2.1.C. The construction of an alternative media infrastructure

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2.1.C. The construction of an alternative media infrastructure

Distributed technological networks are the most important infrastructure for cognitive capitalism. But as a communication infrastructure, the dominant transnational corporations could for a long time rely on their own private telecommunication networks. The internet has radically democratized access to this kind of infrastructure, to everyone with access to a computer. Similarly, for its cultural hegemony, the dominant social system has relied on "one to many" broadcasting system, which require a heavy capital outlay, and are controlled by monopolistic corporate interests, in charge of 'manufactured consent', and in other countries, by the state itself. The stranglehold of corporate media is such, including its hold on our very psyche's (we 'think like television' even when we've not been watching it for years). It has become all but impossible for any social minority (except religious and ethnic groups which can marshall vast resources themselves) to have its voice heard. Media reform seems definitely beyond reach. However, though the internet is also characterized by a certain commercial exploitation, and by very strong commercial entities such as Yahoo, as a whole, and as a distributed network, it is not owned nor controlled by commercial entities, but by a network of various entities: commercial, governmental, nongovernmental, etc... It contains the historical promise of an 'alternative information and communication infrastructure', a many to many, bottom-up resource that can be used by various social forces. Mackenzie Wark, in his Hacker Manifesto, distinguishes the producers of immaterial use value, from the owners of the vectors of information, without whom no exchange value can be realized. The promise of the internet is that we now have a vector of information production, distribution and exchange, that functions at least partly outside of the control of what he calls the 'vectoralist' class. The situation seems to be the following, and we use the distinctions drawn up by Yochai Benkler in his "The Political Economy of the Commons" essay. The physical layer, networks, and communication lines, are widely distributed between commercial, state, and academic interests, with no single player or set of players dominating, and the computers themselves are widely in the hands of the public and civil society. The logical layer, especially TCP/IP, and increasingly the various aspects of the read/write Web, the filesharing protocols are still systematically rigged for participation. The content layer, is on the one hand subject to an increasingly harsh intellectual property regime, but, commercial players are themselves subject to the logic of the economy of attention and the Wisdom Game, dictating policies of information sharing and giving, in order to get the attention. Next to the commercial portals, which may or may not play a nefarious role, the public is widely enabled to create its own content, and has been doing so by the millions. While part of the previously existing Information Commons or public domain is disappearing, other parts are being continuously constructed through the myriad combined efforts of civil society users.

This process is in full swing and is what we attempt to describe in this section. Below, I reproduce an adapted version of a diagram from Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which outlines the difference between 'repressive' and 'emancipatory' media. Without any doubt, the emerging alternative media infrastructure has an overwhelming number of characteristics of being an 'emancipatory' medium: 1) it is based on distributed programming (not just a few); 2) each receiver is a potential transmitter (not just a few broadcasters); 3) it has mobilization potential (it doesn't generate passivity); 4) it is characterized by interaction and self-production; 5) it enables a political learning process; it allows collective production by equipotent participants; 6) the social control is effected through self-organisation. Just compare this list to the characteristics of corporate television! Thus, the historical importance of these developments seems overwhelmingly clear. This does not mean that the alternative internet media infrastructure automatically leads to emancipation, but that it can certainly enable political processes in that direction.

Let us now summarise these developments in technical terms. In terms of media, the broadband internet is rapidly mutating to enhance the capacities to create distributed online publishing in the form of the Writeable Web (also called read-write web) and blogging in particular; the distribution of audio programming is possible through internet radio and various audioblogging developments such podcasting (audio content, music or video distribution through iPod or MP3 players), and other types of 'time-shifted radio' such as mobcasting ('casting' to mobile phones), and even Skypecasting (using the popular Voice over Internet Telephony software Skype , but for broadcasting purposes, especially Internet radio programs). Audiovisual distribution, which we can call public webcasting as it incorporates both audio and video, is possible through the emerging video blogging (vlogging ), but mostly through broadband P2P filesharing systems such as Bittorrent and Exeem , now already responsible for the majority of internet traffic . While Exeem is still in development at the time of writing this paragraph (June 2005), Bittorrent is considered to be a major innovation making easy broadband-based audiovisual distribution all but inevitable. A wide variety of associated services is being developed by small companies or cooperative groups to assist citizens in their own production of audiovisual material . What these services such as Common Bits and the Broadcast Machine do, is to transform Bittorrent technology into a internet broadcasting platform that can be used by common users without expert technical knowledge.

