Radical Invasion Of New Media

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Grassroots production and distribution takes a lot of work, of lot of it in the form of sweat equity, but if you're passionate about expressing yourself, the barriers are not as great as you might think.
Chris Carlsson

Issue #26, May 1996

Information: the stilted fragments that make money live and humans die so surreptitiously and yet so incessantly.

In 1981 I was working in downtown San Francisco as a temporary word processor. I had already been politically active on a variety of lefty causes, but like so many others, found my political activity largely directed toward the issues and predicaments of others. Working in the financial district, feeling acutely the empty despair of utterly absurd work ("handling information"!), I felt a need to connect my political dissidence with my own daily life. To make a longer story shorter, I co-founded Processed World (PW) magazine in San Francisco's financial district with a couple of other "politicos," and soon a dozen or so fellow travelers in what we then called the "milieu" began helping with it, along with a steady stream of new friends and collaborators. We saw ourselves as accidentally and temporarily working in banks and insurance companies to pay our rents, and looking around, realized that there were quite a lot of people on parallel tracks. We sought to communicate with the many others occupying a similar niche to ourselves, and to use our just-developing skills in writing, graphic arts, typesetting, and printing (many of which we were just learning for the first time) to establish a forum. From its inception, PW provided a creative outlet for the stifled geniuses in the corporate cubicles of downtown San Francisco. The magazine straddled that oppressive split between what we do to fulfill ourselves as creative, passionate human beings and the absurd activities we did as "work" to earn money and function as modern citizens. PW also sought to tap the enormous political power that may be within reach of the day-to-day handlers of "information."

But what really set the Processed World effort apart from the "left" and traditional workplace agitation was our embrace of humor, our acceptance of transience, and our identification of attitude as the crucial linchpin of control in a workplace in which everyone is finally a replaceable part. As we hawked our magazines on downtown street corners, wearing bizarre papier mache costumes like VDT heads called "IBM — Intensely Boring Machines" or a detergent box "Bound, gagged and TIED to useless work, day in day, for the rest of your life?" and many others, we would create a cacophonous appeal to passersby who'd "rather take the afternoon off" and would enjoy a "magazine with a bad attitude!" We met many writers and artists this way; several hundred people came to contribute their work to Processed World during its thirteen-year run. As an experiment in underground media Processed World was in many ways a trendsetter for the 'zine explosion which followed in the late '80s. Our curious combination of passion, humor, and unprofessionalism was a living demonstration that anyone could use the supplies waiting in a modern office supply room to make a worthwhile media outlet.

Moreover, our style helped break down assumptions about what revolutionary politics had to feel and sound like... even more crucially, our primary focus on work life reinforced a preoccupation with actual daily life experiences, something that everyone could tap if they so chose. By its very nature, this kind of political and creative expression challenged notions of expertise, professionalism, and the hierarchy of communicators and passive consumers. Our distribution system, going directly to potential readers and writers on busy public street corners, short-circuited another of the primary rigidities that prevent most people from being creators in addition to consumers of media representations (esp. of their own lives). After all, while anyone could type up an essay or satirical jab, getting it into the hands of other people is no small problem. Distributing a few dozen copies to coworkers or friends is OK, but that tends to reinforce the isolation that the attempt to communicate ostensibly attacked in the first place.

We weren't satisfied with just typing up our thoughts and handing them out; we cared a great deal about the ways we communicated beyond mere words. Hence our great effort to create and publish good art, a good-looking magazine, and to take seriously the ways people get messages through more than straight text. But our art was rarely that of the "professional" artist; our free appropriation and subversion of existing imagery (mostly print ads in major magazines) again reinforced the notion that anyone could do it: scissors and a glue stick, a few sheets of rub-off letters, and you could be a graphic artist (albeit unschooled and rather crude).

I had helped publish leaflets before we started PW, so I wasn't a complete stranger to self-publishing. The easy access to quality photocopying in most offices, combined with the incredible waste of paper and computer resources was a big impetus to our creative inclinations. Our self-styled "Robin Hood Office Supplies Collective" functioned for years, and always had the goal of promoting independent expression. I think our propaganda helped many people begin self-publishing over time.

We couldn't keep Processed World alive after 13 years. I gave up on an ideological commitment to "totally free" before Processed World, which itself started out at $1.00 and gradually increased to $5.00 on #32. Keeping a marginal magazine of 4,500 circulation afloat 2 or 3 times a year is a lot of work. When a healthy number of people donate their time, put out a "quality product," and you can still barely pay the rent, the printer, and the post office, something isn't right. Seeing a long-term decline in my typesetting business at the same time, I was feeling the squeeze on independent print media pretty directly. I felt PW was getting more or less the same response it had for years: a steady stream of "gee whiz" fan letters, and an occasional "bad attitude" story. The magazine had lost its sense of purpose, it wasn't really "on" to anything unique anymore, and it was beginning to sound very repetitive to me. So I pulled out after issue 32, as did most of the other collective members. The remaining 2 or 3 couldn't keep it going alone, and PW today languishes in a weird, comatose limbo, historically finished, but its end permanently undeclared. Issue 32 was published in January 1994, and that's the last one to come out (an issue 33 1/3 was largely finished but money and energy ran out before it ever got to the printer — it may never be published, or it may appear on the net or in a 2nd anthology in the next year or two).

