Alt-geek culture is broken – discuss
The basis of any new media is the technology it is mediated by. In the case of newspapers this is the printing press, and for radio and TV it is access to the transmission spectrum. The open internet changed this media which was based on a world of vertical analogue scarcity. As the accessing technology improved, it created a radically horizontal digital media space.
This was intently filled with (naive in a good sensece) alt-media such as the Indymedia project (IMC). In this post I am looking at how this was killed off by internal geek/process dogmatism at the same time as its space was colonised by new/mainstream such as blogging and social media. We are now coming full circle to where we started with closed client/server, algorithm-determined, gatekeeper, for-profit networks dominating media production and consumption. The corporate gatekeeping venture capital drivern (and invisible ideology) algorithm is the new printing press/broadcast spectrum that we started the century with.
What part did radical geeks play in this?
Let's look at the successful global indymedia project, which was based on open publishing and open process through a centralised server. Before this the radical video project undercurrents, while not so open, was again based on a technical hub. They had the only free digital editing suite for production of grassroots video, thus anyone wanting to produces radical content was funnelled though this grassroots gatekeeper. With IMC, it was publishing to their server.
The indymedia network was setup in the very avant-gardist open model that was to dominate the internet for a time. Like undercurrents it succceeded because of its technical centralisation – the server was the ONLY place citizen journalist content could be published without hard technical knowledge. This monopoly was later lost to the growth of individualistic blogging platforms and later corporate social media. But what I want to argue here is that it died before this due to internal pressures.
Indymedia was set up on the open, open, open, open, pseud-anonymous model.
* Open source (free software)
* Open publishing (post-publishing moderation)
* Open licence content (non commercial re-use)
* Open process (everything was organised on public e-mail lists, meetings)
* Pseudo-anonymous (you didn’t have to provide an e-mail address or a real name)
Let's look as some of the pragmatism that allowed the project to take off:
* The project was initially pragmatic about open source as it used the closed realmedia video streaming codec and servers. But the core project was committed to the free software path where technically possible.
* Open publishing was the basis of the project, things could only be hidden (not removed) because they broke a broad public editorial guideline. Evern then they were added to a background page so were still public. In this the process was naïvely open.
* Open licence stayed with the project to the end.
* Open process was gradually abandoned, a clique formed then fought and split, this was the main reason the project ossified and could not adapt to keep its relevance in the changing world of blogs and social media.
* (Pseudo) anonymity was part of the abandonment of open process and led down many of the technical dead ends that finally killed the relevance of the project to most users.
Lets look at this final one in more depth
Firstly, it's important to realise that any attempt at anonymous publishing in a client server relationship even at its most restrictive and paranoid would only produce pseudo anonymity. ie. you might be able to hide from your mates and your employer but you cannot hide from the “powers that be” if they are interested in subverting your server and its internet connection – the internet is inherently naïvely open, its built that way, this is why it works. The recent Snowdon leaks highlight this to the wider public.
- the integrity of the ISP and hosting was always based on trusting a tiny anonymous minority of geeks
- the physical security of the server could never be fully guarranteed.
- as the project process closed the identity of these core geeks became tenuous/invisible.
In activism just as the man driving the white van repeatedly turned out to be the police/corporate spy, the invisible server admin is the obvious opening for the same role – not saying this is what existed, just trying to highlight how you cannot build a network based on this closed client server infrastructure/culture that IMC became. Given the open nature of the internet, it became dangerous to push IMC as an anonymous project.
There were four fatal blocks:
- the repeated blocks and failure and delay of decentralisation of the servers to the regions.
- the blocks on aggregation, then the closed subculture aggregation that final happened as a parallel project
- the focusing on encrypted web hosting and self-signed certificates put a block on new non-technical users
- the failed security of not login IP address locally on the server as a limited security fig leaf. They could simply be logged on the ISP/open web instead.
The first two were social/cultural blocks.
The last two were technical/social blocks.
These, together with a shrinking of the core group, led to the project becoming irrelevant in the face of the growth of more openly accessible blogging and then social media.
Let's get positive and suggest some ways the IMC project could have flourished and still be a dominant grassroots project:
* The base level of the project should have actively decentralised as the technology matured to make this feasible. Every town needed its own server.
* Then regional aggregation using RSS would make this grassroots media presentable as outreach media.
* A national aggregation site could then have compete directly with declining traditional media outlets.
* Recognising that the IMC project was pseudo-anonymous at best, IMC could have built a parallel encrypted peer-to-peer gateway app/network to feed into this to provide true(ish) anonymity for publishers to this ongoing open media project.
