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Richard Barbrook
Raymond Williams

From Radio to Hypermedia
with Richard Barbrook - part 1

Q. You hold that the new media made possible by the Internet heralds a new day that might well overcome the "contradictions of media freedom." One of these contradictions is that while the political rights of free public speech arrived, the means of disseminating free speech rested in the of very few who could afford a press. But today, new media potentially allow for everyone to speak to everyone at some point. And even the rudimentary beginnings of this process seem promising, or as you remind us, "...the success of the Internet system was based on the spontaneous collaboration of its participants on a global scale. " Nevertheless, the Internet is rapidly becoming commercialized and privatized. And states are already regulating content over the Internet-- China, Germany, USA, etc. The oft-repeated promise of democratization remains a mere potential. In a world where only one third of the people have ever owned a telephone, a modem seems rather improbable. Or...?

R.B. I think that you are confusing the two elements of the contradiction of media freedom: participation and democratisation. This is why I think that it is important to analyse the history of media freedom. We're then able to look at the deep roots of many contemporary debates.

For example, many of our contemporary debates over the future of the Net were also carried out over radio broadcasting in '20s and '30s America. In the early days of the 'wireless', radio enthusiasts could experiment with the potentiality of the new media without much interference from the state or the large corporations. Given the ease of obtaining a broadcasting licence or buying airtime, almost anyone could appear on the radio if they really wanted to. But radio broadcasting could only act as a participatory media because it had a limited number of users. It was the democratisation of radio broadcasting which ended the brief experiment in participation. The new users were interested in radio as a source of entertainment and information rather than as a way of expressing themselves. For instance, mutual interference between unregulated stations caused interference for many listeners, especially in the big cities. The passing of the restrictive 1927 Radio Act was a politically popular piece of regulation because it allowed most radio users - who were owners of cheap listening devices - to obtain good quality signals of programmes with the star performers produced by the networks. Of course, this restrictive piece of legislation also opened the way for the dominance of the airwaves by large corporations and the censorship of political/cultural opinions, especially by left-wing radicals. But we should not forget that it was the democratisation of radio broadcasting which provided the social basis for the transformation of the new media from active involvement into passive consumption.

The question now facing the Net is how far hypermedia will repeat this contradictory history. Will democratisation of its availability lead to the end of participation? When the market was small, the corporations weren't much interested in providing Net services. When only few techies and academics were using on- line services, there was little demand for political regulation. As in the '20s, there are some senses in which we should welcome the increasing involvement of the corporations and the state within cyberspace -- it shows that the Net is becoming a popular phenomenon. Whether private or nationalised, large companies will be needed to make hypermedia widely available. If on-line services are to become ubiquitous, some form of basic content regulation will be needed. The point is whether this involvement is incompatible with the community involvement treasured by many of the pioneers of the Net. Despite appreciating the vigilance against corporate monopolies and state censorship, I think that the prophets of doom are treating the contradictions of media freedom as part of an 'eternal present' rather than a historical process. The emergence of hypermedia is the latest expression of the modern aspiration to transcend the contradiction between participation and democracy within media freedom. It is no accident that a fibre-optic grid has greater technological potentiality for two-way communications on a mass scale than the airwaves. It is the crystallisation of an emergent social practice which goes beyond the limitations of Fordism.

Q. You proposed that, "The emergence of hypermedia is the latest expresson of the modern aspiration to transcend the contradition between participation and democracy within media freedom." Do our aspirations or social practices tend to precede and even lead to technologies that mirror them? Some would see it the other way around, e.g., Jacques Ellul and the critics of technocracy. For them, the problem is how technologies influence social practices.

R.B. Technology is not the subject of history. As Sartre pointed out, technology is a crystallised praxis. It expresses the social relations and the social knowledge of a given historical era. For sure, machines have a material-technical basis which will limit its capabilities. This can be seen in the Net-- downloading large images can be a frustrating experience because of the low bandwidth of the domestic telephone system. But the reasons why certain paths of innovation are followed and others ignored do not lie in some inherent logic within technology. McLuhan was wrong! On the contrary, states, companies and communities devote time and effort to researching and developing technologies which are useful for their own purposes. For instance, the Net was created by the state for military communications, was improved by amateurs as a form of horizontal communications and is now being further advanced by corporations who want to make money from "interactive tv". Each section of the mixed economy hasn't just created its own particular form of content, but also shaped the technological basis of hypermedia. As they used to say in the '70s, science is social relations.

Q. Raymond Williams wrote a book about television back in the 1970s in which he insisted that it was up to how we deploy technics such as TV, up to the specific social practice or cultural form, to determine the effects of media technology on democracy. A medium can be either monopolized by the commodity form or democratized by smaller "alternative" uses....

R.B. When I was a radio pirate, I would have agreed with this analysis. Each frequency granted to a commercial operator was one denied to a community radio station. However I think that this analysis is very difficult to apply to hypermedia. I don't think that we're faced with an either/or choice anymore. On the contrary, corporate involvement in building the Net could actually enhance community uses of the new information technologies. For instance, although broadband networks will be built mainly to sell home entertainment, they can also be used for distributing d.i.y. culture and information on a much wider scale. As long as two-way communications are possible over the network, hypermedia cannot be monopolised by the commodity form. Given that many software producers-- such as music companies and book publishers-- are dependent on commercialising artistic forms originating in popular culture, I don't think that this would be even in their narrow commercial interests either!

Q. Back when radio was a radically new promise of mass communications, Bertolt Brecht used to insist that "Society cannot share a common communications system so long as it is split into warring factions." To the degree that societies remain divided along the lines of race and class, will even the new media be something we really share?

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