Three Flow Columns

I contributed three columns to Flow over the past few months. Flow signs up writers for three at a time, so these could be written as a set focused on a particular theme. I didn't write them that way on purpose, but looking back I do see a common thread.

The first, published in November, is When Television Marries Computer. This draws from research I have been doing on the connection between early video games, early home computers, and TV. It concludes that the convergence of television and digital technology has always been seen as a way of improving TV, drawing on the enduring status of television as bad object.

The second, published in February, is Immersive Media: Whose Fantasy? This is a report from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which I attended for the first time in January as part of the IRTS Industry/Faculty Seminar. I was struck at the trade show by the ubiquity of "immersive" talk and wanted to poke around at it. I see this as a way of the media and electronics industries both to sell the idea that their products will win over consumers.

And the final column, just published last week, is The Celebrity Sex Tape: Where Porn Meets Reality TV. This is an analysis of a form of media I've had in mind to write something about since the third season of The Hills, when Lauren's good reputation is threatened by a dirty sex tape rumor. I used the opportunity of contributing to Flow to express these thoughts, particularly the idea that celebrity culture appeals to straight men too and how that works.

The theme I think these rather different brief essays have in common is fantasy. In all three, I think we learn something important about media forms and technologies by thinking about whose fantasies they aim to fulfill, and what these fantasies are really about. This interest is also central to the argument of Video Revolutions and my work in progress on early games. Fantasies of the sort discussed in my Flow columns ultimately concern relations of power, whether between media industries and consumers or between conceptions of social identity.

One further thought while I'm blogging about these columns. The guidelines Flow gives writers includes a word limit of 1500, which sometimes feels arbitrary and frustrating. On the internet there is no scarce resource of paper or ink. But at the end of this cycle I find myself grateful for that artificial constraint, which can focus your writing. It's a productive exercise to see what can be done with a short form, and what is better left out.


Video Revolutions

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium is a short book I wrote about the history of video from the early days of television to the present. It's around 30,000 words long and is selling for $9 in paperback and even less for the Kindle version, which will be released in April. I have always loved cute little paperbacks that you can read in an hour or two and I hope this will fit that description. For instance, last spring I spent a day doing research at the Chicago Public Library, taking the Hiawatha Express down in the morning and returning that evening. On the southbound leg I read Theodore Roszak's From Satori to Silicon Valley, and coming north I read Peter Krämer's BFI Classic on 2001. There is a special satisfaction in reading a whole book in a single sitting, absorbing all of its argument and examples at once. This works if you download it as an e-book too, of course, though I don't know if an e-book gets to be cute.

I began to research this new work without knowing what I would like to do with it. While reading 1970s popular press sources about video games, I noticed that video had a number of connotations at the time that suggested being not only a novel use of television, but an alternative to it. Meanwhile, I had been trying to ascertain why video games came to be called that rather than other names they have gone by: TV or tele-games, electronic games, computer games, digital games, etc. So off on a detour I went, looking up uses of video going back to its origins as a name for television in the 1930s. At some point I thought an essay on the history of video would help answer some questions about the history of the medium, which has often been considered by media historians and critics but seldom taking a very long view. (For instance, books about video art or movies on video or video stores tend to stick to their more specific areas.) I started to take notes and conceptualize this history as a series of phases defined in part by video's relation to TV and other media, and in part by developments in video technology.

When I wrote the first draft of what took shape as an extended essay, I thought I might try to publish it as an e-book, a single or digital short. Perhaps you could call it a mini-monograph, though I don't think that's such a great term. A friend has suggested academic novella, which accounts for length but might suggest another genre. Whatever we call it, I was excited that CUP was interested, and a bit surprised that the press wanted to publish it as a paperback as well as an e-book. I imagined that the new digital format would free me to write something of unusual length, in a somewhat experimental format; conventional publication wasn't the initial goal. I'm surprised now how much picturing the writing as a physical object, as printed on pages bound between a cover, changes the way I think of the work.

For the cover, I suggested the wonderful art of Hollis Brown Thornton, who produces nostalgic images of old media like video game carts and VHS cassettes. I'm thrilled that he agreed to this use.

Part of the story the book tells is visual, and this Pinterest board includes many of the illustrations in Video Revolutions as well as other related images. I have also posted many of these images over the past months and years at my tumblr.

Below are the catalog description and blurbs. And here is an interview I did with Hope Leman at Critical Margins.

Since the days of early television, video has been an indispensable part of culture, society, and moving-image media industries. Over the decades, it has been an avant-garde artistic medium, a high-tech consumer gadget, a format for watching movies at home, a force for democracy, and the ultimate, ubiquitous means of documenting reality. In the twenty-first century, video is the name we give all kinds of moving images. We know it as an adaptable medium that bridges analog and digital, amateur and professional, broadcasting and recording, television and cinema, art and commercial culture, and old media and new digital networks.

In this history, Michael Z. Newman casts video as a medium of shifting value and legitimacy in relation to other media and technologies, particularly film and television. Video has been imagined as more or less authentic or artistic than movies or television, as more or less democratic and participatory, as more or less capable of capturing the real. Techno-utopian rhetoric has repeatedly represented video as a revolutionary medium, promising to solve the problems of the past and the present—often the very problems associated with television and the society shaped by it—and to deliver a better future. Video has also been seen more negatively, particularly as a threat to movies and their culture. This study considers video as an object of these hopes and fears and builds an approach to thinking about the concept of the medium in terms of cultural status.

"Video Revolutions is a stimulating and satisfying intellectual tour and argument, chiefly for Newman’s ability to encompass often disparate case studies within a single historical lens." — William Boddy, Baruch College, CUNY

"Michael Newman has carved out a fascinating intellectual space between television and cinema as they are traditionally understood, to illuminate both as well as to explore the new ground that the concept of 'video' established in the media imaginary. This is a concise and impressive work that should be on the reading list of all scholars of media and contemporary culture." — Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Newman does for video what Lynn Spigel did for television: he ‘makes room’ for it in an accessible and compelling critique that shows how video has become an integral part of our lives. Video Revolutions is a book that is long overdue." — Michael Curtin, co-author, The American Television Industry