Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#58, October 26, 1999


by Marylaine Block

New software programs have come out recently that allow users to talk back to any web site - one allows you to attach a kind of post-it note anyplace on screen, while the other allows you to begin an online chat at any URL.*

It was not only logical but inevitable that somebody would create such software, because we have a history of turning one-way, top-down media into democratic, free-for-all media.

One of the first uses of the printing press was to publish official edicts. But before long printers began disagreeing with them in public, publishing broadsides with political opinions of all stripes, and distributing them in the streets and coffeehouses. Tom Paine's broadsides "Common Sense" and "The Rights of Man" helped our founding fathers arouse public opinion against King George. When mimeographs and copiers and fax machines came along, everybody could get in on the act of printing and sharing their ideas.

Photography was originally a top-down medium limited to paid professionals because cameras were so expensive, slow, and ponderous. The inexpensive Brownie cameras made photography a national sport anybody could play.

Radio actually began as a two-way medium, with hams helping to discover how radio waves worked, but it was soon taken over by commercial stations and networks. Recently, as station after station was absorbed into corporate empires, and programming became national and syndicated, talk radio gave listeners a chance to talk back. When local content disappeared from many stations altogether, low-wattage "pirate" radio stations began popping up to reclaim a portion of the airwaves for the benefit of the community.

Television was another technology that was at first too expensive to be anything but top-down. But all the successful video technologies since then have been ones that allowed viewers increasing control of what was on our screens. The first was video games; yes, somebody scripted them, but we controlled the pac-men, spiders, space ships and knights; we decided where our heroes would go, and who they would fight, with what weapons.

Cable gave us not only more program choices but a chance to do our own programming on open access channels, while remote control allowed us to surf restlessly from channel to channel whenever the content bored us. Recorders allowed us to view shows when we wanted to, not when networks scheduled them, and inexpensive video cameras allowed us to create our own content and share it with others.**

The net is as far from a top-down medium as you can get, with forums, interactive blogs, and sites where experts will answer your questions. If you like or hate something you read online, you can instantly post a comment on the site or fire off an e-mail.

That doesn't mean people don't want to control the internet, you understand, but techies are particularly resistant to top-down control. If Bill Gates had been willing to share his source code so users could improve on it, he wouldn't be worrying so much today about his open source rival, Linux.

It's a never-ending struggle, between people who want to control the media, and the viewers, listeners and users who think all media rightly belong to the audience, and we should at the very least be able to talk back. Give us any one-way medium, and I guarantee you, we'll figure out a way to make it go two ways - or six or seventeen.

*Remember, this column was written in 1999.

**I wrote this before YouTube became the ultimate extension.

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