Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 16


The Glorious Revolution of 1971

by Stephen Doheny-Farina (

During the last year while researching and writing a book about community and technology, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I lived through a great revolution when I was in high school and I didn't even know it had happened.

It all began just three days before our annual celebration of another, earlier revolution. On July 1, 1971 a seventeen year old boy confined to his home following a series of brain tumor operations participated in a history class via interactive cable television technology. Sitting in front of a video camera and aided by a special keyboard which enabled him to communicate with his teacher in an experimental studio-classroom four miles away, Jeff Hubert watched his teacher on his home television while she, in turn, watched Jeff on her monitor in the studio. The experiment was the initial step in a plan by TeleCable Corporation of Norfolk, Virginia to develop interactive cable television to serve communities. Said the company president, Rex A. Bradley,

"We feel that the addition of a two-way capability means the entire community has the opportunity of acting on the cable. A politician can propose a new idea and ask the viewers what they think of it. The people can push the Y button if they say yes or push the N button for no." (Rensberger, 1971)
In addition, on that same day TeleCable previewed the commercial capabilities of interactivity by demonstrating, as the news article put it, "how a wife could shop from home" by viewing a "commercial for a laundry detergent" staged at a local Sears store and following the instructions "on what buttons to push" to order the detergent. (Rensberger, 1971)

Observers and practitioners predicted that the new technology could:

Again, on the same day that Jeff Hubert had his first tele- history lesson, a group of New Yorkers celebrated the beginnings of free access to television technology with a day-long Washington Heights block party. (Fraser, 1971)

On that day, two Manhattan cable TV stations, TelePrompter and Sterling Manhattan Cable Television, became publicly available so that groups or individuals could apply for free on-air time on a first-come, first-served basis. "Supporters have hailed the program as the first genuine 'Town Meeting of the Air,'" said George Gent in a New York Times news article, "and a major step toward the political philosopher's dream of participatory democracy." (Gent, 1971) A Teleprompter brochure defined the station as "a whole new concept in television." It is "TV by the people, for the people" enabling "any groups or individuals of any belief, purpose, or persuasion, to demonstrate their talents." If these people do not have the equipment or expertise to use this opportunity, the station will provide without charge studio space, at least one television camera and a director. It will also provide portable equipment "to cover events in the community, like block parties, park openings and church functions." (Gillespie, 1975, p. 6)

Other pronouncements from the early 1970's offered similar visions. From a 1971 report from Princeton's Center for analysis of Public Issues, we see the hope that the technology will enhance civic enterprises:

"Free access public TV channels have the potential to revolutionize the communication patterns of service organizations, consumer groups, and political parties, and could provide an entirely new forum for neighborhood dialogue and artistic expression." (Center for the Analysis of Public Issues, 1971, p. 3)
From the 1972 book Cable Television: A Guide for Citizen Action, we see the hope that the new technology will make the home the center of civic exchange because cable TV will
"make it possible to find our what's going on in your town, your neighborhood--even your block. Cable TV can provide local information the way the newspaper gives local news. But it can do more than the local paper. Cable Television can make it possible for your community organization to conduct a meeting of all the people in your neighborhood, without any of them having to leave their homes." (Price & Wicklein, 1972, p. 2)
From another 1972 book, this one with the prescient title and subtitle, The Wired Nation, Cable TV: The Electronic Communications Highway, we see the hope that the new technology will wrest control from a centralized commercial elite and open up communications capabilities to the populace:
"Together, then, the elimination of channel scarcity and the sharp reduction of broadcasting cost, can break the hold on the nation's television fare now exercised by a small commercial oligarchy. Television can become far more flexible, far more democratic, far more diversified in content, and far more responsive to the full range of pressing needs in today's cities, neighborhoods, towns, and communities." (Smith, 1972, p. 8)
A number of pronouncements like these were cited in Gilbert Gillespie's 1975 study of public access television in which Gillespie, himself, makes some sweeping pronouncements:
". . . [C]ivic bodies must become thoroughly involved with the consideration of design and control of a wired city. For the first time there is an obligation to involve both individual private citizens of the most humble stature and community communications committees in planning the design and future control of an all-pervasive and revolutionary fact of city life. There is now an obligation on the part of the major city governments of Canada and the United States to maintain and invite a defined share of access for individuals and citizens' groups to the proliferating channels of cabled communication in the city. The city fathers must now nurture and eventually react, if they are not already doing so, to many new decentralized sources of local propaganda." (Gillespie, 1975, p. 2)
My all too obvious point here is that people were saying the same thing in 1971 about public access television that they are saying now about the Net. Yes, and "they" said similar things in the past about other technologies, also.

Just check out the recent Wall Street Journal article with the wonderful title of "Future Schlock: Today's Cyberhype has a Familiar Ring" to get a glimpse of the amazing claims made about telephony during the early part of this century as noted by Carolyn Marvin, author of When Old Technologies Were New. Daniel Pearl illustrates Marvin's research by pointing out that the telephone would, it was claimed,

"bring Peace on Earth, eliminate Southern accents, revolutionize surgery, stamp out "heathenism" abroad and save the farm by making farmers less lonely. The picture phone was just around the corner, and in 1912, technology watcher S. C. Gilfillan predicted that a "home theater" would, within two decades, let people dial up symphonies, presidential speeches and three-dimensional Shakespeare plays. The cost would be low and the "moral tone" would be excellent, since only the best material would survive. Novels, orchestras and movie theaters would vanish, and government as we know it might not survive either, he wrote." (Pearl, 1995, A1)
Other examples about other technologies and other rounds of hype abound. "This isn't the first time a new medium has come along, promising to radically transform the way we relate to one another," says Todd Lappin in his comparison of the Internet to the early, non-commercial days of radio. (Lappin, 1995, p. 175) Calling it "Today's Next Big Something," Lappin illustrates how current claims about the Net are similar to the claims made about radio in the years before it was transformed into the commercial broadcast industry. At that time, he explains, radio was a grass-roots, many-to-many medium in which its adherents disdained any kind of commercialization; rather, they saw it primarily as a means to link citizens.

So what happened to the public access revolution of 1971? Read Price and Wicklein's warning:

"Cable has gained so much momentum already that there is little chance it will be stopped. But if the Wired Nation does emerge, for whom will it be wired? If the public does nothing, the answer to that is easy: The nation will be wired primarily for the benefit of private entrepreneurs. Cable will then be much like broadcast television and radio before it. Programming will be restricted to mass-appeal entertainment, superficial reporting of news, and minimal discussion of public affairs. Cable subscribers will be sold to advertisers at so much a thousand, as the over-the-air audience are sold to them today. Community service and public access to the systems will be given lip service only, as they are in most commercial television and radio broadcasting. The opportunity for a revolution in communication through cable television will be lost." (Price and Wicklein, 1972, p. 18)
Hmmmm. What do you think? Was the revolution lost? Yeah, I think so. Got any new revolutions for us? [CMC TOC]


Stephen Doheny-Farina's book, Lost in the Solitude of My Virtual Heart: Community, Cyberspace, and Civic Networks (New Haven: Yale University Press) will appear in 1996. He is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY.

Copyright © 1995 by Stephen Doheny-Farina. All Rights Reserved.

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