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Gillian McIver
alternative media
community media

The Uses of Video
part 6

Video and Utopian Technology

Video has enabled events to be captured immediately upon happening; thus it is much faster than film and, since it employs push-button technology, is easier to learn (though not necessarily easier to do well). "Video Vultures, TV News in America" shows how a freelance camera unit combs the streets of New York City recording events, and selling them to television stations as "news." The significance of the Rodney King case cannot be underestimated for what it says about the possibilities of camcorder culture and ways of challenging mainstream representation and interpretation. In Britain, various counterculture and political groups - which have far more adherents than the mainstream media would like to acknowledge - have started producing their own camcorder-generated news-video compilations which are sold, lent and exhibited in squats, clubs and pubs around the country. In the USA, video-based cable-access television allows groups to make their own television programmes for limited broadcast. The ability to distribute information and generate debate appears to be within the grasp of possibility, given that a V-8 or VHS camcorder can cost as little as £500 (or $500), implying that anyone can record and present documentary programmes and "news."

The technological determinism of Marshall McLuhan still hold appeal for both pundits and developers of new electronic media technology. McLuhan's assertion that the development of print media determined the emergence of liberal society ignores most other historical developments in the period. [43] But Utopianism is still with us; having predicted glorious futures for radio, television and video, Utopians now see our future salvation in the Internet. Jon Dovey, in "the Revelation of Unguessed Worlds" cites the experience of video as a heralded Utopian technology to caution overly optimistic thinking about digital technology. [44] While acknowledging the potential impact for camcorder activism, he notes the current fashion for camcorder-based television: incredibly cheap, populist "home movie" TV which use mainly camcorder-generated material. The end result is not so much "reality TV" as simply cheap and nasty television. "The trick," said Vaneigem, "is that the spectators of the cultural and ideological vacuum are here enlisted as its organisers. The spectacle's inanity is made up for by forcing its spectators ... to participate in it." [45] Meanwhile, camcorder activists like the Undercurrents and Conscious Cinema crews, don't get a look in.

Fear of the Electronic Eye

In one local daily paper on one day chosen at random I discovered the following TV-fear stories:

"Tougher TV curbs to protect children" London Evening Standard, 10 December 1996, page 2 - a call for censorship of television to protect children from sex and violence.

"1 in 4 Children Under 5 Have Bedroom TVs" London Evening Standard, 10 December 1996 page 4 - this is written in such a way as to assume that this is a bad thing.

The second story suggests several things, the main one being that we have evidently achieved a society where parents need an electronic device as a child-minder. The first story appears at first glance to be yet another annoying and wearisome call for censorship. Will these uptight people never give up? Surely they could exercise some form of voluntary control over their children's viewing habits? But then I realised, these people calling for regulation of violent and sexual content in television are actually crying out for some kind of input, some kind of participation and role in deciding what is fed to them by the great leisure machine. Gerbner makes a similar point when he notes that "the so-called culture warriors" like evangelist Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan are cashing in on people's legitimate grievance. [46]

The newspaper press regularly features stories about television, but very rarely positive stories about television. The idea that television corrupts children is a familiar theme. If it is true that "by the late 1980's many people within the advanced industrial countries were spending more time watching television than working," then we are obviously doomed. [47] Why this fear? It cannot be simply rivalry - rather, is it the intrinsic fear of the "electric eye" in the house, the alien within, whom we cannot live without but whom we secretly fear?

To answer these fears, Canadian university professor Timothy Collings has invented the "V-chip" which has been taken up enthusiastically by the Clinton administration as a sop to conservative critics, and will be marketed in the US this year. This device allows the television to filter out sex and violence that is broadcast, presumably allowing the parents to disengage it so that they can freely watch the ruttings and maimings that are so unsuitable for their young. Unfortunately, the chip does not filter out poor plot, bad characterisation, wooden acting, idiotic advertisements, shallow reportage, fatuous hosts, racial and sexual stereotyping, sheer dullness and condescension ... the list goes on.

What we really fear is not so much sex and violence, but the fact that we are enslaved to a television culture, we rely on it to palliate us, entertain us, inform us, narcotise us and recreate us in the fashion of the day. Yet we feel powerless before its seductive glamour. We don't realise that, in its essence, television is as simple as picking up a video camera and sticking a transmitter on top of a tall tree or tower-block.

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