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The Atlantic: How 1970s Video Collectives Anticipated Our Strange Internet

By Alexis Madrigal
The Atlantic

Auther_west coverIt 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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