The relaxing of industry and government control of TV might come to resemble the breakup of the Central Soviet’s control of the Eastern European nations. At first all rejoiced in the wind of freedom; now all struggle as long-suppressed conflicts mount for battle. Freedom from tyranny grows into freedom to fight for nation, for religion, for principle. It grows simultaneously into the freedom to become our own worst selves.
How much freedom of expression should we allow on the airwaves and cables? How much do we videomakers want to exercise? We celebrate the opening of new TV channels and their increasing availability to videomakers. These promise a richer mix of programming than any we’ve seen. We can perhaps rebuild television as a public square in which various types of expertise can be voiced, in which various points of view can be expressed. This is the bright side, but like all technical innovations before it, open video access could throw a shadow.
Take the Internet. This is the computer network that connects thousands of independent computer networks around the world. Users ship all manner of information–data, scientific and cultural articles, opinion, images and sound–freely through this pipeline. No-one stands above the net as a gatekeeper; no-one decides that one idea is unworthy of transmission or that there is “not enough of an audience” for another. At the moment the Internet feels like First Amendment heaven; it has no censor. It’s the ancient Athenian forum digitized: sweetness and light.
This bright system casts its own shadow. Recently neo-Nazis have taken to a German state-run computer network. They use it to promulgate their ideas over the Internet and to organize. They use it to import books banned in Germany. The state does not throw them off the Telekom system because it runs the system as an uncensored common carrier–as many of us would have the information superhighway run.
Others use the Internet for abusive forms of expression they would never use face-to-face. They post messages, called “flames,” which scream vulgar epithets, invective, derision and threats at their unprepared recipients. Still others find amusement in spreading computer viruses of various stripes throughout the net–sometimes causing expensive damage to the equipment and data of others. And then there are those who adeptly use the net to spy on others, stealing their credit card numbers for example.
Imagine an Internet with full video and audio capability. That, after all, is what the Vice President, the cable and telephone companies are imagining. Everyone with a camcorder will be able to transmit moving pictures and sound as well as text through the National Information Infrastructure (NII). This promises an even greater range of expression for its users than the Internet currently allows; you will discuss science, politics, religion with anyone interested anywhere. You will express and receive all manner of information in living color and hi fi stereo. We’ll all live in video Athens.
Where will the shadow fall? Increasing surveillance of every home? Obscene and abusive video “flames”? Video viruses, video thefts? Video Nazis? Even the most staunch defenders of the First Amendment might someday cry out for censorship.
But wait: these would not all be crimes of expression. Viruses could be treated legally as forms of vandalism, video theft as theft, spying as invasion of privacy.
Flames and Nazi self-expression, however, remain. They offend many because the thoughts or language they convey offend; they will offend all the more when they convey repugnant images and sound. These offenses bring with them the true temptations to censorship.
Censorship swings like a two-edged sword, however. If we let the censor cut someone else’s dearly held beliefs from the net, could we stop that censor from cutting our own?
Milton said that truth triumphs in the free marketplace of ideas. In this view, video Nazis would exist as a challenge to principles of other users of the net. Rather than silencing them, could we answer them, persuade them of their errors, show better alternatives to their followers? How much faith do we have in the “free marketplace?” How much conviction in our own answers?
Perhaps we should put patrolmen on the information superhighway. They could police for viruses, and that would work to everyone’s good. Perhaps we should additionally let them police for theft and spying. Should they also arrest the kind of message that presents a clear and present danger–such as shouting “virus” in a crowded network? Here we should think carefully, lest we give away too much of our newborn video expression too fast. Yet, we need to think with urgency if we are to avoid the chaos that could ensue as government and industry loosen their control of the lines of video communication.
When we pick up our camcorders today, these questions begin to give us pause.
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.