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[Nettime-bold] Interview with Micz Flor: Tactics of Streaming
geert lovink on Thu, 25 Apr 2002 23:11:01 +0200 (CEST)


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[Nettime-bold] Interview with Micz Flor: Tactics of Streaming


Tactics of Streaming
Interview with Micz Flor
By Geert Lovink

Micz Flor is a multi-talented cultural worker. As a programmer, artist,
teacher, writer and project manager Micz has been organizing a variety of
events, net projects, magazines and temporary media labs (see:
http://mi.cz/cv.htm). I got to know Micz in 1997 while working with him in
the team of the Hybrid Workspace project (Documenta X/Kassel:
http://www.medialounge.net/lounge/workspace/). One year later he organized
his own temp media lab in Manchester. Micz is a cool, busy and ambitious
person that loves to tinker and play around with media and code. He operates
in a laid back, Berlin minimal techno style. Very post-German.

Micz Flor lived and worked in London, Liverpool, Vienna and Prague and is
now back in his base, Berlin. In 1999 he got very involved in supporting
independent media in Former Yugoslavia. Lately he has been working for the
Camp lab in Prague, which trains journalists all over the world how best to
integrate new media in their work. In this capacity Micz traveled to
Indonesia and other Asian countries. On his Crash site (http://crash.mi.cz)
you can see his streaming video about Radio 68H Indonesia, Reaching
Everyone. Radio 68H is an independent radio network for hourly news programs
and magazine formats. The local hub in Jakarta maintains the network and
redistributes local news via satellite. Radio 68H consists of over 250 radio
stations. As a 'tactical' medium it uses email to collect and distribute MP3
reports from the entire archipelago. There will be a longer documentary
version on Indonesia's Radio68h available soon, as part of the 'Scattered
Frequencies' mini-series on radio networking he produces together with
Philip Scheffner. The first part on an independent radio network in Nepal is
already available. Another of his web films, EUrope on your Doorstep looks
the impact of European funding the economically underdeveloped region of
Liverpool (UK).

In Berlin Micz has lately been working on www.fluter.de, an online youth
magazine, developed for German Ministry for Political Education
(www.bpb.de). This project has been initiated by the company of Micz Flor
and Tanja Lay, named Redaktion und Alltag
(http://www.redaktionundalltag.de/), one of many small web design and
content offices working out of Berlin. Last but not least, his hobby label
SueMi http://sue.mi.cz has been releasing a number of 7-inch vinyl records.

Micz's specialty is connecting hi and low tech taking all local
circumstances into account. However, his passion lies in streaming media and
radio in particular, which started in Berlin with his involvement in the
net.radio group called convex tv. Micz won several awards for his net.art
works but is hesitant to label himself an artist, feeling increasingly
uncomfortable with the way in which the art world deals--or rather does not
deal--with new media and its social and political aspects. The following
interview focuses on the current situation of streaming media networks and
standards.

GL: What makes net.radio in your experience so different from normal radio?
It is important to further explore these differences? Or is it just a matter
of adding another distribution channels to the growing list of (new) media
outlets?

MF: Net.radio is very different from normal radio. In fact, net.radio - and
the hype surrounding it - made 'normal' radio reconsider itself. In the
early days of audio streaming over the Internet, many 'normal' radio
stations were trying to jump the bandwagon and went 'online'. In those days,
you would find websites of radio stations to provide nothing more but the
station logo and a button saying 'live' - launching an external player. This
clumsy attempt of translating an established medium into a network
environment really put a finger on the strength and weaknesses of radio as
we knew it; the linear, one-way, no-frills-no-thrills transmission it is.

Only recently, 'ordinary' radios put more effort into living up to the world
wide web, providing an adequate environment to which listeners can come,
dwell, contribute, search, discuss and get on-demand material. But in
return, this process of redefining 'ordinary' radio when it goes online has
also put a finger on the strength and weakness of net.radio; the lack of
definition and tangibility. In fact, net.radio seems to be everything normal
radio is not ... and it is on the Internet.

This is a very powerful starting point for experimental net.radio projects.
It is not so much the question if it is important to explore the differences
between the two. First and foremost it is not 'ordinary' radio - and then
it's just anything else as long as it is online.

Of course, audio streaming is more and more becoming a central part of the
growing list of new media channels. But at the same time, we are all still
waiting for the new front end, the browser of the next generation, where all
these media outlets are coming together at the screen and speakers and what
else of the user, listener, or whatever you would want to call the next
generation receiver.

This client 'solution' is not there yet. And that's a good thing. So far,
not even multi-national lobbies such as Microsoft or AOL managed to prune
the Internet into the shape they would dream of. In fact, every attempt to
shape the multitude of formats, players and codecs has only put strength to
alternative solutions. A peer-to-peer distribution channel, such as Gnutella
is one example; alternative audio video formats such as Ogg or DivX are
another.

