What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part Two)

What might those of us who care about today’s struggles over participatory culture in the digital realm learn at looking at some of the earlier moments where some degree of grassroots media power seemed to be promised around broadcast and local access cable television? When a new technology emerges, strike early, learn how to use the technology quickly, and also develop an understanding of the policy as well. In the book I develop a concept I call “proformation”, a portmanteau of pro duction/re formation. It is technological and political action to gain public access to the means of production on information infrastructures, be they satellite television systems or the internet. The concept addresses the hybrid culture of information reform and information production at the interface of private information and media reform, infrastructural praxis, and communications rights.

Proformation is inspired by Chris Kelty’s notion of the “recursive public,” a concept derived from his fieldwork with free and open source programmers, who not only argue about technology but through building technology. Similarly, in my fieldwork with politically-motivated independent television producers I noticed that they had to adapt their video production and broadcasting technologies to fit and in some instances challenge the policies of their time.

For instance, one of the networks I studied was the progressive Free Speech TV (FSTV) which was on seven cable networks (1989–1995) before being ejected by an anti-public interest telecommunication conglomerate CEO, John Malone. For the next five years (1995–2000), it adapted to a nomadic lifestyle as a “program service,” consisting of VHS packaged content that it “bicycled” to public interest networks that would air the content. As the same time, FSTV petitioned the US Congress and adapted itself to new policies regulating emergent information infrastructures. So it is important to be a multi-hyphenate: video producer and editor, but also a lawyer and politician, and sometimes a cyclist.

I’d also encourage media producers/activists to see that periods of closure give way to moments of openness—and new production and transmission technologies are the reasons for such apertures developing. So we can’t be luddites and must look for the emergent in places where we might not like to look. For instance, I am really into drone piloting as a new mode of documentary video production, a new cyborg way of seeing and documenting information infrastructure, as seen in Points of Presence, our recent experimental video on the undersea fibre optical cable system in the North Atlantic, and as a way of understanding the way Facebook and Google see the atmosphere as a new space to colonise and privatise with their drones and Loon balloons.

But many of my colleagues become uneasy when I mention drones, seeing only the military application of the technologies. (As we know, a lot of important information infrastructure—satellites, the internet, and GPS came from military investment). STS is quite popular in sociology in the UK and anthropology in the US, and STS scholars are happy to critique technologies but less likely to use them, hack them, break them, etc. (This is certainly less so at your previous employer MIT but that maker/theorise culture is rarer outside of the Media Lab). I’d encourage activist/scholars to try out some auto-ethnographic experimentation in socio-technical domains, and feel how progressive praxis emerges around new technologies.

Drawing on Adam Smith and Issiah Berlin, you make a distinction between positive and negative definitions of liberty. How might these concepts be helpful in understanding what needs to be done if we want to insure access and impact of grassroots media in the digital era?


If we believe that the government’s business should not only be protecting freedom of speech but also creating the conditions for speaking and being heard than we are proponents of positive liberty. Negative liberty, is a more Ayn Randian ideology of complete independence from government assistance. Grassroots media, idealized and by definition, is a community of media practice and political activism, that develops autonomous from government assistance and often in reaction to the absence of community-minded media.

So, in a surprising reversal, grassroots media grows in an environment of negative freedom—freedom from the financial, tax, and technical aid of the state. For if there is a robust state-support for grassroots media through grants, access to technology and studios, and platforms for television distribution than there wouldn’t be the grassroots frustration, ambition, and creativity—the DIY and hacker ethos—to make do regardless. It wouldn’t be grassroots media, would it?

Most people don’t live in a world of positive liberty—with state support for community media but rather a world dominated by negative liberty—with little to no support for small-scale media. Again, the binary categories are problematic. That is why I pair the discussion of positive and negative liberty, following the earlier work of Thomas Streeter, with a conversation on the varieties of liberalism: social liberalism (associated with positive liberty and state support for community media), economic liberalism (a soft negative liberty which provides lip-service to social liberalism but is more closely aligned with corporate liberalism), and, finally,  neoliberalism (associated with extreme negative liberty, and a survival of the fittest media ecological perspective). These variations of liberalism provide a bit more typological nuance to a topic with great cultural and historical multiplicity. Which is a great segue into technoliberalism, the title of the book.

How are you defining technoliberalism? In what ways does this concept represent the alignment of a particular model of technological determinism with some of the core tenants of traditional forms of liberalism? What alternatives might you propose in terms of the rallying cries for those of us who want to see true media reform in the United States?


Technoliberalism is a left-liberal, deterministic, utopian digital discourse. It claims that a faith in networked technology can ameliorate the contradictions of an ideology that includes both economic and social liberalism. So liberals like Al Gore, Howard Dean—Daniel Kriess does a great job of articulating Dean’s technoliberalism, and Barack Obama are featured characters in Technoliberalism who discuss the internet and enact digital strategies in such a way so as to assume that the internet can both improve social well-being and economic prosperity.

I see it as a discourse because it attempts to ignore the difficulties in the American media ecology of having both a for-profit, spectrum selling-off, anti-network neutrality, un-supported and under-attack public media domain and also have free speech, freedom of online assembly, the right to be heard, and other hallmarks of a what Nancy Fraser calls a vibrant “subaltern counterpublic.”

I don’t think we can have both a negatively liberated economic liberalism and a positively liberated social liberalism, without strong legislation and a direct funding system the latter dissipates. Which, may not be a bad thing because it leaves a void where more radical, anti-hegemonic, that is, structurally transformative media practices, may emerge instead of the counter-hegemonic, which is a system of thought that is critical of the dominant system but ultimately supportive of that status quo.

The rallying cries are different depending upon how scrappy you are willing to be, how much transformation you can handle agitating for, and what types of hacker tactics you can draw from in attempting to achieve your aims. Whatever transmission and consumption platform is used to present the cultural form of “television” it is a hegemonic or at best a counter-hegemonic system, either affirming or lightly critiquing the status quo. The book identifies the few anti-hegemonic moments and how new technologies created these critical openings in television and how the larger culture of television production, transmission, and consumption—which in the final summation is hegemonic—finally dampened or ameliorated these radical events.

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about "elemental media"--atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.