Computer Channel

May 5th, 2010 | knock john

There was once a website called Prate, the organ of Jemma Hostetler, that playfully described itself as a "computer channel."

(Pretty sure she never did station idents, though.)

Lots of people have long been working towards various goals collected under the header of "the internet taking over the television." To the point where the line between the two is soon going to be very blurred.

People have been making tv for the internet for a long time — from Rocketboom, The Guild and Boing Boing Video to videobloggers and lifecasting channels. People have been making information services for the tv for even longer, since the days of Minitel and Ceefax.

Apple TV is already working. Google is developing Android software for televisions. Lots of people consider the tv to be just a big screen in your room that needs repurposing. Which is interesting to me for a few reasons, not the least of which being that I betcha more people timeshift their tv viewing on a computer screen than they do on a DVR hooked to a tv screen.

Are tv manufacturers really going to be an endangered species that need propping up with internet-company OS grafts?

He May Have A Razor On Him

March 19th, 2010 | knock john

First he broadcast the white-faced puppet Stooky Bill — a "stookie," in Glaswegian, is a plaster cast — and then grabbed a kid called Bill Taynton and put him in front of the machine. I like to think that Taynton got a look at Stooky Bill and felt a shot of the Fear, because the light and heat of the machine had blasted it into a cracked yellow ember of its former self. Perhaps the master of the machine, John Logie Baird himself, thought of the day when the Trinidadians of the Santa Cruz Valley thought him a white Obeahman and attempted a terrified assault on his house of strange lights. Perhaps he thought of the night he blacked out Glasgow while trying to make a diamond with electricity.

John Logie Baird put Taynton in front of the machine, the spin of his altered Nipkow Disc growling in the small hot room, and worked his mechanical magic, making him the first man broadcast on television.

When Baird tried to tell the news editor at the Daily Express what he’d done, the hack got the Fear and hissed to his staff: "He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless. Watch him– he may have a razor on him."

A Condition Of Magazines

January 20th, 2010 | knock john

The POD-magazine service MagCloud does an interesting sidestep around the "we have broken your business, now we want your machines" situation that the internet and clever people like Really Interesting Group present to newspaper printers (who are also, of course, a distribution solution — Newspaper Club newspapers get slung in the back of a van on a pallet right from the printers’ back gates). MagCloud is a Hewlett Packard initiative, and the position they take is "we will make the machines that make you do business with us directly." The print-on-demand machines, from slinging ink to punching binding, are all HP’s. The base cost they apply is twenty American cents per page, which makes a 20pp magazine four bucks before you add your own mark-up, that being your profit margin. They’ll sell the magazine for you, and mail out the copies to your customers. It is essentially a costless endeavour to produce and distribute a magazine, given that you have a computer and an internet connection in the first place.

It occurs to me that it also creates an interesting condition.

"Does it deserve to be a magazine?"

Given that you’ve got a computer and an internet connection in the first place, there are easier and faster ways to, as THE DAY TODAY used to say, Speak Your Brains. There was a time when it was easier to slap paste-up on a photocopier and bang out a print object than it was to sling the equivalent volume of material on the net, but that time, like THE DAY TODAY, is long gone.

Print’s not dead, and print’s not going away, but, in the magazine space, a print object is becoming a rare instantiation of a cultural operation.

And if I’m asking (say) five American dollars for a twenty-page magazine, I’m in the position of asking myself if this really needs to be in print. Is this a thing that people will want to pass around? Will it be more present and compelling than the same/similar content being passed around as a link? Is it going to survive longer than a week before going in the bin? Does it need the things that paper does in order to resonate?

COILHOUSE is an instance of a magazine that really took wings as a print object. The blog is great, but the magazine is such a fucking fantastic object that it completely transcends and occults the web organ. But something like COILHOUSE also creates something of a hurdle: if this is a new magazine that deserves to be a print object, does Magazine X also clear that bar?

Since MagCloud opened, I have from time to time toyed with the idea of publishing through it. A non-profit magazine featuring short essays and art pieces by a selection of my strange and future-facing friends, for instance, or a long piece by me constituting a wonder-cabinet tour on some subject or other. But I find, on sustained consideration, that I can’t meet the condition.