* The decentralisation would have been a force to keep the process open by feeding though new people/energy – this would have naturally balanced the activist clique forming/closing in the centre.
* As blogging became popular and matured these could have been “ethically” aggregated into the network to build a truly federated global open media network such as http://openworlds.info is working to be.
* Social networking could have been added as an organic part of this fluruashing federated network.
If this had happened, it's not too much to say that the internet would have been a different place to where it is now. The IMC project highlights some of the failures of activist/geek culture. If we are to (re)build the open web we need to learn from this and move on.
(find photo of indymedia sheffield masked up photo)
This is sadly not a metaphor for an open media project
Diaz - up in the water tower
2001 - The G8 Summit in Genoa
I arrived in Genoa a few days before the anti G8 demonstrations were due to start, to help set up the Indymedia centre. We travelled in a tiny camper van with my frend Marion from Munich. The border caused no problem - the border guard asked us why we were going to Italia and we said we were holidaying on the coast, with a knowing look on both sides. Arriving in Genoa the police presence was heavy. The convergence centre was being set up down at the beach. Just a hundred yards away there was a huge police build up at the stadium. After wandering around for a while, we camped the night parked out of sight beside one of the big marquees of the half finished convergence centre. In the morning, meeting up with other groups, we made our way to the GSF and IMC organising building: the Diaz school.
The IMC (independent Media center)
We found a place to stay at the IMC at the head of the stairs, on the roof, which was out of the way, and looked around. The video room was full of techy gear but none of it seemed to be available for public use. The centre was well equipped with computers supplied by the city, all networked together. The techy crew had obviously put a lot of work into the set up. There was Linux on all the computers but with no applications and no system of support to help people make the transition to this “non-standard” operating system – a powerful gesture of what is possible but practically useless. A re-occurring theme in the tec-journo divide.
The video room was a bit of a fiasco - a lot of non-configured private computing kit – most of it password protected, taking up the majority of the space. There were no shared resources and it seemed none of the kit worked in a familiar standard way. An ego wank space with little organised IMC ethos.
Two PCs were “requisitioned” from other rooms and MS Windows was installed (as there was no functioning Linux video editing software). At one of the first meetings money was put aside to upgrade one of these computers to be a DV editing system with a new hardrive and Firewire card. On the other we installed an analogue video cpature card - brought along from CanalB – so we had two shared editing systems. The second of these created the bulk of the video that was uploaded from the IMC centre during the summit – the DV computer broke down on the second day and didn’t work again.
Marion and I headed down to the street to make the first report at the convergence centre. It wasn’t long before we were stopped and detained by a group of undercover policemen while doing a piece to camera outside the main police accommodation stadium - which happened to be right next to the convergence centre. We were held for a few hours while more and more undercover policemen arrived, until there were 10 or 12 police and two cars around us. They asked me for the tape in the camera - I refused - took down all our details and checked our passports – it become a bit nervewracking. I secretly filmed some of the secret policeman. Interestingly we were to see one of them two more times undercover at the counter-summit, and outside the IMC centre before the raid.
Driving round the streets trying to film the red zone barrier going up, we were stopped and detained twice. For an hour the first time and 3-4 hours the second. Arguing with the police and attempting to exercise normal civil rights proved fruitless. This was the first nagging Orwellian feeling that was reinforced over the week of demonstrating. The police were a state in themselves and there was obviously no respect for the role of law in their actions. Fear was starting to stalk the streets, encircling the meeting of the cabal of world power.
THE RAID ON THE IMC
After the shooting of one demonstrator the tension was rising, paranoia about police repression spreading. People began to leave the indymedia center, people began to leave Genoa. There was much discussion of what to do and no firm consensus. Many people made the decision to leave independently until the numbers had halved as the night wore on.
At midnight there were shouts of "the police are coming". I looked out of the window but couldn't see anything. People started to run around, grabbing stuff and barricading doors. I ran to find Marion and told her about the hiding place on the roof I had checked out when we arrived. She grabbed the tapes and equipment and headed off.
Looking out of the side window I could not see any police around the front door so I shouted back to the people blockading the door, trying to calm the situation.
I went up to the roof to film the carabinieri breaking into the building next door - a van smashing through the front gate; police breaking the windows with chairs, smashing down the doors with tables they found in the courtyard. Worried for my safety and the video I was recording, after a few minutes I decided to head back downstairs to see if the police were coming into the IMC as well.
