What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part Three)

While your book relies heavily on interviews with more than 80 people -- men and women -- involved in the television industry, you also rely on participant-observation -- your own experiences as a contributor to Current and Free Speech Television. What can you share of your experiences there and how did they contribute to your analysis of these forms of civic media? Why did Current, for example, fail to achieve its goals of democratizing television news?  

Between 2006 and 2009, I worked as a freelance documentary video producer for Current where I made 15 short videos on issues such as Iraqi refugees, divided cities like East Jerusalem, and religious contestation in India for UK, US, Irish, Italian cable and satellite television. This provided a valuable position from which to view the technoliberal ideals. It this was a heady time for the network as they were not being driven by economic liberal principles as much as by social liberal principles, meaning they didn’t have to worry about money too much and instead were burning their venture capital in an attempt to build hype around the very web 2.0, participatory culture ideals of media democratization, citizen video journalism, and other forms of technological empowerment.

As a go-to producer for Current I was at the front-lines of both receiving the propaganda about how networked technologies and new television-grade video cameras were transforming television—while at the same time receiving the precarious and unsufficient paychecks which enabled me to travel the world uninsured and unsupported. Fun, crazy, dangerous, and great for research. My position enabled me to embody the technoliberal paradox of technoliberalism. I was also able to see the weight of the contradiction eventually destroy the social liberal idealism as the market pressures mounted with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the exhaustion of the VC funds. (So, following the excellent work and guidance ofSherry Ortner and John Caldwell, I advocate that graduate students interested in the media industries attempt to work in those industries. No better access can be had!)

Current failed in terms of both economic liberalism and social liberalism, exposing the fallacy of that the technoliberal digital discourse can ameliorate this liberal paradox. The social liberal media democratization failed because there were not the global armies of camera-wielding activists and storytellers capable of making even remotely television-grade programming. Current did everything it could at film festivals, film schools, online and off, and found all of us and frankly there were not that many, a few hundred.

Democratization wasn’t the result but rather professionalization. Our content wasn’t that good, to be frank, and wasn’t scheduled but was randomly shuffled, so the audience didn’t develop around shows and stars so advertisers and cable providers weren’t interested. Eventually owners Gore and Hyatt sold the network to Al Jazeera for $100 million and a substantial personal profit, so it worked for these techno-elite and their technoliberal digital discourse apparently worked as well.

One of the most interesting chapters here deals with debates about the origin of the internet which erupted in the face of campaign statements by Al Gore and Barack Obama. What are some of the alternative understandings of digital history proposed? Who advocated them? And what do you see as the stakes in this debate?


Most people are familiar with former Vice President Al Gore’s statement about the internet while campaigning, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet,” uttered on CNN on March 9, 1999. But former President Obama also aligned himself with the internet on the campaign trail, saying on July 13, 2013: “The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.”

My argument is that aligning with the internet and all the good it symbolizes is a technoliberal political ploy. Gore fetishizes the internet while Obama mythologizes it and in the process both hope that their star will rise along with the NASDAQ and the hype of Web 1.0 for Gore and Web 2.0 for Obama.

But than a degradation ritual began in which both politicians are lambasted in the press. The different approaches used by the critical journalists expose the various types of technoliberal digital discourse. L. Gordon Crovitz at The Wall Street Journal started the polemic by going against the accepted wisdom and saying that former President Obama was wrong, it was Xerox PARC, and therefore corporations and not the government made the internet. Farhad Manjoo of Slate rebutted that the President was correct, the state did fund and support what became the internet. Harry McCracken of Time added to the debate by bringing back an old idea that never gets old in technology journalism, that it was not the state or corporations, but brilliant individuals like Tim Berners-Lee who created HyperText Markup Language (HTML), who should be thanked for creating the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson writing in The New York Times said it was not states, corporations, nor smart individuals but the people, namely, a public of open-source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the inter- net. These four liberal historiographies form contradictory dyadic pairs between economic and social liberalism.

What is at stake is what is always at stake in historiographical revisions: the path dependent direction of the present and future. And there is a clear winner, Crovitz.

Though likely the least accurate of the four historiographies, Crovitz’s argument is winning the present direction of internet — into the hands of the neoliberal elites and the politicians that support them. It is important, to differentiate the technoliberal and the neoliberal elites. Much like corporate liberals, technoliberals give lip-service to social liberalism and corporate, social, and self responsibility. Not so with the neoliberal elites whose ideology is non-contradictory. It is a pure breed of efficient economic liberalism without the baggage of social liberalism. Considering the ascent and present domination of technocapitalism in the last two decades, to read Crovitz is to hear the gloating of a victor. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal in which Crovitz gave his technocapitalist historiography that falls directly in line with the neoliberal principles which governs News Corp. and Murdoch’s longtime relationship with governments and other media corporations. With the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, enabling unlimited economic contributions by corporations to political campaigns, on the premise that money is speech, the centrality of economic liberalism in US representational democracy is secured. While civil society groups like the Media Reform Coalition in the UK and Free Press in the US advocate for network neutrality and against media conglomeration, they have been largely omitted from power. This had been going on for decades but with the assignment by Trump of Ajit Pai to be the FCC Chairman, the final assault on socially liberal regulation of television and the internet will begin.

The media reform movement in the United States has often been divided between those who reach fatalistic conclusions based on the analysis of media ownership/concentration and those who maintain somewhat more optimistic perspectives based on expanded access to the means of production and circulation. Does your book offer any alternatives for thinking about what forms of media reform we should be advocating? What should we be fighting for?

As a cultural anthropologist, I need to oscillate between empirical case studies and broader theoretical interpretations and socio-political contexts. Hopefully, this regular movement between the micro and the macro dissolves the binaries, dualities, and other reductive absolutes. At each of the poles it is easy to be either cynical or optimistic.

At the political economic structural level the media landscape appears to be one in which the scale is winner-takes-all, resistance is coopted, and there is less and less opportunity to speak and be heard. On the ethnographic level one can participate in inspiring actions of media empowerment. If one adds the element of time, ebbs and flows of relative openness and closure become evident.

But in order for the openness which is necessary for robust participatory culture to survive and thrive activists need to focus on developing both the micro-level hacker-like skills of technological use and misuse as well as macro-level policy interventions. That way, if the trends toward closure and technocapitalism continue to dominate the present age of television and internet convergence in a mode of negative liberty and economic or neoliberalism than we are at least preparing to develop the next transmission system which can create a disruptive opening for temporary amateur and activist voicing.

I think the present is more about this form of subversion than it is about counter-hegemonic resistance and policy activism. We shouldn’t be fighting, but rather just getting on with making the subversive media we want to make, legal or not. In the memory of Aaron Swartz, we should just do what is right regardless of legality. Illegal downloads/uploads, radical free speech, whistleblowing, exfiltration, dark net uses, TOR encryption, DDoS—these practices are illegal while the NSA and GCHQ and other cyber-state cops are regularly using them against citizens in unwarranted investigations. States have become hackers while hackers are being thrown into state and federal prisons.

This is one of the issues taken up in my other 2017 book, After the Internet, and will be the single focus on my new book with Luca Follis, Hacker States (a continuation of concepts developed here and here): what rights will remain and what will be the future of democracy if nation states continue to prosecute hackers while hacking, leaking and depositing scandalous material, and using bots to pollute the public sphere?

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about "elemental media"--atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.