SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Paper Panel 2: Insider and Outsider Communities in the History of Computing

Name: Peter Sachs Collopy

Institutional Affiliation: University of Pennsylvania

Email Address:

Paper Type: Full Paper

Paper Title: Computing, Video, and Radical Software

Paper Abstract: Radical Software was a magazine published by the New York experimental video collective Raindance from 1970 to 1974. Although it was originally envisioned as The Video Newsletter and focused on portable video and "alternative television," the editors and contributors were interested in computing too, as they signaled by their use of the word 'software.' Their first issue, which had a computer-generated graph on its cover, solicited contributions on "designs for alternate computer networks and other software systems" as well as video and cable policy, and included in a list of Raindance's videos one entitled "Computer: document on the home computer." Drawing on the magazine itself, as well as books by experimental videographers and archival collections of their papers and videos, I argue that within the countercultural discourse of experimental video, practitioners developed innovative ways of thinking about computing and networks as media.

Their appropriation of the word 'software' from the discourse of computing was central to this. As Thomas Haigh has noted, 'software' came to refer to all executable information as opposed to only systems software in the years around 1970. Following this trend, videographers used it even more generally to refer to all media content, including music recordings and videotape. They also used it more philosophically: Paul Ryan, who had studied computer science, wrote that "culture is software," and art critic Gene Youngblood that "television is the software of the Earth." Both incorporated the mysticism of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, suggesting that these electronic media formed a new global consciousness.

Following the agenda for a global village set by Marshall McLuhan, experimental videographers envisioned new communications networks. In the pages of Radical Software, this discussion was most often about videocassettes and two-way cable television, but it also included discussion of satellites and lasers making up what video artist Nam June Paik first termed an "electronic super highway."

Videographers also theorized explicitly about the relationship between computers and video. Ryan wrote that "the sense of cybernetics one develops using videotape is radically different than when using computers and punch cards" because it integrated people. Painter and video artist Frank Gillette envisioned convergence and "the potential interfacing of previously incompatible systems, e.g. videotape and computer terminals." Ultimately, as Raindance member Marco Vassi wrote, experimental videographers looked forward not only to ubiquitous video technology, but to "a computer in every pot."