor Beat now a national and even sometimes international show; unions that might not have thought of using media before becoming users of the access space; labor-oriented public affairs provides viewers with another, too infrequently heard, perspective, with international ties being made to other labor organizations. The success story, for me, is as much about nurturing relationships that permit competing unions to talk to one another, that encourage union members to perceive media as an important resource, that permit international labor organizations to find out more about U.S.-based labor, as it is about getting labor perspectives into the wider Chicago community.

I look at Covington, Kentucky, where the Media Working Group helped teach artists from throughout the region how to use new technologies. Just as interesting, MWG is creating a virtual gallery opening that creates another open, public electronic space, and is fearlessly tinkering with it to see what works and what doesn't.

Elections, labor issues, grassroots arts--that's not just what commercial TV doesn't do well, but the kind of television that only exists as a feature of living community. Because throughout the ACM community, you've figured out what many terrified people in commercial TV are just beginning to grasp: it's about facilitating human relationships, not about the technology. The difference between you, of course, is about what kinds of human relationships you want to facilitate, vs. what kinds of human relationships are fostered by marketing folks.

I know that on an average day, when the equipment is down or downright defunct, it may seem that, in fact, it is about the technology. But take a moment to imagine our near future. You may not always be get-me-the-duct-tape tech wizards. I do believe that it's never been easier to use the various technologies--phone, Internet, wireless, cable TV, computers--and that it's getting easier day by day. Even today we need to know much, much less about how our complex equipment works than we did a decade ago. I also think that there's never been so much space to fill, so many places to go today, as Bill Gates puts it. And many of them really are entertaining, and some of them show a huge amount of creativity poured into commercial entertainment. The coming challenge will be creatively shaping uses, building links, helping to cultivate imaginations that have been stunted by years of learning, from all of commercial TV, never to dream of alternatives. Now, I'd like to just spend a couple of minutes on that notion of stunted imagination, because what I mean is stunted is the ability to imagine a range of uses, styles, levels of production sophistication. I don't mean that people aren't being offered captivating, well-produced entertainment by our commercial culture. Rather, I would say it's the most astonishing concentration of human creativity ever in the history of the world, often done in teams where ideas cook together. To do what you can do well, you don't have to learn to reject the awesome, amazing, incredibly fecund popular culture that has given us classic movies like The Wizard of Oz and Steven Speilberg's neglected classic The Empire of the Sun and great TV like The Sopranos (anyone here get HBO?) and musicians like Ry Cooder and--well, I'm using my list. Everybody will have their own list but nobody, not even here, wants to throw away their VCR and junk their CD collection and I know that many of you, when you go home from an access center, are watching a favorite show that's a product of this extremely vigorous marketplace. But shouldn't people be able to imagine, and want something besides that? Communications is after all the vehicle by which we understand what's important in the world and for ourselves. God help us if it's all about the little Budweiser frogs, cute as they are and good as they are for the Anheuser-Busch family and stockholders.

What you're good at, and what we need more of, is encouraging people to be able to imagine communications not just as a fount of entertainment, good or bad, but as a tool for community in its most democratic aspect. And I mean community not as a smug haven from heartless consumerism, a cozy little pre-color Pleasantville, a chunk of consensus behind a picket fence. I mean community as the shared space where differences are negotiated and common problems are solved. I mean community in the sense that our great philosopher John Dewey used the word "public," the part of our lives that we share by force of circumstances and that we inhabit best when it's maintained, in part with the tools of communication. I mean the unglamourous but absolutely necessary business of a civilized democracy.

In many ways, the Internet has been a tremendous gift to us in that endeavor, not just because of what the technology permits, but because the way it grew up, so many useful civic and community services were among the pioneering applications. It was a rare example of communications that had a highly visible early life as a noncommercial, open-to-everybody kind of thing.

The interactive era is also a terrific boon to those of us who care about creating civic culture because, let's face it, television as a mass medium is not the most natural, the most user-friendly medium for grassroots communication and community building. It has great advantages, but terrible disadvantages too. It is a technologically intense, resource hog of a medium. There are big technical hurdles to overcome, and they don't go away, they just get worse with obsolescence. And there are huge cultural hurdles to overcome, most particularly the stunted-imagination problem. Put another way, this is the fact that every new trainee "knows" what television is when they walk in the door.

