Information Technology: The Masses' Media
For someone who has been attending NAMAC conferences since the '80s, as an organizational member and as a board member, each year always brought out the variations of the important themes of activism, democracy, access, multiculturalism. But one factor was so different this year: how digital technology has permeated street culture. At the 2000 NAMAC conference in Minneapolis, I was one of five writers to present a white paper on digital technology and media arts education. In this paper, I noted that the impact of digital technology is akin to the emergence of literate culture as a result of the printing press. The 'little red schoolhouse' became a necessary part of a community, with farmers realizing that their children needed to be educated if they were to survive in the new culture of "Readin’‚ & Writin’‚ & 'Rithmetic."
What I saw and heard from the new generation of digital media activists who attended this year's conference convinced me that digital technology is more than just a new way of sharing stories, preserving memories and making statements. There is a new immediacy to the travel of information and its apparent interpretations. We are involved in creating a new Digital Culture.
Media activism is being redefined by the social power of digital technology. IT activists are designing hackable websites and open source applications, making software free and accessible to all. Viral means of distribution are becoming the alternative mode of operation, existing below the radar of commercial media enterprise. Digital photos sent via cell phones can capture reality sooner than the evening news. House parties where people find each other via the Internet, then get together to watch films, have become a variation of film festivals. People entrust their innermost thoughts to total strangers through blogging and video logs.
Amidst this digital revolution, how are we democratizing new media technologies to create dialogues across the fences of ideologies, political views, and language? How are today’s independent media activists representing the new “other”? The possibilities and the models are being shaped on the city walls of Fallujah, in the towns of Sierra Leone, in playgrounds, and on street corners.
V-Logging and Viral Distribution: Citizen Journalism
MN Stories—a website where ordinary citizens upload video logs, or v-logs, representing “slices of Minnesota life that fall into the cracks of broadcast media”—is a good example of the new “citizen journalism.” Chuck Olsen, its creator, says, “Everyday, new stories are posted with niche audiences.” For example, Iranian expatriates stay connected with their home country by participating in Persian blogs and v-logs. What is the value of v-logging, beyond of being an exchange of snapshots of a life? According to Olsen, “It’s a lot harder to bomb someone if you can see real people.”
Free Mix Radio, “the original mixtape radio show”, is another example of citizen journalism. Free mixes from audiotapes sent in from Houston and New York and other co-opted digitized audio or visual material are “underground, autonomous, liberated.” Free Mix founder Jared Ball says, “The content of Free Mix Radio’s message is an example of democratizing media by reforming its means of production, exhibition, and distribution.”
Concepts of ownership and copyright seem to be losing their importance in the context of these alternative distribution methods. Digital activists, rejecting ownership of their material, now see the uncontrolled duplication of audio, video, and photographic material as the new means of exhibition and distribution, a way to subvert the broad and rapid reach of corporate Internet and mass media conglomerates.
Media by Child Soldiers
Listen Up!, an international network for young filmmakers, helped to produce “Beyond Borders: Personal Stories from a Small Planet,” a collection of documentaries from the U.S., Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Colombia, Jordan, the U.K., Guatemala, and South Korea. We Don’t Want No War, the collection’s contribution from iEarn Sierra Leone, tells the story of ten-year-old Mohamed Sidibay, who only two years ago was commanding rebel troops in West Africa. iEarn is a worldwide community of youth who use the Internet to talk to each other. From his experience as a child soldier, Sidibay has used the power of the Internet by helping to design childsoldiers.org, a site that “gives a voice to children affected by war.”
In Iraq, American teen soldiers are also tipping the media power balance by sending images of war digitally, even minutes after an explosion. Under the radar of commercial networks, these media soldiers are circumventing mainstream images of war through digital photos and videos, superceding the infallibility of global networks like CNN.
Take the case of an eighteen-year-old known as C-los, the son of Honduran immigrants, now a soldier assigned to Iraq. He has been sending gigs of personal images from Iraq to Josué Rojas, artist for YO! Youth Outlook, an award-winning journal of youth life in the Bay Area, featuring in-depth reporting and first-person essays, comic strips, and poetry pages from young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Josué makes C-los’s images available for anyone who wants to use, distribute, or duplicate them.
Digitally transmitted images are making it
possible for us to see the unreported side of the war. C-los’s warfront
photos are immediate reportage: debris on a bunk bed after the roof of
his quarters was blown off; C-los standing in front of a charred body;
C-los receiving a Combat Infantry Badge after being shot at for the
first time. He says, “I’m only eighteen and I can’t even count how many
people I’ve killed. All you have to do is throw a grenade.” But there
is also the other side of the picture: C-los holding an abandoned
kitten, posing with a Rasta Santa Claus, making faces at the camera
with his buddies—regular teens fooling around, their army fatigues the
only giveaway that this is no ordinary weekend. “These images show our
soldiers as kids,” Josué says. “People thought I was advocating for
war. I’m just showing my friend.”
It is not possible to see such images on television. These are up-to-the-minute slices of life, the poetry of innocent faces questioning, “What are we doing here?”
Another compelling phenomenon is developing in the war zone: teen soldiers as graf artists, crossing enemy lines, armed only with their aerosol paints, emblazoning half-torn Fallujah city walls with messages meant, perhaps, for their Iraqi teen counterparts. The only existing documentation of these fleeting messages are the digital videotapes transmitted via cell phones to American independent media groups like YO!
