Gareth Branwyn has been media hacking for nearly three decades. His book, Jamming the Media (Chronicle Books, 1997), is the media hacker’s bible, an invaluable sourcebook of resources, how-tos and examples written with evident working-knowledge, exhaustive research, and fearless wit. He’s also the “Jargon Watch” guy at Wired, runs the tech-review site, Street Tech, and has written several other books and countless articles on the web, technology, jargon, and alternative media.
Roy Christopher: How did you initially get involved in creative alternative media and media hacking?
Gareth Branwyn: I’ve been involved in alt.media since high school. I had a very cool media studies teacher in my senior year, a former journalist who was relentlessly passionate about the potential for media to create an informed, participatory democracy and an “active culture.” At the same time, I was taking a two-year graphic arts and printing class at school. Looking back, it was amazing that our high school, in a brain-dead southern town, had such a great resource. We had a giant commercial-grade print shop and design studio. I learned everything there, from design and layout to photography, plate-making, printing, binding, etc. We could print our own student projects, so I created an underground newspaper and printed up all sorts of subversive literature to hand out to other students. The school wasn’t too happy about it, but I loved it.
After high school, I went to live on a commune in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. I co-ran the print shop there. We did lots of work for other alternative organizations, small business printing, ’zines, etc.
One of the great things about being so bloody old (I’m 43) is that I’ve had a chance to experience every flavor of fringe media from the mid-’70s on. I caught the tail end of ’70s hippie media, then the punk DIY movement of the ’80s, then the ’zine publishing scene of the ’90s, and then web publishing in the ’90s. My book Jamming the Media was an attempt at data-compressing what I’d learned on that journey into a book.
RC: I contend that we all need to become media activists to some extent just as a matter of survival these days. Do you think anyone can become a media hacker?
GB: I’ve always been a big proponent of “active culture,” the idea that everyone in a society needs to be creative and expressive on some level and communicate themselves to others. Doing nothing but passively consuming corporate media is not good for your soul. You’ve got to “feed the noise back into the system,” or “jam” the media. It’s good for you — and it’s fun!
As I said in Jamming, in the past, trying to create media was usually a daunting (and expensive) proposition. Now, nearly everyone (in the Western world, anyway) has access to astoundingly powerful media tools. Even if you’re poor, you can usually access many of these tools through public libraries and the like. On the internet, there’s free website hosting, free email, free discussion-group software, weblogging software, etc. On my technology review site, Street Tech, we use blogging software that’s free, and a very powerful conferencing system that costs $95 (a free version is available, but has some limitations, like no spell check). The tools are all there in just about any medium. It’s largely a question of your ingenuity in how you can access and employ them. My wife’s a musician. Years ago, it cost upwards of $10,000 for her to put a record out on her own label. We’d have to beg family and friends for loans. Now, it costs less than $3,000; the recording and engineering can be done on the desktop, and we put the cost of duping onto our credit card. Thanks to a deal that our indie-friendly CD duplicator has with a distributor, she also gets free net distribution to Amazon, CD Now, Music Boulevard, and most other major “e-tailers.”
It really largely comes down to the quality of what one has to say and, of course, the fact that there’s an expanding glut of media (both commercial and amateur) out there competing for everyone’s eyeballs. Some see this as a bad thing. I don’t. The more, the merrier, I say. But we do need to start teaching people net literacy and better searching and critical evaluation skills so that they can find what they’re looking for online and are able to better judge the veracity of the content they encounter. Once you know how to do your own newsgathering (and news/info/entertainment publishing), hunt down the better webzines, find the best online discussion groups, etc., you’ve really dynamically constructed your own media network. We all take this for granted these days, but I still think this is very exciting and powerful.
RC: What do you see as the most powerful tool in the media activist’s arsenal?
GB: Again, since the tools for effective DIY media have become so powerful and plentiful, I think your most potent tool is the message that you’re trying to get out there. The more “memetically viral” it is — the more creative and unique — the more it will cut through the sludge. Take weblogs, for example. There are now thousands of ’em. Most fade into the background noise, but those that are truly interesting, creative, well-written, rise to the top of blog portals, get repeatedly quoted on other weblogs, and spread rapidly through word of mouth.
RC: What are you working on next?
GB: I have several ideas for new books, one dealing with personal privacy and security in a post-Patriot Act world in which many of our civil liberties collapsed along with the World Trade Center Towers. Another is on the growing popularity of robotic combat, a la Battlebots and Robot Wars. Hey, what can I say? I have diverse interests! And, as always, I’m trying to make my website, Street Tech (basically my day job), a more useful resource for those seeking no-bullshit reviews and discussion on our ever-expanding world of personal technology.