Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Possible Media Futures

Just under a year ago, I was asked by a foundation to write a brief memo about my thoughts on the future of media. I have posted it here , with some edits, to get some conversation going on this blog about this subject.


“Access is, after all, about determining kinds as well as levels of participation. It’s not a question of who gains access but rather what types of experiences and worlds of engagement are worth seeking and having access to. The answer to that question will determine the nature of the society we will create for ourselves in the twenty-first century.” Jeremy Rifkin

“Media” means many things today and the definition constantly changes. In thinking about the future of media, this blog will focus on developments in the media arts — a mix of commercial endeavors and “independent” media, including social documentaries, animation, video games, Hollywood films, experimental films, journalistic videos, educational media, video installations — virtually anything that incorporates motion media using film, digital media or computer-based formats. The media arts include works that entertain and educate, and serve the public good by allowing individual and multiple alternative voices and ideas to be heard.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of media arts, a time filled with possibility and uncertainty, but most of all, promise. Simultaneously, there are concerns, both old and new, that threaten to undermine the possibilities. To best address the future of media arts and its promise to contribute to a civil, democratic society, one needs to keep in mind all of the changes and contradictions inherent in the technological advances that affect their production, dissemination and use.


Historically, broad uptake of the media arts has been affected by concerns in three areas: production (the cost of making media); distribution (getting the work out to the public); and policy (concerns, such as copyright, that impact the use of media arts). Media artists have never lacked for ideas or subjects, but they have lacked the resources (financial and otherwise) to create their work, reach their audience and still make a living. Advances in technology provide tools that allow for easier production, dissemination and use of media. With increasingly affordable and available tools of production (cameras, editing systems and computers), artists and amateurs alike can create media more readily, which has led to an exponential increase in production worldwide. Technology also allows one to create new art forms and new forms of knowledge. For example, Open Source software technologies are changing the ways in which media is produced and consumed by promoting a vision of the world where knowledge, in all forms, is open, accessible, and even changeable by all.

Matching the exponential increase in the number of media projects produced are advances in distribution modes. Multiple platforms for the delivery of media arts now exist — whether through film festivals or art house cinemas, galleries or nightclubs, over broadband networks, on cable, through Netflix, on DVD or over the web. Artists have more ways to reach audiences than ever before. Increasingly, the disenfranchised, poor and excluded are gaining access to the means of production and to their share of the world’s audiences (via increasingly universal, cheap broadband WiFi), although certainly a digital divide persists.

Many theorists have worried that such ubiquity is a problem: that due to the cacophony of multiple voices, audiences will have difficulty finding alternative visions. Nevertheless, technology and other recent trends promise some solutions. Social networks, fan websites and blogs have formed around almost any topic or interest imaginable. Recommender systems, and search technologies like Video.Googleor iTunes allow the public to find the visual content they want, and technologies such as BitTorrent will allow individuals to subscribe to video content much as they subscribe to newspapers. The true merger of the Internet and television could allow greater consumer access to content. And all of this can happen on a global scale: the same technology that allows a well-to-do New Yorker to download a music video from the Internet over a latte allows indigenous workers in Colombia to spread word of their resistance efforts through digital video shared over cheap wireless networks.


Of course, technology doesn’t solve every problem — indeed, it has the potential to shut down the very openness it brings. It can spread terror or piracy as easily as children’s programming. As theorist Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, technology points the way to both anarchy and oligarchy, but real possibility lies somewhere in-between. At this crucial moment, the field and its supporters must tackle the possibilities in such ways that allow the media arts to help us envision a better world. Some of the primary issues and challenges that need to be faced in the present to prepare for the future are listed below.

The Digital Divide
True, as the costs of certain new technologies decline, those with less purchasing power have more access to technology, yet the digital divide persists. Perhaps more troubling than exclusion from physical access to technology is that the poor and excluded continue to be left out of conversations about policy, technological change and the arts, resulting in an ever-growing divide of exclusion.

The fact that the means of production have gotten cheaper simultaneously creates a problematic paradox for the arts: the majority of media artists working today must still spend large sums of money to make their art. While some work can be made cheaply, others remain costly endeavors due to the extensive research, expert opinion, talented actors or the high production values that are expected and demanded by a more media-savvy audience. Many artists have a hard time convincing funders (whether investors or donors) to allocate the resources necessary for quality media production, much less to fund a living wage.


Audiences have more access to more diverse media arts than ever before, but large bodies of work remain inaccessible to large segments of the public. A geographic divide persists, with few noncommercial works screened outside of major cities, and while the number of foreign films being produced is exploding, the ubiquity of American media overshadows them. Additionally, valuable cultural heritage is being lost: much media is disappearing from public access because archives often can’t afford to convert it to the digital formats that would allow for its safekeeping and dissemination.

