A Ruritania of the Mind
I gave up on the mainstream media in 2002-2003, in the run up to the Iraq war. Every single channel in the USA was selling the prospect of war like a product, a new soap powder. I tried to find coverage of the over one million person protest march in London that I'd heard about via email, and it was barely mentioned. The last straw came when I got so angry I nearly threw a chair through my brand new plasma TV, which would have been an expensive outburst, but that's what you get for watching Fox News for longer than it takes to flip through the channels on the remote.
I moved to the Internet to get my news coverage, and I've never looked back. Yes I'm seeing some of the same US-centric reports, but you can easily balance them by looking at the viewpoint on events from world wide media coverage. There are so many alternatives to simple text now too. Video sharing sites provide instant camera-phone access to events that would never have received attention before. You can actually watch an event that previously would only be reported from one point of view and make up your own mind about what happened. New communications media like Twitter has become so important in recent events that the US government requested the company postpone scheduled maintenance in the aftermath of the Iranian election, so many Iranians were using it to communicate with the outside world.
Mainstream cinema I'd given up much earlier than that. I went to see the movie "Godzilla" when it came out in 1998. I'd seen the previews and was excited about actually seeing a big lizard trample New York underfoot. I wasn't disappointed. The special effects (an early use of computer generated imagery) were everything they promised in the trailers. I actually believed a giant lizard was loose in the Big Apple. But during the movie I realized I felt completely detached from the spectacle. It took me a while to realize the problem was I just didn't care. The story was facile (OK, it was a monster movie) and the characters were one dimensional cardboard cut-outs. I was bored, which is the ultimate sin for a summer blockbuster movie.
Since then I've still enjoyed movies, but now I only go watch movies with recommendations from people whose judgement I trust. I use a peer to peer filter on my viewing habits these days. As for TV shows I no longer partake. If I hear about anything interesting on the networks I wait until it is available on DvD, then buy the boxed set to enjoy at my leisure. No adverts, you see. Anyone who has ever watched US TV channels will realize how unbearable the adverts make trying to watch a programme. Some people use a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to achieve the same effect, but I just don't want to encourage the TV networks any more so I don't subscribe.
Mostly I like to watch things online. It's no surprise to me that the most interesting videos I've enjoyed recently were "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" (http://drhorrible.com/), and the wonderful comedy soap opera “The Guild”, (http://www.watchtheguild.com/) both of which were created for the Web.
My relationship to newspapers is more complex. I no longer buy or read a full newspaper, but am an avid consumer of journalism online. I've been lucky enough to be personally involved with some events that were considered worthy enough to cover by the press, and I was continually amazed by how bad the reporting was. Much of it was just plain wrong, with basic facts incorrectly stated. Other people I've talked to who had insight into other events have often told me the same. Yet at the moment it's still the only way to find out what might be going on in the world, flawed though it is. But this will change.
I've found the biggest difference between print stories and their online equivalent is that most journalists or bloggers now have some method of feedback attached to the articles they write. Usually you can send direct email to the reporter, and potentially engage in a dialog with the author or other people commenting on a story. Journalism is becoming a peer-to-peer activity these days.
Peer-to-peer is the key. The shift that is currently taking place is from an old style of centralized network media, to a decentralized peer-to-peer media. You can participate. You should participate. The Internet is what makes this possible. The change this is going to make in our societies I think will be profound, and I don't even pretend to know what it will be long term. But I firmly believe it is coming. It's really exiting to be alive in these times, to see such a major change going on all around us.
I know it's a cliché, but it's such an important one I'm not ashamed to repeat it. On the Internet, anyone can be a broadcaster. Yes I know that if I tried to outdo CNN by serving out news from my home DSL line I'd be pretty swamped if I had anything anyone was interested in seeing. See the “Slashdot effect” for details. But that's not the way things work anymore. If I have a riveting piece of camera phone footage showing an event the world was interested in, I don't need to serve it from home, merely uploading it to a peer-to-peer network or one of the many video sharing sites will ensure that it will get to everyone who wants to see it. Unfiltered and uncensored, that's the key. People get to see the raw footage, not some news outlets processed version of what they think people want to see. Even in countries with complete censorship of the news media and Internet access, people find a way to get to the truth eventually.
This is the beginning of the participatory society. The Free Software/Open Source movement understands this very well. I contribute to this society by writing Samba code, helping people with problems on the Internet with Samba, and communicating freely with the community of people who have coalesced around this code. Many other programmers make a living and communicate in the same way. But this movement doesn't stop with technologists or Free Software programmers. I used to love going to the Opera. With a small child I don't get to go anymore, but I'd love to see more amateur productions. Video your amateur production and upload it. I'll watch! Some will end up being worth paying for and maybe you'll hit the bigtime. Most of it won't and just you and your friends will get to enjoy it. But you'll never know unless you upload and share.
Musicians already get this. The remix culture is already alive on the Internet and will surely grow. The most interesting music I heard recently was from someone who just remixed YouTube video clips into something completely new and creative (http://thru-you.com/#/videos/). Almost certainly he's violating someones copyright in some fashion, but just listen to the result, it's incredible.
You can use the Internet to express your own creativity and connect with a community of people who are interested in the same things you are. You don't need a publisher or intermediary or anyone to edit your work. Most importantly you don't need anyones permission to publish. It doesn't matter if you don't think it's worth publishing. It probably isn't (as regular readers of my column often tell me). The science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon famously said, "Ninety percent of everything is crud." What matters is that you create and you share with others. Could it really be any worse than that Godzilla movie?
The days of living in Ruritania, with its one state-run TV and radio channel playing only state approved content, are over. You can move out into the wider world. The only people still living there are those who haven't yet discovered that Ruritania is only in your own mind (*).
San Jose, California.
21st June 2009.
(*) Thanks to Vernor Vinge, whose amazing novel “A Deepness in the Sky” contains the phrase that was the inspiration for the title of this column.