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<nettime> The User is the Content
Luis Soares on Mon, 15 Sep 1997 18:55:23 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> The User is the Content


The User is the Content
(Version 2.0)
"Don' t Expect, Suggest"
U2

We are living at the end of the 20th century, the high point of the Society
of the Spectacle, the clear-cut distinction between the realm of the stage
as centre of action and the passive realm of the spectator. The arrival of
digital technology, today's foremost revolutionary technological factor,
amplifies the effects of this media mindset while simultaneously
undermining its foundation, introducing the most important cultural model
since the change from the galaxy of Guttenberg to the galaxy of Marconi
brought about by the development of telecommunications.

Digital technology's first effect on our lives was through entertainment
with the success of the CD-Audio as a music medium. Today it is the
predominant technology in the production of the mass entertainment that
envelops the world. There is no nook or cranny in the powerful
entertainment industry where digital is not used as a method for improving
and perfecting the operation of the growing magnitude of the spectacle.

The Spice Girls sell twelve million records, a handful of films have box
office receipts of more than a hundred million dollars in the American
market alone, Baywatch and MTV define cultural characteristics, hopes and
frustrations in the farthest reaches of the world. There is a character in
the film "The Funeral" by Abel Ferrara that at one point says in the tragic
tone that runs through the film, "This is the American tragedy, that we
have to entertain ourselves". And it is a tragedy through which the United
States has been able to colonise the world.

The first dimension of multimedia is precisely the increasingly mixed
nature of the means of this colonisation. Denim ads turn pop songs into big
hits and these, in turn, help make successes of films aimed at a market in
which the fringes of adolescence are expanding to the point that they cover
the greatest segment of the market. Basically, we are dealing with making
media consumption by the masses more effective, using common brands for
different products, toying with brand recognition of these same brands. It
is the natural progression from the use of film stars to sell Lux soap.

A lot can be said about the faults of an economy focused on the market,
about the importance of popular culture. However, the truth is that, good
or bad, the United States view of the masses, entertained and consuming,
has been a world-wide success.

Therefore we now see the European bureaucratic decision-making structures
encouraging support programmes that, in one way or another, try to nurture
this lack of vision of the old continent, creating what they call an
industry of contents. And doing this as if it were possible to import the
American model and adapt it to the commonplace view that Americans have of
Europe. A Europe derived from the significance of its history, of its
culture and of any so-called mark of quality that it would receive because
it was the Old World.

It is ironic that last year, for instance, European-produced popular music
sold more than that produced in America. This demonstrates that it is not a
question of talent, but rather an investment in this talent.

Again and again, the exceptionally powerful American entertainment
industry, based on a strong internal market unified by a common language,
was capable of assimilating European offerings, importing them and then
re-exporting them as can be seen in a number of cases in the motion picture
industry. Some of the greatest geniuses of American cinema were...
Europeans.

Television has emerged, in this international milieu, as a kind of
all-encompassing model for the Society of the Spectacle in its transition
from analogue to digital. Communication there is undeniably unidirectional.
The massive investment in new, supposedly interactive, models of television
has not helped in finding a way to accomplish it. The screen remains as a
basic barrier between the world of the spectator and the television
broadcast.

The television as a receiving device still continues to retain the same
principle of operation. Its history has been only the transition from
television as a piece of furniture with an image on it to the television as
the central screen in an integrated audio-visual system. Digital sound and,
shortly, image will be decisive steps in the confirmation of the
presentation-dimension of television.

Even the television remote control device, regardless of the headaches it
has given advertisers, has shown itself to be the final stone in the
process. Zapping is only an unending search for programmes that more
completely fulfil the hedonistic function of television, leading us on the
search for those programmes that give us more pleasure. The remote control
is the weapon that allows us to even out the continuous surface of
television narrative, thereby assuring that there will be no lapses in its
duty of keeping us as prisoners of the small screen. It is a matter of
keeping the audience faithful, not to any specific channel, but to
television as a system.

All the variations of that which is called audio-visual in Europe, (a kind
of first-generation passive broadcast multimedia), are focusing on
television. The five hundred digital satellite transmission channels are a
new look for the traditional broadcast model with a limited number of
transmitters for an undetermined volume of receivers. The interactivity
always very limited.

The history of television interaction up till now is summarised by the
remote control, home video and portable camcorders. Each of these was a
small revolution that allowed one to customise content, modify the attitude
of the viewer, prepare him for greater changes, and increase the manifold
scope of zapping, forms of participation in the process to which the system
adapted, with its contests and reality shows.

In reality, zapping is the first truly intelligent use of interaction put
into service in the television system. A pre-history of the change from
analogue to digital television. On the other hand, it has required
advertisers to find new methods of making their messages attractive,
interlinking them with the "normal" syntax of television programming,
exploring an increasingly profound semantic range and developing languages
that go across all television products today. This caused the development
of the video clip as a refined advertisement for musical products, perhaps
the strongest source of innovative aesthetics currently existing in the
realm of television.