As the TV set starts to look and act less like a traditional, top-down TV set and more like a computer screen or a video conference call, it's going to be that much easier to free up imaginations to use the technologies that are becoming easier to use for noncommercial, civic and community purposes.

And you are the people who've got the experience in how to do that. You have the names and numbers of the nonprofit community groups. You know how to drive the cable company and the city council crazy until they do what they should. You have the beginnings of the social imagination to inhabit electronic public domains .

I don't think you'll be surprised to discover how many people around you don't have a clue about what they would like to do with their new opportunities. That's an old problem for anyone who's worked on democratic communications issues. It's an old problem, we're not confused about why we have it, and it's not going to be any cheaper than it ever was to address it, just because we have new technological opportunities. Because however expensive telecom technologies are, the most expensive thing in this whole equation is the cultivation of human creativity and connection. That's not just about training, although that's a part of it. It's about community organizing in the most basic sense. And it's about investing in people over the course of a life cycle. One of the things that makes me maddest in the whole access story is how easy it has been for conservatives to argue that culture doesn't need subsidy. It's the way they've gotten many decent taxpayers to dismiss a core part of a civilized society--as if they expected anything else in their social lives to run well if there were no investment in it. They don't expect the sewers to be maintained out of sheer love of common plumbing, or the highway signs to be crafted by a volunteer committee of sign lovers. Community TV, community networking, grassroots arts, community communication takes not just skill and work and love, but sustained resources, so that institutional memories can be built up, political relationships can be groomed, leaders can find each other, people can learn from their mistakes.

And that all takes money. We've lived through a terrible transition. Access started in an era of generous but careless social welfare liberalism. Remember the CETA program, which we in the arts used to call the "ceremonial CETA" because it helped to start so many arts programs for people who were living in voluntary poverty? As that era declined, access weathered a brutal period of vulgar and also sophisticated assaults on anything that would impede the "greed is good" philosophy.

We are now, post-Telecom Act, all living in a more sober era, in which very big and powerful companies are taking on challenging new business arrangements and offering untested services, such as widespread broadband access. Those companies have been permitted to get very big so that they can take very big risks. As they do so, they need to be made to invest in the future of the society that will need their services. And sometimes they have.

Look at what happened in California, when Pacific Telesis and SBC merged. Thanks to more than a hundred community groups working together, the California Public Utilities Commission required that the new merged company invest in shrinking the digital divide. In Ohio, the Public Utilities Commission also succeeded in extracting funds from merged companies Ameritech and SBC for community initiatives.

Those are great examples, because they show what can happen when community-based organizations work on and with government agencies to harness the energy of the new era in telecom.

They are also chastening examples, because the dollar figures are only in the millions, and there are several decimal points more of investing to do in community networking.

The feds have also earmarked teensy tiny packets of money--$10 million from the Department of Education, $17 million from the Department of Commerce's TOP program.

And of course, there are many, many small, do-good demonstration projects by large communications companies looking both for good publicity and some smart new ideas on how to design the new networked universe. The Open Studio arts project for instance, was funded by Microsoft and AT&T among others.

These are promising precedents, and it's still so little for such a vast, rich country. It's far too little. We are in terrible trouble in this country if we think that small demonstration projects can make up for systematic deprivation.

So let me recap my main points here:

  • The networked environment offers more potential than ever before to actually do what we say access can do: make communications a tool of democratic community.
  • The megacorporations that were the winners after the Telecom Act are ferociously working to shape that environment in their favor.
  • You have unique tools and experience, at this moment, to help shape civic and public domains.
  • But there is no free lunch. We need to challenge our legislators and regulators at every level to see subsidies for culture and noncommercial communication as a critical investment in a civilized, democratic future. We need to show them that we have approaches, we have answers, we have resources that are all the more worth investing in because they address needs that will never ever be answered efficiently, effectively, or appropriately in the marketplace. And when I say we, I don't mean just the good people of the Alliance for Community Media. People in organizations in every community need to make these arguments for the funds to cultivate a truly civil society.

You need to stop being my unsung heroes. It's too damn hard. Let's go for being pioneers of the newest public domains, with the citizenry as social investors in this adventure. Thank you.