Friday, July 25, 2008

Don’t Drink from the Mainstream.- an article


This is an article i wrote about Undercurrents for a magazine last month.

Alternative news organisation, Undercurrents does like a challenge. Born out of frustration in 1993 at the mainstream media’s lack of drive in reporting environmental issues, my colleagues and I searched for other outlets. After three years trying to convince BBC2 and Channel 4 to commission our documentaries, we decided to establish our own distribution. Rather than hanging around Westminster, our reporters immersed themselves in the vibrant counter-culture politics of the UK, giving us real insights into just how people were feeling about the future. While the mass media concentrated on apathetic youth, our cameras focused on motivated people intent on stopping a motorway destroying the medieval forests of Newbury or carving up the majestic Twyford Down. Many other reporters were too busy discussing the hairstyles of ‘eco-warriors’ to bother investigating the actual issues behind the tunnels and the tree houses.

Fast-forward to this century, to the floods, storms and record-breaking temperatures. Our climate is changing for the worse yet broadcasters are still very slow in appointing dedicated environmental journalists to provide consistent knowledge about the looming chaos. It is clearly up to the people themselves to get informed.

Years before the term ‘citizen journalism’ became fashionable, Undercurrents was training campaigners to make micro-documentaries using Sony Hi8 camcorders and twin JVC SVHS decks. Distribution relied upon the humble VHS cassette and a subscription model similar to magazines. Within 5 years we had sent out more than 30,000 videotapes, prompting Time Out to dub us "the news you don’t see on the news". By the end of the 20th century, we had succeeded in putting video cameras in the hands of people who actually had something useful to say, and giving them a platform to be heard from.

For the first five years of the 21st century we relied upon DVD and CD-ROM for distribution, even encouraging our subscribers to copy and distribute our discs under ‘copy-left’ licences to their friends worldwide with the understanding there would be no profiteering.

It was a great success, very little loss in quality leading to a few self-motivated people translating our films and widening the circulation further than we could ever have afforded. Today of course our DIY distribution is based around the Internet. Rather than paying for expensive streaming servers, we have decided to base it around the much more inclusive peer-to-peer technology of BitTorrent. Designed in 2001, BitTorrent is a method of distributing large amounts of data widely without the original distributor incurring the entire costs of hardware, hosting and bandwidth resources. Instead, when data is distributed using the BitTorrent protocol, each recipient supplies pieces of the data to newer recipients, reducing the cost and burden on any given individual source, providing redundancy against system problems, and reducing dependence on the original distributor. We are attracting subscribers daily by using Really Simple Syndication (RSS) video feeds. This is an invaluable system making it easy to subscribe and receive our latest content automatically.

While most corporations struggle to control the illegal distribution of their content with Digital Rights Management, we have decided to licence our work under Creative Commons licence allowing viewers to take our videos and change, screen or copy them figuring that a far and wide distribution is a huge bonus for our advertisers.

Our VisionOnTV video player application, (based upon the existing Miro) will be released properly in Summer 2008 with two ways of experiencing it in mind. First being a ‘lean back’ experience- i.e.: viewers can just sit back and enjoy the full screen high quality content. Once comfortable with the experience of viewing online Television, viewers will be encouraged to ‘lean in’- for the view-on-demand and begin to rate, tag, share, bookmark videos or just chat online about the issues being raised.

Developed under an GPL open source licence we will make the source code of VisionOnTV available granting anyone the right to use and develop it. This is what we view as progress when building the open mass medium of online television. We have a window of opportunity to keep IPTV open but there's a constant risk that large corporations will continue to build proprietary systems, which lock users into closed systems. By championing video RSS we hope we can help make a more level playing field. So our goal in some ways is to nudge the video industry in the direction of using open standards.

However creating an open TV network is only one of our goals. Climate change is real and people will never spontaneously take action themselves unless they receive social support and the validation of others. Governments in turn will continue to procrastinate until sufficient numbers of people demand a response. To avert further climate change will require a degree of social consensus and collective determination normally only seen in war time, and that will require mobilisation across all classes and sectors of society. The media has a huge role within that mobilisation and hopefully with the open solutions we are building, Undercurrents and VisionOnTv will play a vital role over the next decade. Undercurrents does like a challenge.

To download the Beta of our VisionOnTV player go to www.visionontv.net

For more information about Undercurrents go to www.undercurrents.org

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