In any event, let's not have any illusions. What television produces,
trades, sells and deals in are audiences. Through its programming, it
produces them and then sells them to the advertisers that finance it in
return. This is the operating model for commercial television. Any
television channel has a perfect reciprocal relationship with its
audiences, using its programming as a malleable means to make them
faithful, responding to their always postponed wishes with a perfect
feedback loop for counter-programming their frustrations. Television acts
as a kind of sensorial goo for our minds.

In this purely functional point of view, a contest in which people have to
eat dirt to win a car is exactly the same as a National Geographic
documentary, as a soap opera is the normal follow-up to the news. They are
the means to an end - to sell audiences and advertising. Plotted on a
normal curve, the crossover of specific information about the profile of
this audience with the hours during which they watch television allows the
creation of a secure empathetic relationship by the invisible presence of
technology to guarantee the quality of the product.

When Peter Bruck was in Lisbon to speak about his European report on
Electronic Publishing, one of the statements he left as a slogan was, "know
your audiences". It appears that the first principle of advertising spread
like a virus through all the media. All entertainment has been transformed
into a machine for managing the more or less grandiose needs for sensory
pleasure on the part of the public. And knowledge of these needs has become
a basic tool for those who programme entertainment.

Digital technology provides us with the opportunity of knowing that public
down to their smallest attributes, which is the individual. The
individualisation of consumption began with the increase in the number of
screens in a home, with many families having more than one television.
Cable TV, VCRs, satellite transmission and emerging new devices such as Web
TV all appeared in an iterative process of growth in the number of
televisions for individual consumption and in the possibilities of choice
for these same individuals.

The appearance of the personal computer on the scene resulted in the final
individualisation in our relationship with our "devices with a screen". The
personal computer is also meant for individual use. Nevertheless, it spread
the seeds of revolution. That which made it so personal and for individual
use was the fact of not dealing with a device for the consumption of
entertainment, but also, and possibly most important, for its production.
It was a milestone, along with camcorders, of the general entrance in the
home market of increasingly powerful tools for media production.

And it was because of this, that the other message that Peter Bruck left
was "Everything that you knew is no longer true." In some way this
announces a time for revolution. A revolution because it basically changes
our standing relative to a screen. The desperation of the programmers of
our leisure time and of our entertainment is to determine the new way of
commercially managing this new person.

The ghost of McLuhan haunts us to the extent that we have become aware
that, once again, the media are planning a cultural revolution. And his
famous statement is completed as he himself completed it, in an unexpected
manner, "if medium is the message, then the user is the content."

Let us then see what is this new medium about which we are speaking and
what we speak of when we speak of content.

The new medium is the network as technology. The network is made up of a
maze of point to point relationships established world-wide and of which
routers, servers, terminals, personal computers, ourselves and, soon, also
television and cellular telephone equipment are a part. It seems very
likely, today more than ever, that Internet technology will gradually
become invisible, an increasing part of our word processors and operating
systems, of our televisions, of our communication systems, of everything
that is the processing of bits and not of atoms, in the classic words of
Negroponte.

What has become absolutely necessary to understand in this technology is
that its characteristics are basically different from the technology of
transmission that supported television. The model about which we are
speaking is not that of one-to-one, or even transmission one-to-many. We
have here a new model on a network - many-to-many. This is the traditional
model of an unorganised community without hierarchical definitions. It is a
model that seems to once again to establish an essential bottom-up
approach, beginning with the individual before exerting the minimum effort
to cluster them into analysable groups, such as a target audience.

This technological model has cultural, economic and political consequences,
giving shape to new social models. And the words of McLuhan once again
haunt us with his re-tribalisation of contemporary society and the origin
of the often repeated "global village". These are concepts that point us to
a change in operating scale, now we can consider simultaneously an
individual person, but globally accessible, communities reorganised
according to new criteria different from those traditionally based on
geography, common in an era dominated by atoms instead of bits.

However, the individualisation that technology creates in the user, the de
facto conception of the user as content, does not automatically give rise
to the new community social model that is reorganised into widespread
networks of interests and communication. Saying that all Internet is this
way is, in reality, an exaggeration. Today, many of the mass media models
are being very successfully imported to the network. On the other hand,
broadcast quality video an audio on the network is still to be seen and is
greatly restricted by the limitations in bandwidth that will very likely
get worse before they improve.

However, it can be stated that those that use the network in order to know
their audiences are having success. "Idoru", the last work of William
Gibson, specifically addresses the process of fame and world-wide
popularity and how these can be assisted by the virtual nature of the new
technologies of connection in order to make them more powerful. The
automation of a one-to-many relationship disguised as many-to-many ensures
the utmost compliance with "know your audiences".

The American mass media once again is aware of the enormous potential of
the network as a personalised marketing tool. On the other hand, software
companies such as Microsoft find in the network the mechanism to finally
yield to the mass media in an innovative and lucrative manner,
strengthening the new geography of communities of interest as a new
geography in which the mass in mass media represents the world.

