World Conquest through Bottom Up Media

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 2 April 2003

So how do the owners of handheld wireless devices take over the world? Easy. By using them.

Perhaps it more a testament to the sorry state of democracy in the United States than to any ‘renaissance shift’ that cell phones offer a genuine opportunity to restore the public will to national affairs. Our mishandled, if not miscounted, presidential election put the fate of the highest office in the land in the hands of the Supreme Court, who gleefully expanded its own powers in order to do so. The next set of congressional elections featured such anti-democratic tactics as handing out flyers in poor neighborhoods announcing that the election would be held on the wrong day, or that all traffic tickets would have to be paid to officials waiting outside the voting booth.

The day that midterm elections finally took place, the only remaining exit polling company in the United States announced that its servers went down. A few weeks later, they were out of business. Meanwhile, one political party in United States (you’ll have to guess which) has ended up with de facto control of the company that manufacturers and maintains the computerized voting machines used in an increasing number of precincts throughout the nation, already garnering some results that have astounded pollsters of both parties.

The supposed watchdog – the mainstream news media or “fourth estate” – appear to have fallen asleep. There’s a reason for this. Five corporations currently own about 80% of the commercial media space. And these companies – AOLTimeWarner, Vivendi, Disney, etc. – are basically just names on debt. They are ticker symbols on the stock exchange, and their shareholders want those tickers to go higher. This means selling ads, and promoting whatever culture and policy is going to increase the short-term bottom line.

The kinds of things you might be interested in, such as the protecting the environment, uncovering corporate-sponsored political campaigns and policies, or the appointment of, say, a coal lobbyist as head of an energy agency, remain unreported because – quite simply – these stories don’t help the quarterly report of the corporations who own our media. Many of our news stations are owned by the same conglomerates that make missiles and guidance systems, or that mean to control the water supply in South America. They’re not likely to report stories that make themselves look bad.

Then why am I so hopeful? Because the sum total of computer processing power and media dissemination technology in the hands of real people today far outweighs anything controlled by government or corporate conglomerates. How many microphones do you think there are in all the major news bureaus, combined? And how many do think there are in all world’s cell phones, combined? Now you’re getting the idea. It’s time for a People’s Media.

Back in the early nineties, video camcorders finally reached the saturation point necessary for one of them to happen to be in range when a bunch of overzealous white cops beat up a black man in Los Angeles. The “Rodney King Tape” spread through the mediaspace like wildfire, eventually leading to full-scale rioting in a dozen American cities. Soon after, I remember seeing an ad in Rolling Stone that showed an African-American arm holding a camcorder in the air with the caption: “The Power is in Your Hand.”

That was before the Internet, before streaming video, and before wireless. The camcorder tape itself was physically carried into the newsroom. In one short decade, we’ve gained the ability to upload video to servers and make our images accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, no matter what the news networks might think of it.

But the kinds of wireless devices for sale right now (at often close to free thanks to the cellular carriers’ greedily acquired overcapacity) aren’t mere telephones or PDA’s. They’re cameras and microphones. Everyone walking around with one of these is a potential photo or video journalist.

The funders of progressive political media are currently fixated on building “left-wing” radio and television networks to counteract the “right-wing” bias of AM call-in shows and the cable dial’s news networks. Given the way in which the digital renaissance has transformed the public from media consumers to potential media producers, that’s a shortsighted strategy, hopelessly steeped in the broadcast paradigm of the 20th Century.

No, the future of a progressive media that promotes democratic values, civic consciousness, and autonomous action does not lie in the creation of new kinds of content, but new kinds of context. Web sites equipped with streaming capabilities could become real-time clearinghouses for news from around the world that needn’t meet the approval of network censors or corporate sponsors. Universities and existing activist organizations could provide some network centrality for a several-hundred-million-strong army of wireless correspondents.

Who needs CNN or FoxNews to cover a protest when more than half the participants can cover it, themselves, from the front? Who needs to call-in a radio talk show to voice their opinion before the host hangs up, when they can file a dispatch to an uncensored web site through their cell phone from anywhere in the world?

Ahh – but how are we to sift through all these millions of stories? That’s the magic of “collaborative filtering,” already in use by sites like Slashdot and Plastic. User of the site rate the stories and the correspondents, so that the most relevant and well-reported ones rise to the top. The day’s very best reports and commentaries could even be compiled, downloaded to DVD, and broadcast that night on local access television.

A bottom-up media might not change our political problems overnight, but it would send a clear message to the current keepers of the mediaspace that if they don’t offer us the kind of coverage we want to see, that we’re willing to create it ourselves. More importantly, it will stand a chance of generated the kind of nuanced coverage only possible when the news is being reported from several million points of view at the same time.

Bottom-up media, fueled by the proliferation of personal wireless technology, is the only media worthy of today’s renaissance society.

Douglas Rushkoff lectures about media, society, and change at conferences and universities around the world.