But my commitment to independent publishing, horizontal communications, and the radically democratic possibilities of today's technologies goes on. One manifestation of this was early, fervent agitation within the monthly "bike-in" phenomenon Critical Mass for its self-management through "Xerocracy" — anyone can be a 'Xerocrat!' Xerocracy has ebbed and flowed as a functional communication system, but on balance it continues to wield great influence over Critical Mass in San Francisco, and apparently in many cities in the UK, Australia, and other parts of North America. Which is to say, many people make their preferences known through self-published tracts and hand them out to other cyclists as well as passersby in what is one of the larger, more dynamic social/political spaces of the past few years.

I saw that my decade's experience in print media was threatening to become suddenly obsolete with the rise of the Internet, CD-ROM publishing and digital technologies in general. I wanted to take the political approach, values and sensibility we had developed in Processed World and extended in Critical Mass and enter the digital fray.

Occupying several thousand hours of 1994-5-6 already, Shaping San Francisco (SSF) is an interactive multimedia excavation of the lost history of San Francisco. In close collaboration with two other PWers, Greg Williamson (programmer) and Jim Swanson (animator), we began to sketch out a rough vision of a multi-tiered history project in mid-1994. We called it "Emperor Norton's Time-Traveling Dog & Bike Extravaganza!" but it has since changed its name twice (now known as Shaping San Francisco) and taken on ridiculously enormous proportions. It is quite challenging, incredibly complex work involving all kinds of assumptions about cognition, attention, curiosity, memory, as well as serious questions about history, its "making," and how to make it a more conscious practice in the present, issues of ownership and copyright. It also confronts questions of access and accessibility, both in terms of distributing what we create (see below), and in making aspects of neglected, suppressed, or lost history meaningfully available to a wide cross-section of San Francisco's population. We also seek to turn Shaping San Francisco into an ongoing project of participatory history, making it a delivery mechanism for various people and communities to tell their own stories.

I began my efforts on this by writing an article called "The Shape of Truth to Come: New Media and Knowledge" (PW 32, and the City Lights anthology Resisting the Virtual Life) critiquing the very concept of "interactivity" as a pale imitation of the real thing carried on by free humans all the time, but appearing at a time when, in fact, human interaction has been widely reduced to transactions. Rare are the times when we are together in purposeful or pleasurable pursuits, free of the necessity to buy or sell. We are beset by widespread ignorance, amnesia and denial about events, even quite recent. So we started this project in part to combat historical ignorance.

When three of us started on this project about two years ago, we planned to challenge the forms and limits of new media. Shaping San Francisco will be freely available through public kiosks, bringing history into new public spaces, from libraries and cafes to street corners and pedestrian malls. We will also publish a CD-ROM (along with a book published by City Lights), and eventually export it to a flashier, graphically more agile website, making it available through the new media in an entertaining and intellectually substantial way. We want our new media project to poke a hole in the closing of public space. It will confront the isolation of atomized consumption with publicly available kiosks, which could become hubs of public meeting and discussion.

Rather than focus on getting a CD-ROM on the market (a commodity) we have been assembling an unconventional cross-section of San Francisco histories with the goal of helping our understanding of the past stretch our imaginations of what could be. Of course, we also have to sell a CD version to recoup some of our time and money, and to make it more widely available. Shaping San Francisco is not conceived of as a "product" really, but rather an ongoing experiment in participatory urban history — its archiving, cataloguing, writing, imaging, and public sharing. If it succeeds at staking out a new genre in the infant field of interactive multimedia, it will also prove that gobs of money and professional training are not essential precursors to creative engagement with this apparently inaccessible new media. While we wouldn't have gotten far without the programming and design skills we've learned in the capitalist marketplace, it's just as clear that the conceptual work we've done is what really sets us apart. People with a wide range of skills, knowledge, background, and money CAN find their own expression in even this apparently inaccessible media. Grassroots production and distribution takes a lot of work, of lot of it in the form of sweat equity, but if you're passionate about expressing yourself, the barriers are not as great as you might think.

If you'd like to help with the Shaping San Francisco project, write to: 1095 Market St., #210, San Francisco, CA 94103, or email: ccarlsson@icg.apc.org.

Chris Carlsson was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957, lived in Chicago's South Side until he was ten, and then moved to Oakland, California in 1967 with his family. After finishing his public school education in Oakland, he spent some time in two California state universities before dropping out. He co-founded Processed World magazine in 1981, which he co-edited, contributed writing and graphics, and helped self-manage until January 1994. He edited and designed the anthology Bad Attitude (Verso, 1990), and has had his own graphic design/typesetting business since 1983. He presently divides his unpaid time between a grandiose experiment in interactive multimedia, exploration of the bicycle as an anti-spectacular device (Carlsson is a co-instigator of the worldwide phenomenon known as "Critical Mass," wherein urban bicyclists stage monthly rides to promote bicycling, public space, and conviviality), and family and friends.

Copyright © 1996 by Chris Carlsson. All rights reserved.

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