The use of technology in this manner, however, does not hinder and possibly
even hastens the emergence of a new layer of communication that is
completely unfocussed and decentralised, based on the ad infinitum increase
in contact among individuals. It is this new layer, on the global scale, in
which the seed of the digital revolution is to be found. A layer in which
communication is moderated almost entirely by technology, a layer still
without gatekeepers, without agenda and without editors.

And once again Gibson with his heroes shows us who we are talking about. We
are talking about a generation raised in an ideological vacuum, in a
society controlled by consumption and by strategies for its growth as a
basis for economic growth. A generation that, because it has a vacuum
totally filled by the media as a hedonistic way to block the senses, almost
intuitively understands the strategies associated with media technology,
whether they are of the first generation, such as photography, or the last,
such as the Internet.

And these "heroes" of the vacuum disclose a remarkable ability to use this
practically instinctive relationship with new technologies as a method of
surviving on the brink of the media mainstream. It is Case, the cowboy of
the interfaces in Neuromancer like Laney in Idoru, who discovers the
information structures and their nodal points by pure intuition.

It is this almost inborn ability to deal with media technology, undoubtedly
due to an overexposure to them from a very early age, that leads Derrick of
Kerckhove to state that the old Bible prophecy in which the child becomes
the father of man, teaching him, like a young Dalai Lama, how to use the
new technologies, is fulfilled.

That the youth are really the ones who can honestly lead at the moment of
the revolution is a popular meme. It is an idea that surely owes a lot to
the hysteria of the millennium, but this is not a reason for it not to be
investigated. It could prove to have unexpected consequences if we link up
with the commanding importance of the adolescent market in the
entertainment industry or, in other words, the "teenaging"of the audiences.

The basic question, however, that which tips the balance, is that of the
presence and of the place (real or virtual) where it is located. Up till
now, no technological intervention system for communication or information
had been able to transmit the feeling of presence like the network. What
was possibly the closest was the telephone because of the power of the
human voice. But the telephone already functioned in a network model,
unlike the mass media.

The puzzle of how the screen, which was the boundary between being here and
being there, was suddenly changed into a window (no pun intended) or door
to the there, is the central question of this situation. And it is solved
by a simple equation. The content stopped being on the side of there, the
user is the content. The madness launched in the world of the mass media by
the so-called despotism of the audience is really not more than this
inversion of values. The one-to-many model is not very useful if the many
are in control.

The new solutions of the Pointcast type attempt to remedy this problem by
creating a mass media that can be completely moulded to the individual and
his necessities. Once again, they do nothing more than generate the
desires, needs and manner of behaving of the user as his contents. It is
clear that this action is inclined to destroy the social connections that
the mass media contributed toward consolidating, isolating each individual
confronted with an image of himself in terms of re-digested information.

However, being on-line does not mean having the insatiable desire to
consume industrial quantities of information produced in the same way it
always has been, even with the improvement in the mechanisms of
accommodating the information to its consumer. Being on the network is
having in your hands the most powerful tools for self-presentation ever. It
is to have the chance of presenting yourself to the world at a ridiculous
cost.

Being there. Not being at home consuming. And it is there that the new
communities can be created. Not in the vertical motion of the traditional
suppliers of contents to users, but rather in the opposite and cross
movement originating with the users. It is there that the possibility of
reconstruction from a fragmented social fabric is planned. And it is also
there that European talent can plan as a motive force for the rediscovery
of a new vision.

The transition that began with the portable Kodak camera has been
generalised and has put an increasingly powerful and varied aggregate of
tools for media production into the hands of the consumer. Today, with the
advent of digital, with the globalisation of communications, with the
emergence of networks, the distribution system is becoming irrelevant. The
last step in the change of power has been taken.

It is evident that the boundaries are increasingly less well defined.
Production generates consumption, which in turn generates production. The
large companies, always alert, are using the moment of revolution to
increase their profits, to generate blind enchantment through technology,
to feed the craving for the technological object and cycles of
dissatisfaction in having it, with a shorter and shorter length of time to
obsolescence. And the greater part of the users do not have the
perceptiveness to react as non-believers, in the intelligent words of
Muntadas. But artists have a particularly indispensable role there.

In fact, we are in a unique moment of revolution during which the
reallocation of power can proclaim radical and uncontrollable political
changes. Nevertheless, we have the privilege of being present at this
precise moment and, with one foot inside and the other outside, to observe
the maelstrom that whirls around us.

And it is in this exchange, in the rediscovery of the individual user as a
new and vital content in this process, beyond the system, beyond
technology, that we are able and should develop an action policy that is
focused on the return of power to the citizens, on the role of artists as
observers and particularly observant intermediaries, on the role of the new
digital entrepreneur in the development of new economic models.

Luis Soares

ls {AT} min-cultura.pt
ls {AT} mail.terravista.pt
http://www.min-cultura.pt
http://www.terravista.pt/AguaAlto/1072


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