With the intersection of hip-hop and digital, the high culture of technology is being married to street culture. “There may be a little bit of resistance,” says Josué, “but if it’s blended right, it could be beautiful.”
Embedded versus Independent Journalism
Amid aerial arsenals and miniaturized hand-held satellite communication systems that can be carried around on the battlefield, the Pentagon endorsed the concept of embedded journalists to cover the Iraq war. Mainstream journalists received survival training from the U.S. military, providing them with protective gear in the event of a biochemical attack. Prior to entering the war zone, more than 200 American journalists were trained, boot camp style, for combat initiatives. These journalists depended on the military for their own safety. “Once you’ve got that positive relationship established,” says Fordham University professor Robin Andersen, “you’ve formed the perspective of the journalist.” In Shocking and Awful: Channels of War, produced by Deep Dish TV, Andersen explains that not only do embedded journalists report physically from the American military’s point-of-view, “but also mentally and emotionally … [Y]ou have no journalistic distance from your topic.”
Touted as a new type of journalism, this “combat camera” approach is actually modeled after media activist strategies begun in the 1960s and ’70s, when cameras were entrenched in antiwar demonstrations. Organizations such as Deep Dish TV and Paper Tiger Television, going out on a limb to uncover viewpoints not represented by mainstream media, operate outside of any circle of protection. No boot camp training teaches them how to survive in the line of fire. Armed with a strong sense of commitment, they aim to capture what we will never see on the evening news.
May Ying Walsh is one such journalist. Six months prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she observed that the media was taking a monolithic stand: They were one hundred percent on-board with the idea of invasion and were not about to question the imminence of war. She decided to go to Iraq as an independent journalist. Unlike network journalists, she had no crew. Her driver served as her translator. In Baghdad, as wild rumors went around about Saddam Hussein, Western journalists ran out of Baghdad, leaving the Iraqi side of the story potentially unreported. When Ying Walsh’s driver-translator decided to leave her, she recalls, “I went into the ’hood alone, because I wanted the Iraqi voice to be heard. To me it was worth risking my life for.” She began to conduct interviews with Baghdad university students, observing that both the Iraqi and the Western press were “paranoid” about the idea of “live, uncontrolled dialogues.” Ying Walsh went to the U.S. networks with her material, but three days after viewing her tapes, all broadcast offers were pulled. She was told that her interviews “could be propaganda for Saddam.”
“The new individual digital devices (cell phones, PDAs, iPods) allow us to share by spreading news in a viral sort of way,” says Steve Gates, creator of Cellphonia, described on cellphonia.org as “an open source cell phone and Internet application that creates a street-theater live opera via a conference call shared by user/participants.” Cellphonia is a modern people’s Karaoke-style news opera orchestrated via cell phone telephony. RSS feeds—short for “really simple syndication”—send beep tracks originating from one cell phone to another in one’s immediate vicinity. Each cell phone user is a potential “opera newscaster” who sings his or her own newscast into a cell phone. A second cell phone user captures the personal “newscast” and adds to it. Multiple participants can then mix their own newscast—a kind of instant, operatic reporting. The captured audio can be streamed by anyone interested in adding his or her own aria to the mix, transforming each participant into The Anonymous Reporter. Cellphonia creates a new space that potentially involves all of us collaboratively—making news, being in the news, and listening to the news all at the same time.
Mike Bonanno is a founding member of The Yes Men, a group of performative activists whose strategy is to act as impostors—for example, infiltrating corporations like Dow “in order to correct their identities” (from theyesmen.org). The Yes Men made a name for themselves when their website was confused for the World Trade Organization’s, leading to invitations from TV and various conferences to speak as WTO representatives. The Yes Men’s methods might be considered a form of critical journalism. As they introduce new measures for extracting truth from unsuspecting subjects, who inadvertently reveal their vulnerable side, The Yes Men present, as Bonanno states, “scenarios where an alternate reality could be possible.”
Today, media makers can be at once the storyteller and the listener. “Image maker” and “audience” are no longer separate entities but alternating roles that we play. Media makers are using their ingenuity to disseminate viewpoints beyond the screen through digital interactivity. With communication permeating every corner of the globe, from growing cultural communities in the Midwest to the schools of Sierra Leone and war-torn Iraq, a new digital culture has formed.
As independent media activists, how do we prevent digital otherness in this rapidly growing community? How do we ensure that no one is left out? Cara Mertes, executive director of P.O.V./American Documentary, Inc., remarks, “We may be losing the ‘traditional’ community, but we are gaining ‘ community’ in a rapid way.” Sharese Bullock of Listen Up! eloquently describes our current digital challenge this way: “Communities are not linear anymore. Communities don’t have ‘addresses’ anymore. There are film fests being held in houses, in refugee camps. Our communities are not localized anymore but international. We have to take risks and enter communities in new, nontraditional ways. The real challenge is in creating networks to create oneness.”
In the words of Jared Ball of Free Mix Radio, it’s all about creating “the Masses’ Media.”
MARLINA GONZALEZ is the Digital Community Development Manager and Media Arts Curator for Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, MN.
© 2005 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.