After two flights, turning a corner, I came face to face with a carabinieri policeman dressed in full body armour with his truncheon drawn panting his way up the stairwell. At this I turned and flew up two flights shouting, “they are in the building”; past the barricaded door to the IMC and up to the roof. Dodging the spotlight from the circling helicopter I headed over to the window of the water tower and lowered myself in whispering “Marion it's me”. No answer. Creeping through the darkness with the only light being from the IR beam of my camera, I made my way down through the corridor of water tanks whispering “Marion are you there?” and starting to panic that she was not. A small and frightened voice came back: “turn the light off”. She was hiding in the space behind the last water tank.
We waited. She had brought a bottle of water and supplies. We talked about what we would do if and when the police came. Would they come in and search… would they throw tear gas… would they smash our equipment and break our bones.. these all seemed very real.
The helicopter circled, its spotlight lighting up the window of the water tower. There were noises of movement outside: the police searching the roof. We kept very quiet and still.
We were there for 3-4 hours. There was screaming from the street below and cries of "assassina". We only came out after the helicopter had left.
There were survivors wandering around the roof top, numbed and in shock. I interviewed two English girls who had been in the IMC during the raid, then went downstairs to survey the damage. Doors were smashed open. Computers were dismembered: their hard drives ripped out, monitors smashed. Across the street there was much worse waiting. Blood had covered the floor, congealing into puddles, and sprayed up the walls. Trails led into huddled corners; clothes lay around in disarray, personal belongings were strewn across the floor, speckled here and there by blood stains. Desolate, dazed people were searching through the piles. Reporters stood in small, silent groups. The trail of blood led up the stairs. Bits of skin and clumps of hair stuck to the walls. Following the broken doors and hasty barricades, looking in cupboards and under desks, everywhere someone could have hidden there was blood and broken skin, the bashing of heads against walls, the smearing of blood stained hands. There was a smell in the building. The Carabinieri had left their mark.
Canadian - Alternative Media Centres at Summits
ENR - the foundation report
Report on Islip Gathering
June 14th to 17th 2002
The gathering in Islip attracted an impressive attendance of representatives from a variety of alternative media organisations and independent video activists. Some had travelled from as far afield as Croatia and Germany. Eric Galatas, from the US-based FreespeechTV network, the event's sponsor, had travelled from Colorado.
The days were organised around a series of meetings and workshops, the agendas of which were decided and agreed by the attendees themselves.
The first item was to establish the goal of the project. Everyone present contributed their thoughts and the outcome was a distillation summed up thus:
Create a video structure (network)
Enable production and screenings of a regular monthly Newsreal: CDs, video tapes, cable, satellite
Online co-operative network resource
Cafes or local nodes
Use multiple formats and approaches
Establish European satellite and cable channel, screening programs 24/7
Connects and empowers local and global (virtual) communities and groups
Distributes existing programs
Facilitates the creation of new groups and programs
Enables information (skills, clips, events) exchange
Connected to existing movements, shall bring about positive social change.
The group then split up into sub-groups to discuss strategies and problem-solving for three crucial areas:
Production of a monthly Newsreal (a complilation of segments from around European)
Distribution systems and publicity
Organising and fundraising
1. Production of monthly Newsreal
The workshop proposed the production of a monthly Newsreal defined as a compilation of segments of 5 minutes or less each totalling a maximum of half an hour (). Segments should be gathered and edited by a different group in different European countries each month so that workload and ownership of the project is shared. Countries outside the UK to provide English translated versions and all raw versions to go to non-UK countries for translation.
It was proposed that the Newsreal be made available in two formats: moultymedia(VCD) and VHS to accommodate different needs and facilitate wider distribution.
2. Distribution systems and publicity
The workshop proposed a three-stage plan to test and build an effective distribution system.
Stage 1: Test pilot the Newsreal using existing 5 minit segment to creat a news reel to be distributed to the current group. And locally screened. Usfull for fundraseing and explaning what the project is about.
Stage 2: Start posting out info on IMC video lists, Make a second “proper” news reel to be screened to sympathetic local groups. Assess feedback. Build a database of contacts of sympathetic groups and other interested parties who may be new to the concept of alternative media and conduct a second round of pilot screenings. Assess feedback and make any recommended changes to Newsreal. Assess and deal with any issues arising from production system. Make the project part of the IMC network – ie. Get it on the video IMC page.
Stage 3: the big lornch has to come after lydon as the main contacts will come from lydon…International launch of Newsreal. Proposed to coincide with the PGA (People's Global Action) conference in Leiden, Netherlands and the World Summit??? at the end of August screenings to take place in Leiden, other key European cities and possibly the US. Big publicity drive incorporating stunts and liaison with sympathetic journalists, aiming for national (as well as local) coverage in the mainstream media of all participating countries. Produce flyers and posters to advertise screenings locally. Post up info on Indymedia website.