The distribution system for independent film and video is in dire need of new paradigms. Many worthy films do not receive proper distribution due to a crowded marketplace, unimaginative distributors locked into old methods, or a lack of funding for proper dissemination. While the Internet promises new delivery mechanisms, many films and new media works are made for (and thrive in) a live, public audience. Unfortunately, reaching these audiences remains difficult, as many artists don’t have the knowledge, the funding or the tools to distribute their own work, or must settle for distribution systems that are less than satisfactory.

Policy Issues & Changing Business Models

Numerous policy battles are currently taking place that could forever change how society participates with media — in spectrum policy, copyright, media ownership and digital rights management, to name but a few. For example, the balance of copyright has shifted away from the public good to over-control by rights holders and the increasing issue of expiring rights is limiting the distribution of important work (as with the landmark civil rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize). No one’s interests are served when media is “stuck on the shelf” in both non-profit and for-profit archives because it’s too expensive to clear rights for extended use, and a balance must be found that benefits both media rights holders and users. In addition, business models are changing radically — or sometimes fail to change with the times, thus choking off new avenues. Many companies claim to be fearful of piracy or losing markets, but many resist change only because it threatens their (now antiquated) business model.

To address these challenges and to have the greatest societal impact, the field needs to think of innovative, transformative ideas. The arts should be the place to experiment with new models, and to envision new possibilities for the future, whether through newly invented technologies or new uses for existing technologies. Creative thinking in the media arts could have impact beyond the field, and possibly set new paradigms for other arts and for society.

Research, Policy, Advocacy and Education
There is great need for continued research, mapping, convening and policy work. The field needs the data to show the problems (such as lack of diversity), and the advocacy to ensure good policy decisions. There is also a need to convene around the multiple issues facing the media arts: What can be done collaboratively to broaden the reach of socially important media? In light of new developments, what directions are most central? Who is not being served? What can be learned from other fields? Last, there is still a need for education — of gatekeepers, of artists and of general publics — in the importance of media arts; in the value of media artists’ contributions to society; in the craft, technology and business of media arts; in its distribution and in media literacy. Through such work, the field can encourage broader support for and public understanding of the value of media arts.

There are new models for dissemination, including alternative distribution and marketing strategies, new exhibition avenues, direct video sales and ever-increasing home video (DVD) markets. Systemization of festival screenings, web-based networks and new distribution strategies could get the work to broader audiences than ever before. The field needs knowledge sharing — strategies, stories, case studies and experiments focused on distribution and dissemination. Citizens need assistance in building communal media experiences where individuals and groups can connect, learn from and utilize media for social change or educational purposes. What if audiences could coalesce at a website for documentary films, talk about and recommend media, and even contribute video-blog feedback on what they have seen? What if they were engaged in a conversation with this media instead of being “fed” such media? Leaders in the field must think of what the public wants and deserves, and work together to make that happen so that audiences can find and use this important media. As a result, media artists will prosper, by finding new audiences for their work.

New Financing Models
The media arts need innovative funding models that validate artists, help them attract new sources of funding, and help them find and reach the broadest possible audiences. New strategies could be found in novel approaches to the venture capital model, or with open source and social networking advances. For example, an online, audience-driven fund for progressive media arts could enable individuals, foundations and investors alike to support a variety of work. The Internet provides great potential to encourage individuals to become art patrons rather than mere consumers. Most of all, funders need to support creative experiments, where new knowledge and thinking may help expand the field. Many funders are experimenting with ways to get money, services and advice into the hands of artists. Such funds may come from multiple sources, but collaboration could be encouraged to leverage investments to most benefit artists and society.

Furthermore, boundaries between commercial and noncommercial media are disappearing, and are increasingly irrelevant to creators and consumers of content. Many people theorize that successful future strategies in media arts will come from combining the assets of the for-profit and non-profit sectors to realize both financial and social profits. This new space, perhaps called with-profit (as in social goals with profit potential), promises a rich field for exploration. What if with-profit organizations funded socially important work that will receive commercial distribution, thus reaching broader audiences that aren’t commercially attractive to the for-profit community? What if a with-profit developed a rights-licensing system that allowed creators and rights-holders to be compensated based on actual usage while simultaneously increasing public access? Perhaps the greatest potential for increasing the impact of media arts lies in with-profit ideas.

These potential solutions, while not all-inclusive, suggest some of the work that remains to be done. Society will benefit most from a multi-faceted strategy that considers these options alongside methods that are already working. Most of all, the field needs to continue to discuss the “big picture” and imagine possible futures for society. Every new technological advance in the arts has brought us closer to realizing the ideals of a civil society. Each time, there has been a chance to realize dreams —of technology allowing everyone to share and build knowledge, of a more democratic society where everyone could be producers, not just consumers, where multiple viewpoints could be shared and, in general, where the world could be a better place. Each time, such possibilities have been squandered due to a lack of vision about the future, the forces of greed, the power of the few over the many and the simple fact that technology never quite realizes its potential. Once again, society has been given a set of tools, none perfect, that can help realize our dreams, if we are willing to imagine the possibilities and act soon to ensure their success. All that we need is in front of us. Will we act upon it, or let this chance slip away once again?

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