GL: The Xchange network, which established itself in 1998, has been
relatively stable in size since its first year. Whereas the overall Internet
has grown exponentially, going through the dotcom period of intense
financial speculation, many non-profit streaming initiatives have remained
low key. How would you explain this? Would this be related to the relatively
growing (self) isolation of the new media arts? Or rather with the problems
of the streaming media sector at large?

MF: I would assume that many of the more experimental initiatives in the
net.radio field have reached a certain level of saturation already early on.
And now they stay that way, keeping the financial turmoil at an arms length
distance. I doubt that this has to do with a tendency for self-isolation.
The experimental net.radio scene is based on an intriguing mixture of
challenging sonic liking, obscure technical interests and a radiant interest
in new distribution channels. No surprise that many of these people were
online early on, playing with Internet broadcasting formats and finding a
like-minded audience years before the big hype.

So the motivation of such closely-knit communities never really went towards
establishing business solutions and supplying sustainable business plans. If
anything, throughout the hype period I sensed some level of frustration and
suspicion towards all these start-ups who would take half-baked ideas and
rake in venture capital. It restricted many communities in terms of their
free flow of ideas, as one would never know if someone else would listen in,
pick it up and get some money from this idea, simply because she or he looks
better in a suit.

In a way it seemed as if the 'avant-garde' of net.radio was mostly surprised
by the cash flow surrounding it. Coming from inside the system, nobody
really understood how and why this should make any real money and certainly
not the sums flying around at the time. Looking back on these days, I am
sure many of the early DIY streaming experts think "I could have told you"
as well as "I wish we had driven a million against the wall, that sounds
like fun."

GL: Would you say that the technical limitations and the confusion of
standards for streaming media over the past five years have been a good or a
bad thing?

MF: The confusion is still going on. But within all the confusion some
developments are getting clearer.

The most prominent yet quiet development over these years of confusion was
the clear separation of media player and streaming format. In the early
days, to encode your media for the Internet, to stream it over the Internet
and listen to it at the other end came all in one box. Take RealMedia as an
example. They started very early on and for a long time provided the only
reliable and compatible solution for streaming media. In order to stream
RealMedia content, you needed their RealEncoder, their RealServer and the
RealPlayer to listen to the stream.

Today, MP3 is a very dominant format for streaming audio on the Internet. In
order to do this, you pick one of many encoders, one of many server
solutions and one of many too many players at the client side. It is all
using the MP3 standards, but there are even many codecs who provide
different quality and require different processing power when encoding or
decoding the audio.

Most users have some media player on their machine. So let's take a closer
look at commonly used players, such as WinAMP, RealPlayer, The Windows Media
Player or the Quicktime Player. Most of such applications are little more
than a shell providing clear definitions to developers of audio codecs. So
in order to establish a new form of audio compression, you should not only
think in terms of quality. You should also develop your codec to be
compatible with many or all of the commonly used players, so that people can
listen to material that uses your format. MP3 is a good example. You can
play this type of audio with almost any player.

Going back to your first question, bringing together all different types of
new media channels into one player - or browser - seems to be an issue for
many streaming media players. RealMedia for example is putting great effort
into making their player compatible with many available formats. Even Flash
films can be player in the RealPlayer, a format that usually is embedded in
ordinary web pages. All this seems to aim towards establishing a browser of
the next generation, including all formats available on the Internet. The
fact that WinAMP is also capable of displaying HTML web pages in an extra
window is also indicating this development.

So the confusion remains, but the confusion is not only tied into the
standards and formats, it is also tied into the rules of the game of
developing players and codecs. It's almost like a chicken and egg question:
if you want to establish a new player, make sure it plays as many popular
codecs as possible. If you want to establish a new codec, make sure it can
be played on as many popular players as possible.

As for the technical limitations, they will always be part of the rule set.
But, the more time goes by, the more solutions become available live and
online which were never originally developed to be streaming media formats.
Again, take MP3 as an example. At the time of development, this codec was
meant to provide the audio track of Video CDs. Only few people would have
thought that it could become a standard for streaming live audio over the
Internet. The available bandwidth was just too poor and the processing power
it took to encode MP3 in real time was too much to allow live streaming. And
now you have it.

And the confusion is far from over. As the separation of players and codecs
is a fact, media itself become less and less clearly defined.

Quicktime was one of the first to think of media files not only as linear,
frame based data-streams. Instead they thought of their media files as
containers where you can dump all your individual media into and add a time
line and that's that. So audio might be using one type of compression and
video another. And you could even add some stills, and text and so on. At
the other end, the Player will take a look at the media container, pick up
the time line and the instructions and see what codecs are available to play
what's in the container. In this case you might find a situation where the
player will play no video at some parts, because it lacks the right codec
for the image, but the audio is fine. Later on, it all looks just perfect.

Thinking of media as a container is far removed from the close connection
between content and technology that we know from the analogue world. Try to
play an audiotape with your VHS player and you know what I mean.