All these developments taking together mean that the creation of an alternative information and communication infrastructure, outside of the control and ownership of the state and corporate-based one-to-many broadcasting systems, is well under way. These developments are not the product of a conscious activist strategy as the one proposed by Mark Pesce and practiced by players such as Indymedia, but it also to a large degree the natural outgrowth of the empowerment of the users, who, whenever they by a WiFi hub, or install Skype for personal usage, or any other natural act of ameliorating their own connectivity, are building this alternative infrastructure, from the edges onward, step by step, and this is also why it seems quite unstoppable . In a sense, this is another example of the 'production without a manufacturer' or 'the supply-side supplying itself, explained in 3.1.A (and notes).

These technological developments form the basis for a new practice of citizen-produced 'journalism' or 'reporting' by a 'self-informing public' centered around the phenomemon of blogs, and augmented by the other techniques we have been discussing . See the example of the Korean OhMyNews , working with 35,000 citizen reporters and 40 staff members, as an example of a new type of hybrid journalism. These developments are a new vehicle for the production of 'public opinion', for the creation, expression , distribution and sharing of knowledge. And it is both supplementing and competing with the traditional mass media vehicles that used to mold public opinion . It represents an important opportunity to distribute views that fall outside the purview of 'manufactured consent'. Clay Shirky has called it a 'process of mass amateurisation' , an analysis that is related to my own concept of 'de-institutionalisation', a key aspect of peer to peer process which I discuss in 3.3.C.

All this outpouring of expression, news and commentary is interlinked in a blogosphere, which has developed its own techniques to distill what is important, from what is less important. Similar with the broadcast model is that the blogosphere still has hubs and connectors drawing large crowds, but different is that it creates the possibility of a "long tail". This means that whereas in the broadcast world the distribution curve bottoms out at the end, with no resources left for minority interests, in P2P media, this bottoming out does not occur (the curve flattens before reaching the bottom), because the possibility exists of creating thousands upon thousands of micro-communities, organized by affinity. David Weinberger, focusing on the role of the blog for the individual, says it is 'an expression of 'the self in conversation' , that is available as a permanent record (through the innovation of permalinks,which create a fixed and permanent URL for every entry, unlike webpages which were always subject to change and disappearance). A crucial innovation for the spread of blogs has been the development of RSS feeds , i.e. Really Simple Syndication, which allows internet users to 'subscribe' to any blog they like, and to manage the totality of their feeds through their email, RSS reader software, or online sites like Bloglines. Related to the emergence and growth of the blogosphere, is the growth in self-publishing, no longer the domain of dejected authors, but becoming a first choice for many who desire to reach a public directly without the traditional publisher intermediaries .

Therefore, in physical terms, for the evolving telecommunications infrastructure, the broadcast model is being replaced by the ‘meshwork system’, which is already used by the Wireless Commons movement to create a worldwide wireless communications network that aims to bypass the Telco infrastructure . Several local governments aim to aid such a process . For Yochai Benkler,the development of a "Open physical layer" based on open wireless networks, the so-called Spectrum Commons, is a key precondition for the existence of a "Core Common Infrastructure".

In such a system a wide array of local networks is created at very low cost, while they are interlinked with ‘bridges’. The technical breakthrough making this possible is the invention of Viral Communicators , or meshworks of cooperating devices that do not need an infrastructure or a backbone but themselves create the network through their excess capacity. Communication on these networks follows a P2P model, just like the internet. Mark Pesce has already developed a realistic proposal to build an integrated alternative network within ten years , based on similar premises, and with the additional concept of developing a 'Open Source TV Tuner' which he predicts will completely overturn traditional broadcasting. (The same technology could also be used for phone calls, once hybrid WiFi phones are available .) He has developed serious arguments about why 'netcasting' is not only economically feasible, but superior to the broadcasting model . There are also already commercial versions of ‘file-serving television’ models such as the one pioneered by TiVo as well as the different plans involving TV over Internet Protocol . "Radio Your Way" is a similar, though less popular, application for radio and there is a similar broad array of internet radio developments . Telephony using the Internet Protocol , recently popularized by Skype, is similarly destined to overcome the limitations of the hitherto centralized telephone system. P2P is generally seen as the coming format of the telecommunication infrastructure, even by the industry itself, and confirmed by my own former experience as strategic planner in that industry. British Telecom has declared that by 2008, the entirety of its network will have been converted to TCP/IP protocols.

