The Medium is Not the Message

Blog-a-thon tag:

In the first week of April 2000, I wasn’t thinking about my digital rights. I didn’t have a blog–it was a bit before their time–though I did have a very basic web site. But I wasn’t thinking about my web site, either. I hadn’t slept more than three or four hours a night in days, but I wasn’t thinking about how sleepy I was, either. Mostly I was just thinking about whether the woman tapping her foot at the end of the basement of Jessup Hall was spying on me as I pulled the phone off the wall jack, plugged my modem and laptop in, and waited for the 28.8 dial-up connection.

It wasn’t a totally unreasonable suspicion. I was in the basement of Jessup Hall, the administration building at the University of Iowa, after hours because I was involved in a sit-in protesting the school’s refusal to take a few simple steps in the fight against sweatshop labor. It was the fourth or fifth day of what turned out to be a six-day sit-in–on the sixth day, we were arrested–and negotiations were at a standstill. The protest had started with fifteen people sitting down on the floor of the President’s office. At five p.m., security arrived and carried them one by one (or, in the case of Ned and Tye, who were joined at the hip by a bicycle lock, two by two) into the hall, where we were told we’d be allowed to remain. We spent our days holding teach-ins and our nights holding meetings in that hallway, and I spent the few spare minutes I had writing up little anecdotal updates on my PowerBook (a 1997 model with a long alphanumeric name) about what was going on. I was down in the basement that night because there was a public phone there, and I wanted to use it–or, more precisely, the jack into which it was plugged–to make the free local call to my ISP so I could send out the latest of these little updates in an e-mail to the hundred-odd people then on The New Rambler mailing list.

So the well-groomed woman tapping her foot at the other end of the hall had some reason to be suspicious of me. I was one of those protesters. I was not groomed. And I was doing something funny with the phone.

There was a little sign by the phone noting that it was for local calls only and exhorting users to keep their calls under 5 or 10 minutes. It generally took no longer than that for me to unplug the phone, plug in the line that connected to my modem, which in turn connected to my lap top, plug the modem into a wall outlet, turn on the modem, open the laptop, dial up Avalon, my local ISP, hit “Send Queued Messages” in Eudora, disconnect, and then unplug and replug all the appropriate pieces of equipment. It didn’t seem to me that there was a damned bit of difference between my using the phone to get online briefly and my using the phone to make a regular call, but I wasn’t at all sure that the woman at the other end of the hall saw it that way. It didn’t seem to me that I was doing anything wrong, or illegal, but I was beginning to think that the woman at the other end of the hall thought differently.

I don’t remember if it was that night or another, but at some point when I was in the middle of one of my quick dial-ups, she approached me.

“Do you need to use the phone?” I asked, as I did everyone who approached while I was connected. “I’ll be off in just a minute or two.”

“No,” she said, “but what if I did?”–implying, somehow, that I was interfering with her right to universal access.

“I’m just about done here,” I said, because I was, and I quickly disconnected, plugged the phone back in, and held it out to her, dial tone humming sweetly.

“Hmm. Okay,” she said, pursing her lips, turning on her heel, and walking away.

I went back up to where my friends were camped out and told them about the encounter, telling them all the things I hadn’t told her, like, “Hey, isn’t it after regular business hours?” and “Uh, don’t you have a phone in your office?” And, most of all, “Is this not a public phone? Is it not within my rights, as a member of the public, to use it to communicate and exercise my First Amendment rights? And so long as I am not violating the terms under which this phone has been made available–so long as I am making only local calls and using it for only short periods of time, should it not be as permissible to use it to send electronic communications as to send oral, auditory ones?”

As I read news reports now, five years later, about bloggers getting in trouble for their writing, I’m reminded of that moment in the basement of Jessup and of the inability, or unwillingness, of the woman at the end of the hall to see electronic communication as equal to oral communication. The attempts to say that bloggers don’t have the same rights as journalists stem, in part, from a belief that electronic print is not equal to hard copy print. (Such beliefs stem, of course, from a number of other things, perhaps most notably the belief in the power of institutions over individuals and the ideology of the center.)

My father owned a printing press–there are pictures of me at four years old, perched on a high bench, pulling the blue-black cast iron lever and printing out my name, which my father had set for me in various typefaces. He was fond of saying (quoting A.J. Liebling) that the only man with freedom of the press was the man who owned his own press. My father was an academic who published only a few things in the fifty-eight years of his life, and he printed little on his printing press beyond poems and Christmas cards. But I believe he liked having a press and knowing that he could use it as he wished.

He would not, I suspect, have had much respect for the bloggers of today–he was also the sort of academic who thought all writing ought to be put in a drawer for ten years before publication to see if it would hold up–but I believe that today’s bloggers share with him the satisfaction of knowing that they control their own words and their own publishing. A couple of years ago, Blogger’s front page still bore the slogan “Push-Button Publishing for the People.” That line has since disappeared, I suppose because it sounds too populist for something owned by Google (or, perhaps, because it sounds a bit too much like “Greetings to the people, this is Tania”), but it’s still how I think of blogs in particular and the Internet in general. And it was certainly the way I thought of the Internet sitting on that basement floor in April 2000.

Late one night a few of us would leave Jessup and head over to the computer center to make up flyers for the next day’s teach-ins, and Heidi, who was on the national USAS listserv, checked her e-mail. There were actions going on at over a dozen other campuses that week, and we read their names–Kentucky, Tulane, Michigan, Oregon, Yale, Wesleyan, Purdue–and their calls for action on the screen. Chills ran down my spine–the good kind. All over the country were all these people taking action, all moved by a shared belief and now all connected through these intricate webs of code that turned into words on the computer screen. It sends chills down my spine still. Who would ever have guessed that political action could take such a form? And who would have guessed then that electronic activism would take off in the way it has now?

Electronic communication was vital to that campaign, but my ability to access the means to electronic communication via that basement phone was also vital to my sense of myself and my rights as an autonomous, thinking human being. Like many people, I found a voice online, a voice I hadn’t had before, a voice I’ve never had talking on the phone, but one that, suddenly, a phone line gave me access to. And that moment, sitting on that basement floor, with a woman tapping her foot down the hall, was the first time it dawned on me that any kind of access to speech was another kind of access that someone, somewhere, might try to take away.