"Power is no longer measured in land, labour or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it." Radical Software
, Issue # 1

The founders of Radical Software (RS), and the Raindance collective that published it, sensed they had a unique chance to have a powerful impact on the future. For the original team - Beryl Korot, Phyllis Gershuny, and Ira Schneider - plus all the Raindance members and the artists and writers who wrote for this remarkable journal, Radical Software was an attempt to help leverage a revolution in the world of communications.

The late 60s and early 70s was a time of major social upheaval - and like most such periods, a time not fully understood by those living it. One thing the team did understand was that the development and increasing availability of revolutionary new video hardware could play an important role in accelerating the social change they desired. As Marcuseans, they understood that change would only occur by increasing the level of social pressure. They understood, through their reading of Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson and Marshall McLuhan, that what needed changing was not the machines, but the instructions used to operate them. The social implications were evident: radical hardware was fine but what was critically needed was Radical Software.

The idea for this journal came about in the fall of 1969, right after the Woodstock festival. The Viet Nam war was raging; a previously powerless and voiceless generation in the US and abroad found that they could no longer trust their governments or the newspapers and television networks to communicate any truths except those in service of the prevailing order.

The killing of Martin Luther King exacerbated the feeling that race war seemed inevitable. The toxic Nixon presidency amplified feelings of alienation and despair, but also compelled many to imagine alternatives to the soulless, murderous culture in which they believed they found themselves. The urge to create new cultural structures was a genuine attempt to help lead a generation out of the wasteland in which many felt entrapped.

This assortment of artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers shared a vision. They imagined a social order in which new forms of community might be formed and maintained by the development of an interlocking network of shared intelligence, a concept embodied in the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher. Gene Youngblood called this concept the Videosphere.

They imagined a world in which the contest of ideas and values could take place freely and openly, outside of the existing institutional framework and in active opposition to the worldview constructed and maintained by broadcast commercial TV. They proposed not only a re-ordered power structure, but also a new information order in which the very idea of hierarchical power structure might be transformed or even eliminated. This was five years before the notion of the new world information order sought to balance first and third world consumption and production of news and other forms of mass communications.

They imagined self-healing communities in which aesthetic passion, and the love of knowledge would replace the alienating forces of spectacular capital. They imagined a world in which poetic forms would serve as an antidote to the continuous barrage of commercial propaganda. Nam June Paik, would note, paraphrasing Hegel in Radical Software's first issue, that, "What is more educational is most aesthetic and what is most aesthetic is most educational."

For them, Radical Software would provide a platform for the exploration of alternatives to the dominant mass media structure, and would do so in a manner that mixed the subjective style of the new journalism with the non-precious, self-published format of the Whole Earth Catalog. Readers would be encouraged to copy anything and disseminate it as they saw fit. Radical Software would not present itself self-consciously as an art magazine, but rather as a form of social activism and environmental sculpture. It would be a forum, a video craft how-to-magazine for the fearless, a rudimentary marketing and distribution system for the burgeoning community, and a journal of philosophical speculation and political opinion for all who shared their vision.

RS would take seriously the full range of social, technological and artistic issues that called for redefinition. The idea was to be contentious without being pretentious. For the first four issues, RS had a carefully honed homemade feel to it - a communal style that was fully consistent with the values espoused by the journal.

The driving motivation was clear to all involved, and to the growing community who read each successive issue. It was this: technology might have brought us to the brink of global destruction, may have enabled the alignment of power and money that kept us on the verge of devastation, yet technology was not our enemy. In fact, if properly developed and humanely managed, the new communications technologies held within them the power to unleash something truly revolutionary.

From the vantage of 2003, the liberating promise of cable television, for example, seems naive. Similarly, the utopian visions of the portapak era of video may seem quaint at a time when the camcorder has become ubiquitous. But it is easy to understand how the recognition of the power and poetic potential of real-time video and the recorded simulation of real-time playback packed such an ontological punch and inspired so many interesting artistic experiments and so much speculation among the community of RS writers. Some of the articles and, yes, rants in the collected volumes of Radical Software may appear dated today. However, we should still recognize that the aspirations and concerns of the men and women who contributed to RS were extremely prescient.

For what lies at the core of their enterprise was nothing less than the realization that the structure of communications had forever changed. It wasn't that change was proposed, or in the offing, but that a truly radical transformation had already taken place in the minds of these people, and it was now their collective task and social obligation to come to grips with that "paradigm shift."

Not that they read every sign correctly. For example, cable television was mainly important because it signaled the end of one economy and the beginning of a broader, expanding one. The old paradigm was an economy of scarcity supporting centralized social control. An economy of abundance was in formation, though few could imagine the extent of change that the 21st-century information economy would compel.

The portapak, and the social/aesthetic potential of the poetic visions and independent voices enabled by this tool, was a finger pointing at the moon. With the exception of Nam June Paik, who asked the question, "How long before every artist is his own television station?" no one predicted that twenty years after RS ceased publication, the Internet would provide the technological framework for the real revolution in the structure of mass communications.

But even if they did not read every sign aright, there were many that they did. Following Fuller's lead they saw communications and media as ecological issues, and made media ecology a frequent topic in Radical Software, imposing a broad theoretical perspective on what could easily have been seen as a purely political issue.

They explored the impact of satellite-borne, real-time communications, and the Fullerian recognition that new larger media frames of reference would contain all older forms, transforming them and allowing them to be seen as the basis for the production of art.

They came to grips with the role of new media in education. The concerns and opportunities for change raised by a special issue of RS devoted to education echoed the issues first raised by Nam June Paik, who contributed his "Education For The Paperless Society" to RS # 1.

In fact, most of the issues that characterized today's debates on the proper place and impact of new media in our lives found some form of expression in the pages of Radical Software. As we leaf through the digitized pages of RS, we can ask ourselves how these concerns of thirty years ago translate into our current thinking about media, social change, and our collective responsibility to take action.

Are we clear about the impact that the new media has continued to have on the empowerment of previously voiceless communities? Twenty years after the RS special issue on community, the re-emergence of the idea of community is perhaps the defining character of non-commercial Internet development.

Have we managed a balance between corporate and personal forms of mass communication? Does the issue of the digital divide indicate that we have still a way to go to truly give voice to the world's still voiceless poor? Do we still privilege one-way communication structures, or have we truly embraced the two-way and multi-path potential of media untethered to the implicit power relationships of old media structures? All these issues, raised and debated, were the locus of critical content that was Radical Software.

The online availability of Radical Software is an extraordinary event. As we continue to explore the distinctive qualities and capacities of today's technology and the radical hardware it spawns, we recognize that the consideration of Radical Software is more important than ever.

David A. Ross, February 2003

 

 
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