New Technology: Gardening the Net

By Vertigo

John Wyver is producer of The Net, which reaches its third series on BBC 2 this winter.

Vertigo: Why is it important in your estimation for film-makers to be interested or involved in new technology such as Webs and Nets?

John Wyver: I suppose there are two answers to that. One is the question of distribution, and one is a question of there being a new medium to be discovered in these new technologies, a new set of creative possibilities. The mass media in the 20th century have been essentially controlled by those who control the distribution structures, whether newspapers, movies, radio or TV. Distribution structures have been either very expensive, as in publishing, or very scarce, as in licensed bandwidth for transmission. And that has meant that those who wish to create alternatives, in political and cultural terms, to the mainstream which operates within those distribution structures, have found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create active, sustaining relationships with audiences. The Internet, because of its horizontal Web-like structure –

V: Sorry, what do you mean by horizontal Web?

JW: The Internet is a system where every point is effectively connected to every other point, and can be not only a receiver but a transmitter. So it is not structured like conventional broadcasting, or even conventional cable TV, where you have a centre from which messages are sent out to the audience in a one-to-many structure, with a one-way system for that information to travel. At least potentially it’s a many-to-many system, and the potential is therefore two-way dialogues rather than one-way transmission. Because of that, and because of the very particular history and culture which have been built up within the Internet over the last nearly 30 years, which has come from essentially –

V: The last 30 years?

JW: Well, the Internet started as a communication structure for the US military, which needed a system to link various missile sites and command centres, which would not become dysfunctional if parts of the system were taken out by Russian missiles. It’s a direct progeny of the Cold War. From that start, it then became an academic operation, and through the 70s and 80s, it was used extensively by American academia to send messages to each other. And a certain kind of open, democratic, libertarian culture was established in its operation, and to some degree – although I wouldn’t overstate this – in some of its operating methods, some of its grammar, if you like, or its structure.

This is a very complicated question but I think that history is a very important factor in giving it a certain resistance to consolidation and appropriation by large corporate concerns. It is much harder for the Microsofts or the News Corporations or advertisers of this world to take it over and dominate it, much harder than it was for their equivalents with early cinema chains, or in America, commercial TV in the 30s and 40s. It’s not impossible, but there is a degree of real resistance there within the structures.

That means that there is at least the potential of a distribution system which can be used for a very wide range of dissemination of viewpoints, ideas, concerns, creative projects, and so forth.

V: How so?

JW: Well, if you think of print, if you want to publish a book, you need access to book shops, so you need to get a publisher, who needs to have a lot of money for making the thing, and then a lot more money for marketing it and getting it out into the world. And in very crude terms, that gives the system quite a strong control over what is published and disseminated into the world, and what finds an audience, and what finds a revenue stream back to sustain the author or the ideas. In this system, publishing 1) does not involve high initial productions costs, and 2) there’s at least the possibility of finding a small, select audience who will be prepared to pay enough to you directly because it’s genuinely and immediately useful to them, and because they can get direct access to it.

V: How do they do it? If it’s direct access, I can switch on anything and everything?

JW: You can, but it will also be structured in different ways. If I’ve got a site on the World Wide Web that you are attracted to – this doesn’t operate at the moment, but all the systems for it are in place – your computer can pay my computer automatically a tiny sum of money every time you come to it, or every time you take something off it. So it can pay .01 of a penny every time you spend an amount of time within my environment, or every time you download a chapter of my book or whatever. So it’s a revenue system for which there is a direct relationship between the consumer and the producer, without there being a distribution structure in the way.

V: When you say my computer can pay your computer, where’s the money, where’s the cash, where’s the stuff that I can go and buy sweets with?

JW: Let’s imagine that you’ve bought £100 worth of cyber-dollars from an on-line bank. You’ve given this on-line bank £100, and it’s squirted into your computer the equivalent in cyber-dollars, which are effectively electronic signals that are completely protected and secure in your computer, and when you log on to my computer and my computer says ‘To download that chapter of the book will cost you half a cyber-dollar. Is that OK?’ you click and say ‘Yes,’ and half a cyber-dollar gets squirted in electronic signals from your computer into my computer. So my computer collects these cyber-dollars, and at some point I go to the same bank and I say, ‘I’ve got £100 worth of cyber-dollars. Give me £100 worth of real-world money.’

V: And you think this can apply to film?