While mobile telephony is strongly centralized and controlled, it will have to compete with wireless broadband networks, and users are busily turning it into yet another participative medium, as described by Howard Rheingold in Smart Mobs.

In the above phenomenology of P2P, notice that I have taken an extreme literal definition of P2P, as many hybrid forms exist, but the important and deciding factor is: does it enable the participation of equipotent members? One of the key factors is: how inclusionary is the social practice, or technology, or theory ,or any other manifestation of the P2P ethos.

These developments almost certainly mean that a new format of distribution and consumption is arising. At stake is the eventual unsustainability of the current TV broadcast model, in which the TV stations sell their audiences to advertisers, because they control the audience and the distribution of the programs. In the new form of distribution, in which users themselves take control of the choice and timing of the programs, because of the easy replication throughout the internet, both disintermediation and re-intermediation occur. The "hyperdistribution" of audiovisual material, think about the millions already downloading movies and TV programs, creates a direct link between producers and consumers. However, the economy of attention suggests process of re-intermediation. But as we have seen in the blogosphere for printed content, this process can be undertaken by clever algorhythms and protocols and reputation-based systems, coupled with processes of viral diffusion of recommendations in affinity groups, and do not necessarily mean commercial portals or intermediaries. In a upcoming book, Mark Pesce has coined the concept of 'hyperpeople' to describe the new generation of techno-savvy youngsters who are already living this new reality, and as the technology becomes increasingly easier to use, it will be spreading throughout the population. And of course, it is not just a new form of consumption, there are also changes at the producer side, with audiences becoming themselves the producers of audiovisual material, as we can see in the growth of podcasting programs. Two consequences flow from this. First, the generalization of the phenomemom of the "Long Tail",whereby minority audiences are no longer constrained by the 'lowest common-denominator' mass media and mass marketing logic; and we can expect a flowering of creativity and self-expression. Second, the possibility of new majorities of taste and opinion forming, outside of the constraints of the mass production of unified corporate taste. As we expect from the playing out of P2P processes, we see both a strengthening of personal autonomy and a new type of collectivity. For some time now, we have seen democracies bypass majority opinions and the development of hypermanipulation. The hope is that techno-social developments are creating the possibility of a new balance of power, a 'second superpower' of global public opinion that is more democratic in character.

To judge the progress or regress of these efforts, we should look at developments in the physical layer of the internet: who owns and controls it, at present a wide variety of players, with a key role for the public and civil society who own the computers which are in fact the intelligent core of the internet; the logical layer or protocols, which pits closed systems against open systems in a continious conflict; and the content layer, which pits the free creation of an Information Commons against permanent attempts to strengthen restrictive intellectual property rights. According to Yochai Benkler, what we need is a Core Commons Infrastructure, which would consist of an

- an open physical layer in the form of open wireless networks, a 'spectrum commons'

- an open logical layer, i.e. systematic preference for open protocols and open platforms

- an open content layer, which means the roll back of too restrictive IP laws geared to defend business monopolies and stifle the development of a free culture

Let's conclude by assessing the current 'techno-social' state of progress of such an alternative infrastructure:

- Bittorrent , Exeem, and other software programs enable broadband peercasting

- Viral diffusion exists to circulate information about programming

What needs to be built is:

- a meshwork of netcasting transmitters, as proposed by Mark Pesce

- user-friendly desktop software, to manage content (Pesce's Open Tuner proposal)

- better social mechanisms to select quality into such an alternative framework

Figure – Repressive Media vs. Emancipatory Media: Not available in this version, request manuscript by email