Eric Kluitenberg on Mon, 14 Jul 1997 15:27:07 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Bandwidth and Content

Dear nettimers,

Here is the latest content production from the Bandwidth Workspace in Kassel:

URL: &


Bandwidth and Content

In the context of the 'We Want Bandwidth!' workshop
@ Hybrid Workspace, documenta x - Kassel, July 12, 1997.

On the threshold of the era of high-capacity connectivity we (our group in
Kassel) is investigating the demand for more bandwidth. That demand of
corporate, state, individual and activist players in the Net game, which in
a collective form we have called 'The Push for more Bandwidth'. At this
moment we are still very much immersed in the questions of the distribution
of bandwidth, geophysically and within a given society, the question who
owns the bandwidth, and who will be the virtual stakeholders in the
bandwidth of the future, the ratio between the bandwidth of institutional
and private connectivity, and so forth.
        All these questions point out important, if not crucial, problems
in the present as much as in the future. One question that we have not yet
addressed is that of the relationship between bandwidth and content, i.e.
the kind of communications the digital infrastructure can carry and will be
able to carry in the not so distant future. There is a significant relation
between the availability of bandwidth and the kind of content that the
information infrastructure allows for. There also is, however, an even more
important but less obvious relationship between the increasing bandwidth of
mainstream connections and the marginalisation of certain types of content
production for the networking structures.

First of all this problem cannot be reduced to a simple position in favour
or against the expansion of bandwidth. High bandwidth connections will
enable certain empowering practices, while at the same time they threaten
to marginalise others.

The special PUSH Media bulletin in Wired Magazine outlined a future of
networked media that relies very much on a further development of
high-bandwidth connectivity. The outdated future of the web was over, the
future of hybrid communications was what the new future was all about, at
least it was that month, according to Wired. Leaving the sales-rhetorics of
Wired aside for a moment, quite an interesting model was presented in the
bulletin; a hybrid interconnected networking structure that offers familiar
services such as e-mail, the web, news groups, etc., combined with a highly
diverse set of broad/narrow/point cast information and entertainment
services, generically coined as PUSH Media (media that push content towards
the consumer, rather than the consumer 'pulling' it in themselves). The
hybrid nature of the structure is constituted by the combination of
familiar models from the old broadcasting systems (such as radio and
television), where a pre-fabricated info-product is offered to a periphery
of consumers, and an interconnected digital support structure which
exploits the potential of digital networking to create much more
diversified models of distribution.

Broadcast inherited much of the rigid 'phalanx' like structure of
industrial production. Bulk produced in a linear fashion, marketed
according to the traditional production / sale / consumption split,
distributed via standardised channels that allow for profitable economies
of scale. Digital networking instead offered a model of ultimate
flexibility, where any conceivable model of distribution could
theoretically be made feasible, but which offered only extremely
constrained possibilities for the transfer of image and sound, and
consequently only functioned well as a (written) text medium. With rapidly
evolving high-bandwidth connections the fusion of the two offers itself as
a new perspective. The idea is not simply to create a broad- or narrow cast
system that will enable consumers to react to the offerings. Rather,
endless new forms of tailored, made to measure, special interest
tele-casting can be conceived of.

Broadcast implies a large homogenous group of consumers, mostly in a
localised geophysical region (a country, a city or an area). The need to
meet the demand of a greater audience implies the need to tune the program
to the lowest common denominator in terms of complexity and content. Narrow
casting more subtly tries to address specific audiences, but was almost
necessarily a marginal practice given the limited availability of bandwidth
for tele-communications in general. Pointcasting was economically not
viable, because of the costs of infrastructure and production.
High-bandwidth digital networks eradicate these old categories:
- programs can be produced for specialised audiences, which because they
may be distributed world wide can still be of substantial economic
- High value added services can be offered on subscription to a finite
number of users and thereby become commercially interesting.
- Social and cultural information for marginal groups can exploit the
possibilities of digital narrow-casting models to send out their messages,
potentially world wide.
- Pointcasting can be made viable by the fact that individual users can
access the information, service or program in their own time, while access
no longer needs to be limited to a certain time or place, much like the
traditional web operates right now, but the type of content can be
different (i.e. video and audio footage, music, interactive multimedia
programs and services, etcetera), while the means of production of content
have become dramatically cheaper.
- The potential of broadcasting to bind a large group into a process of
simultaneous cognitive processing (as McLuhan has described television) can
still be maintained, as broadcasting of live and/or recorded programs can
still be supported by this digital infrastructure.
The overall picture of PUSH media just means that the digital networking
structure becomes a hybrid of interactive and tele-casted forms of content
distribution. As radio and television are slowly turning digital, the Net
is moving closer to the classical models of mass media.

The idea of PUSH media has been criticised heavily as a threat to the
horizontal and open structure of the Net as it has existed in the 90s so
far. This is not all obvious, as it is easy and to some extent justified to
maintain that the new fusion of mass tele-casting and networking can be
exploited as an empowering practice for marginalised expression of culture
and society, which it could do. Yet another dangerous effect could be the
marginalisation of existing and flourishing forms of content production and
distribution on the Net.
        The problem is threefold. Within those regions of the earth where
bandwidth is expanding rapidly the big players in the media and
entertainment industry are much better equipped to seize the larger part of
the audience, with well designed, engaging programs and services. In the
current low-bandwidth structure of the Net, the focus is directed at
content and interest. Rather than providing content for a wide general
audience, the Net producers try to address special interests of Net users,
as the interest is what spurs the users into action, not so much the design
of the structure. In the world of high-bandwidth connections the design of
the service, program or content provided will determine much stronger
whether or not that offering will reach its audience. Marginal groups in
culture and society are generally not well equipped to deal with this new
situation and they are certainly no match for the highly professional
commercial media conglomerates.
        A second aspect is the communicative dimension of the Net. Aside
from its function as a content distribution medium, the Net is primarily a
communications medium. The Net supports personal communications such as
e-mail, but also offers more public forms of interaction and communication,
such as MUDs and MOOs, virtual environments shared by multiple users
simultaneously, and chat lines offering virtual text conversations between
two or more persons. Low bandwidth connections focused attention very
strongly on this communicative dimension of the Net. Because of what the
Net had to offer for itself was not so much (in the classic form ASCII text
exchange) the interest had to be found outside the Net, in the people
communicating on-line. With the advent of multimedia on-line the passive
role of the entertainment consumer is given precedence over that of the
active communicator, on-line cultures may be directly under threat because
of this.
        The third, and undoubtedly still the most important problem is that
of bandwidth distribution. Because bandwidth was low, content,
communication, special interest and access could be high. As more and more
content migrates to higher bandwidths, less and less will be available to
low bandwidth regions and users. The equal distribution therefore directly
interferes with the quality of content distribution and interaction across
the social and geo-physical divides, and only a more equal distribution of
available bandwidth can ensure the long-term quality improvement of
content, which relies on access for all.

Eric Kluitenberg
Kassel, July 14, 1997.

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