JW: Yes, I do think it can apply to film. Although I am very cautious about thinking of the Internet as a distribution structure for conventional films or TV programmes. The Internet is quite a fragile thing, and the pipes that make it up, the cables, the lines, are not very thick, and you need very thick cables to carry a lot of video and audio, because there’s a lot of information in those signals. So the Internet is not – certainly at the moment – a very effective system for disseminating movies or hour-long documentaries. It’s possible to do that, but it takes a very long time and you get a shitty picture. So that isn’t the way forward, not yet.

But I think you can get a sense of how to create a new kind of medium which is appropriate for this system and for that kind of distribution. That medium is somewhere between linear film and video, text publishing, and social interaction. If you can bring those three elements together in this new form, and distribute it in this way, then I think you’ve got something very exciting indeed, and that’s really what engages me and interests me.

What this is about – one can push the analogy too far – but there are times when it feels like being back in 1895 and seeing one of the Lumière shows, and recognising that here is a new medium, the outcome of a very complex technological, social, cultural, political history, but a new medium: film. There is a real sense that perhaps there’s a new medium here that’s just beginning to be discovered.

V: Wait, wait... I’m not here to argue, just to interview you, but there has always been the desire – ever since Plato – or the need, to see one’s image. Lumière connected with this deep-held desire to see shadows. What desire does the Internet connect with?

JW: The desire to communicate with other people. And that’s why social interaction is such an important component to this. It’s about creating on-line environments, worlds, communities – to use a complicated word – within which you engage with other people. And you engage with those other people in complex new ways, where their identities are constructed differently from the ways in which identities are constructed in the real world. The communication you have at the moment on a very narrow-banded system – essentially the live interchange of text – is just beginning to be supplemented by graphics on screen through which you can engage with people, and you can immerse yourself into an imaginary or fantastical world, constructed solely within the computer, within the network, and engage with others there, constructing your own persona in completely different ways.

V: Nobody sees me, but I can create myself, I can imagine myself in a new way?

JW: Sure, you can do that. But the system offers you the possibility to do more than that: to engage on the level – this is very problematic, of course – of the mind and not of the body. Because what you’re giving up when you enter these worlds is spirit and flesh. Now that’s as powerful and imaginary as the concern to see shadows, and it’s got as long and as complex a history –

V: That’s very interesting, the weak bodily element to it. But what about the encomium of Luddite practices by someone like Janet Street-Porter? There’s this woman who is in charge of promoting the most extraordinary vicarious way of living we could possibly imagine, taxing you people as being vicariously involved with reality.

JW: Well, I don’t think anybody is saying this is going to become a substitute for real life. It’s going to become a complement to real life. I think her and her ilk are driven by a mixture of ignorance and fear. Ignorance because they haven’t taken the time to explore it and use it and play with it and find out what it can do; and fear because they recognise that there is something very fundamental going on here, which they don’t understand and from which they feel excluded. But I don’t want to live my life on-line. I like eating and I like sex, and I like being in the same space with my children. Those things are not going to disappear – just as reading a book and going to the movies. This is an extension, an enhancement, of one’s being as a social person and as a creative person, and maybe as a political person, as a person in civil society. It offers you the chance to develop the concerns you have in other ways, in new ways. That’s all.

V: How do all of these concerns feed into your new TV series?

JW: What we’ve done so far is make two series of a TV programme called The Net, which had on-line elements alongside them, so there was a Web site to go with them. We’ve engaged in e-mail dialogue with viewers, extensively: 8-9,000 e-mails in each series, where people have sent us their thoughts, comments, ideas, concerns, complaints; and by and large we’ve answered them, and we’ve learnt enormously from them. I mean, you know only too well how little response and feedback you get from making most TV. When you open up your computer in the morning and you find the best part of 1,000 messages from people, much of which is engaged, thoughtful and intelligent, then you’re beginning to shift your relationship to the audience in a very valuable way, you can learn from that.

Now what we want to do with the third series is turn that round and to think in the terms that the series exists first, and separately, on line, in the Internet, in a Web site that has an existence before the TV series goes on air, and ideally a continuing existence afterwards, where material is created – text, audio, bits of video, still images, and so forth – for the Web site first and foremost, which changes every day, and which people can access all the time, and importantly, they can contribute to. The TV programmes are then drawn or derived from the Web site. The stuff on the Web site is partly created by us, but we also solicit, structure and select a broad range of contributions from others, so that we’re building an environment of information which many people have contributed to: viewers, practitioners, people concerned with theorising this field, who contribute to their ideas and concerns, their animations, their audio files, their creative elements, because they want to get those out into the world, and because people will then follow links back to their sites or concerns or writings elsewhere, and they’ll get a broader audience for their work in some way.