3. Organisation and fundraising
The workshop proposed that participating organisations co-ordinate the production of Newsreal with independents sending their segments to the relevant group for that month. Each group should work on it for two or 3 months so they can get up to speed. Undercurrents can do the produces the first two pilots then I would sergest Cannal B produces the lornch issues and possebaly then the corations… its important that groups doing the production have a history of producing and segments (would argue that they should have produced 2 or 3 Newsreel segments before they take on responsabilerty for producing the news reel.
It was recognised that a large amount of translations would be required and that money should be sought for this.
Money to be raised by:
applying for grants (not-for-profit status of the project to be established beforehand)
profits from sale of Newsreal at screenings, through universities (People and Planet to distribute), festivals and other outlets
income from sale of Newsreal to FreespeechTV for monthly screenings and sales to mainstream media in European countries
we need to think about - sponsorship from ethical companies
Who are we and what is our purpose?
Participants agreed that we need to be able to define who we are and what our purpose is for those who may wish to get involved and for fundraising purposes. A number of definitions were proposed and this is still an area to be agreed on.
What happens next
Pilot Newsreal to be produced ASAP and copies sent to all participants to arrange small scale local screenings
Separate working group e-groups to be set up to facilitate ongoing discussions and organization – this is tempery – we need a new working websight.
Definition of project and purpose to be discussed online (Islip list) and agreed on
Grant-making bodies to be approached for 'emergency' funds ie small amounts, to cover production and administrative costs of pilot screenings
The European News real project - and being relevant
This is a DRAFT of a text i wronte 09/08/2002
The ENR was a global alt-media production/networking project in the USA it whent out on TV. I was reponsable for bring this project to europe after it had been runing in the USA.
This is my (failed) attempt to stop the project becomeing irelevent.
Every time this project takes a step I cringe, a shudder of shock go’s threw me. If we don’t ask the people who have done this before – and the are a number – then we are DOOMED to make the same mistakes and I for one don’t have much hart or spirit to go threw this sad alt-movement ritual.
So here is another go at wrighting up what I think the project is:
* It’s an indymedia style project- that is it is fundamentally decentralised and non-hieratical based on open publishing and non-re-editing of other peoples work.
* it’s a grass-roots project, that is it is about encouraging, faciliting and training people who wouldn’t normally use video as a tool for social change. In this giving them there own voice.
* it’s a project that is designed to link and strengthen existing video production groups and help to create new groups both within the indymedia network and outside it.
* it’s a project that at its bases is about creating a public focus for activist groups to facilitate and strengthen local campaigns and link these local campaigns together.
*** it’s a TWIN TRACK PROJECT, the euronewsreal it self is a tool for internal communication with in the movement. In this the existing video activist groups are mentors of the newsreal rather than creators – of course we will all produces segments but that isn’t our first priority.
*** the second track is OUTREACH – this is were the editing comes in, and our current higher production values are used to the best affect. The Newsreal is the opening segmemet of the screenings, ie. The first half. The main-feature is where the power of video as a tool for social change comes in, and it is this main-feature that we as existing video groups should concentrate on producing. Our job is to produces the main-feature such as globalisation and the media from Undercurrents, CannalB’s Genoa film, TroshenTV’s Europe film etc. This is the outreach social change part of the project.
* That is the newsreal itself is a tool for networking and training for the movement, its about strengthening connections and bring new people in, and hopefully (funding permitting) training them how to hold a camera steady (:
So fundamentally for us existing groups its more of a mentoring job. A good opportunity for thoues who need funding to apply for some to run training and networking meetings.
We will produces segments, but that isn’t the end all, of our job. The half hour newsreal is actually about creating a distribution network.
We will kill the grass roots nature of the project if we add a higheracky of editorial, not only will editing store up trubbal it will also take a much higher level of commitment – which I for one don’t have.
So at its base it’s a very simple “open publishing” system with no perment central higheracy. Its about expanding the alt-video moment at the grassroots and consolidating it at the level of existing production groups. It’s a low-level project to get us all co-operating. An internal networking project not an external social change outreach project.
Its power for changing the world is focused on the co-operation it creates rather than the half hour of monthly video. In this the video will have a much powerfuller affect than any highly produced project that founders on disagreements and the enevertabil burn out lack of support brings.
WE NEED TO LEARN FROM THE PAST!!!!