Proto YouTube: How 1970s Video Collectives Anticipated Our Strange Internet

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It goes like this: a technological innovation opens up the possibility for a new kind of more immediate, decentralized, less hierarchical media form. The people will be empowered! And sometimes, they are. (At least for a while.)

This is the dominant narrative of the Internet as communications medium. But what's fascinating is that if we look in the crevasses of history, we can find a set of people who were blazing the trail that social media advocates would later walk. The new technology that arrived in their midst was the videocamera, and their approach was flavored by the countercultural milieu in which they placed themselves. Throughout the 1970s, video collectives like the one I'll focus on in this essay, Ant Farm, tried to break the three-channel tyranny of the broadcast media long before computer networks were commonly used.

According to scholar Deanne Pytlinski, these groups wanted to "interrupt broadcast television's one-way flow of information." They created video with "the goal of liberating the mind from control by the mainstream media through decentralization... coupled with the desire for deeper and more authentic forms of interpersonal communication."
 
Unlike film, which had to be developed and was expensive, video could be fast, cheap, and on-the-go. This change allowed video collectives to experiment with new ways of producing *and* consuming moving pictures.

Their work is detailed in Pytlinski's essay, which appears in a new book edited by Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner, West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, and in objects from Ant Farm productions at an accompanying show at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. The counterculture influenced the videomakers, who influenced more than just the counterculture. Their creative use of the new technology allowed new ways to think about media to spring up. Along with magazines like The Whole Earth Catalog, they promoted a pro-technology, anti-mainstream-media sensibility that was a far cry from neo-primitivism and much closer to the Internet pioneers of the 1990s.

While historian Fred Turner has described how the counterculture became cyberculture, the role of video collectives in creating new modes of networked media creation has gone unremarked upon. The collectives -- especially San Francisco's Ant Farm, Media Access Center, Optic Nerve, Video Free America, and TVTV -- were new media makers before there was a name for such a thing. But without networked distribution, they were forced to create fantastically creative spectacle and sneakernets to get their message out.

I am 65 percent not kidding when I say that the social-media ecosystem is basically the Ant Farm plus the Internet.

*

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On July 4, 1975, the members of San Francisco's Ant Farm architecture and video collective staged what they called the "ultimate media event." After a bit of performance-art frivolity in which a John F. Kennedy impersonator gave a mock speech deriding the media -- "Who can deny that we are a nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? Haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television?" -- the group took a heavily modded Cadillac and crashed it through a thin pyramid of television sets.

Local broadcast-television stations covered the event, mostly to mock it. KPIX, the CBS affiliate, cut back from its segment to the studio's two male anchors. "Now *that* was weird," one says, gesticulating with his pen. "You've got to say that that was pretty weird. The car going into the television sets and the Kennedy impersonator." He shakes his head as his colleague says, "I think it's over our heads." 

In footage from that time, KTVU's man on the scene looks into the camera with a clump of televisions flaming behind him and says, "So, what's it all mean? Well, presumably, the message is for the media," he says. "Get it?" The message is obvious to him, but the anchors back in the studio react differently. "I don't think I want to get it," says one anchor. "That's from the culture corner tonight," another anchor says as the third uncomfortably adjusts his jacket. The point, of course, was that broadcast television should burn! Even the faux bewilderment of the anchors shows them to be doltish squares because, really, who couldn't see what the message was? The brilliance of the stunt was to exploit the networks lust for spectacle to get them to broadcast the call for their own demise.

We know all about this stunt because The Ant Farm preserved it in a video piece called, Media Burn, which is now available for free on the art site UbuWeb. While they decried the artifacts and means of consuming moving pictures, they were simultaneously using the new technology of the videocamera to create counterprogramming. While contemporary people of all political persuasions like to paint the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s as a neo-primitivist affair, Ant Farm and the rest of the collectives were nothing of the sort. In fact, they were using the latest technology, a technology considerably newer than film cameras, and they were obsessed with cybernetics, an emergent framework for thinking about systems that emerged out of World War II war research. It is easier to paint all counterculturalists as reactionary anti-technologists, but the facts don't match up with the charge.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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