Which in itself is interesting, perhaps. It may explain why I haven’t seen the take-up of MagCloud services that I’ve expected. (I have their new-releases RSS in my feedreader, and buy a bunch every month or two.) It’s not necessarily that the web does magazines better: just the appearance of transience.

The Rust Of Broadcasting

January 16th, 2010 | knock john

A friend of mine who works in the post-industrial design space told me once of a meeting he was called to with a terrestrial network television broadcaster. He does lots of interesting work with lots of interesting people, in a range of digital and postdigital fields. But he was really kind of antsy about this meeting. He said to me: "Television? Broadcasting? That’s, like aerials and shit. Pylons and towers. Huge fucking chunks of rusting metal." The strong implication was that he felt he was being drafted into a meeting about manual farming machinery. Having an iPhone meant that he really shouldn’t have to know about things like oxen and ploughshares.

All this was in pursuit of a conversation about television, specifically British terrestrial tv and "common culture" (which is ten million people watching DOCTOR WHO and talking about it the next day, put reductively), and why I want to write some. Why, in essence, I want to traffic with the likes of great rusting broadcast towers.

And I said to him, "I want to do some television before it, as we know it now, goes away. If only just to try it and feel what it’s like."

(Which is, I’ll allow, like taking a writing holiday in Portmeiron because Noel Coward wrote there, or working on a Smith-Corona because it has mythic resonance. But, you know, it might be instructive to sit in Dennis Potter’s chair for a while. Just as I once sat at a desk Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote at.)

But here’s a thing about the rust of broadcasting. Something Russell Davies, who works in what he calls the post-digital space, said a while back:

We have broken your business, now we want your machines.

What Russell and his crew at Really Interesting Group have done is wrangle deals with newspaper printers. Whose business, in an emergent post-industrial age, is certainly a bit broken. Huge fucking machines designed only to print newspapers, in a time when newspaper publishers are printing fewer newspapers. RIG set up Newspaper Club, that allows people to print their own short-run newspapers using these big lonely machines that are not running the volume they used to but still need to pay for themselves.

Sometimes, I look up at these rusting aerials and towers, in a time when TV comes to an increasing number of people through a ground cable or a phone line, and wonder how long it’ll be until that business breaks completely — and, more importantly, how long until someone comes for the machines and makes them a deal.

Post-Industrial Broadcast

January 5th, 2010 | knock john

Broadcast and network culture. (And Atemporality, which, like the term "post-industrial," you’re likely to hear a lot about this year.)

In my part of the world, in the 1960s, you’d come home from work — as my mother did, as Niki’s mother did — and the first thing you’d do is put the radio on. You’ve already selected the broadcast channel you want. You’ve found out the frequency from friends, from a magazine, or just twisted around the dial ’til you hunted it out and left it there. Radio Caroline, or Radio Essex, broadcasting off the Maunsell Sea Fort called Knock John. These are pirate radio stations, outside the control or mandate of the BBC. And you’ve left the dial locked to that frequency because it’s the only way you can hear the music you like. It’s music the BBC doesn’t play, and the BBC’s pretty much the only game in town, if your town is ashen, brick-faced Sixties Britain. Broadcast technology has gotten to the point where nutters like Paddy Roy Bates can lash together a kit on a concrete plug sticking out of the Thames Estuary and blanket the area in modern music. It’s on the verge of a consumer-society democratisation.

My RSS feed reader is tuned to several broadcasters. I’ve found out the web addresses from friends, from magazines, from twisting around a search engine until I found what I was looking for. These broadcasters send music directly to my main daily listening device, which is a X61 Thinkpad (as opposed to an ITT transistor radio). And, even though I live in 2010 Britain and have a few more options than three or four BBC stations, it’s still often the only way I can hear the music I like.

(My daughter comes home and puts on YouTube, clicking around playlists. YouTube is in fact the radio for her and her friends, right now to the shitty sound quality.)

We’re in the depths of the consumer-society democratisation of the relevant technologies. It is really not hard to be a broadcaster now.

There’s obviously going to be a rush of tablet technologies this year. These are largely going to be about the broadcast of magazines. This is going to be kind of a new thing: over-the-air simultaneous delivery of post-print journalistic/design digital objects to handheld devices. Without immediate democratisation. This is a thing that large publishing corporations would presumably be intent on controlling access to. This will, equally obviously, not happen.

This is something I’m going to be kicking around for a while.