Now that seems to me a completely different way of thinking about a TV programme. And the twist, which I’m trying to persuade people to go along with, is to think about the TV programme, in part at least, as marketing for the Web site. The Web site needs its own revenue base and its own form of funding. What will sustain that are lots and lots of people coming to look at that site, and along the way picking up positive feelings and messages from sponsors or advertisers on that site. No way round that – that’s the bottom line; it’s got to work in a commercial environment. To sustain that sponsorship interest, you need lots of people coming through it. To sustain lots of people coming through it, you need the Web site address known as widely as possible. So my idea is actually to give away the TV programme, so that once the programme is run for the first time on the BBC, you then offer the TV programme to anybody, any broadcaster, any local cable station, any pirate TV station, any school, any college, that wants it. A lot of people then log into the Web site, and, yes, they go through a commercial environment, but they also find a valuable, creative, thoughtful cache of information and ideas and concerns which will benefit them in some way.

V: It strikes me that there’s a tremendous amount of idealism behind all this. Because at the beginning you were saying, ‘This is democratic and social etc.’ and then you say, ‘Well, basically we’re gardeners.’ Who are you – are you Le Nôtre ordering and parcelling up, making a logic of this inferno?

JW: Yeah, I want to be Capability Brown.

V: Exactly, disguising the whole thing very beautifully, saying it’s God and nature – but actually there’s Wyver behind it, controlling the whole thing. And then we end up, not surprisingly, going through the gates of Coca Cola. How do you marry this up with what you said at the beginning, about the massive, democratic need to communicate? Because slowly but surely, there will be ten, twenty, maybe thirty grand Web sites; everybody will pass through, and the minnows will have nothing.

JW: That is the dystopian analysis of how this is going to develop; and it may well go that way, absolutely. But one works on two levels: there’s a kind of abstract ideal of what the system might be, and there is also a pragmatic, low-level, operational set of possibilities. I’m quite pragmatic, and I believe that a commercial base to this system is inevitable, but not determining. I mean, it is going to be there, but it need not determine the content of all of it. You know, we struggle with these questions all the time, but – and this is not perhaps a particularly happy analogy, given the difficulties you have in publishing Vertigo – there is a sense in which the print magazine culture is remarkably diverse, and an essentially commercial system does support a very broad range of publications and views, in this country and elsewhere. It’s not an exact analogy, by any means, because of very low production costs and much broader distribution possibilities. But I think there’s something of that in the way in which this system is going to work.

V: Give me an example of how you’ll deal with these concerns in your programme.

JW: Very likely, each programme may have a theme, and one we’ve been playing around with is the idea of privacy. So you might put a seven- or eight-minute piece of journalism about, say, the Government’s announcement earlier this year, which went largely unnoticed, that it’s going to consolidate all of the Government-sponsored information systems about the civilians. The police computer, census, other kind of elements of Government-held information, are all going to be brought together into one system, which is being put forward as a cost-saving venture, as a way of making the system more efficient. There are very real civil liberties questions associated with this kind of consolidation, which have to be raised and explored. Do we want all of that information, which has been in different places, brought together in that kind of way? And under what conditions is that information going to exist, who’s going to have access to it?

Next to that, you could put a very simple piece talking to a guy called Phil Zimmerman, who is an American software expert who’s created a relatively simple programme called PGP – Pretty Good Privacy – which allows you to encrypt in a secure way your e-mail messages. At the moment, if you send an e-mail, because it travels down telephone cables, it’s pretty complicated but it’s possible for security services to intercept that e-mail; and some people even say that if you put the words ‘bomb’ and ‘IRA’ in your e-mail, then these systems are going to sniff that out and pull your e-mail up and read it. PGP means that your e-mail can be encrypted in such a way that those systems, and indeed no one else apart from the person to whom you’re sending that message, can read that. Zimmerman has been prosecuted in America for inventing this, because it contravenes various security regulations, although the prosecution has just been dropped. I think there’s a very interesting piece to be done with Zimmerman, demonstrating what PGP is and talking about its implications. So those sorts of things can exist in the TV programme, but the Web site can have far more of them. You can have the whole of the interview with Zimmerman; you can have PGP software which you can download from the Web site; you can have people talking for and against the idea of PGP; you can have a link to the legal documents that were filed in America about his prosecution – all of that.

There are also other ways of doing things which I don’t yet have the answers to. I am very aware how idealistic it is, or at least it’s underpinned by a kind of naïve utopianism. I try to recognise that; but if you don’t have that utopianism, then maybe you don’t try to do anything, you know?

Illuminations’ Web site is at

A new series of The Net will be on BBC 2 during November and December.