Understanding media files as containers will be the base camp. So there you
have all the confusion you want in one box: the player is an empty shell,
the media file is an empty container and inside is a multitude of media
using a multitude of codecs.

You were asking if I thought such confusion is a good or a bad thing. It's
certainly a lot of fun to look at. I guess as long as the concept of the
'media file' remains as open as it is today, it is very adequate in allowing
adjustments. Some technical limitations suddenly are no longer obstacles
pulling some formats suddenly into the ballgame. At the same time, there is
always enough room to throw them out again at some point, as many solutions
used on the Internet today for streaming media still carry restrictions of
their former use - again, take MP3 as an example.

The confusion shows one thing clearly. Those big players with the financial
muscle to flood the market with their solutions don't seem to be providing
the best solutions. Or why else would the confusion remain and smaller
developers suddenly become essential players in the game.

GL: Where would you like to see the critical and cultural streaming media
practices go to? Unlike pirate radio or mini FM net.radio does not (yet)
have legal troubles. Do you see the freedom to narrowcast turning into a
closed and self-satisfied, stagnating subculture? Napster was a lost
opportunity.

MF: It is hard to imagine that streaming or exchanging audio over the
Internet would face the same restrictions and out-of-proportion penalties
that mini FM or radio piracy are threatened by. Having said this, the
Internet also provides the best possible framework by which restrictions and
penalties could be coerced on deviant users. Confusion again.

What a complicated way to charge someone who listens to FM radio. There is
no way to track reliably and on a large scale who is switching on their
receivers to listen to a program. What an easy thing to track who is
listening to a program over the Internet. And in most cases there is already
a payment process in place: the phone bill. From that point of view it seems
so easy to imagine restrictions and charges for Internet listeners and
broadcasters.

The fact that there seems to be a legal gap where net.radio has escaped
into, says little about the endurance this situation might have. The silence
and indecisive actions from legal bodies only hints at the scale at which
adequate means of restrictions are required to tackle the 'problem'. The
silence is anything but peaceful and the partial eruptions as in the case of
discussing new forms of copyright laws hint at the direction this might
take.

As the independent scene is using the new distribution channels for their
means, and with little success of the large multi-national corporations to
use the same channels for their means, the big players have chosen different
paths. Copyright lobbyists are not fighting over peanuts in court with some
net.radio broadcasters from Manchester. Instead they are working behind the
scenes to implement an all-encompassing solution.

In the case of software piracy you can already see how lobbyists managed to
get governments on their sides. In the Czech Republic for example, the
government can ask you to present your software licenses alongside with your
receipts when checking your books. Why? Well, for no other reason as to do
the work for the software industries and identify cases of software piracy -
which will then be taken to court. It sounds like its against the law, but
most recently this practice has become law in itself. The government turned
itself into a tool for the software industry.

Unfortunately I believe it is on that level that multi-nationals are using
their muscle to put these levels of coercion into place.

GL: Which are issues for 'tactical' interventions for you?

MF: Using a combination of old and new media still provides a powerful tool
against national regulations in many countries. The ANEM network, which was
established in FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) by local radio stations
like B92 and others across the Balkan region, is still a good example.

In the FRY at the time there was no way you could get a national license for
radio broadcasting, neither could you get the technology into place to have
a network of transceivers which would carry a signal throughout the country.
However, local licenses for smaller stations were possible to get. So in
order to bring independent news to many regions of FRY, news were collected
and produced at a central hub in Belgrade, then streamed out of the country
through the Internet, picked up by a satellite transmitter and put onto a
satellite. From there, all the decentralized, small stations could receive
the signal with an ordinary satellite receiver and rebroadcast it on their
local frequency. The combined radio footprint of all the participating radio
stations at the time reached around 65% of Yugoslavia - without breaking any
laws, without any expensive technology and without dismantling the
decentralized nature of the network, as only a small percentage of their
program was used for news coverage.

A similar network has established itself in Indonesia, using the audio track
of a spare TV satellite channel to get the signal into the sky. There, over
250 stations are participating in the network. And we are currently working
with some local radio stations in Nepal on a similar situation. However,
Nepal provides even more obstacles as independent media is a very young
phenomenon and neither the network technology nor the journalistic
experience are in place to manage the structure.

GL: Often people associate streaming media with broadband and fat pipes. You
have worked with streaming media initiatives, for instance in Indonesia. Is
it fair to wipe out technological differences worldwide (in terms of
resources and infrastructure) and say that streaming media is there to be
used by all, under every possible circumstance?

MF: Streaming media is available in almost any corner of the world where
technology is available. In most cases streaming media would mean nothing
else but a phone line. Using a cellular phone, you are using streaming
technology on a low bit rate of about 8 kBps.

The Internet, of course, is not available in all corners of the world. The
Indonesian network I described above started their services with providing
news bulletins over the Internet. Based in Jakarta, they could find a
provider that would host and distribute their files. But with only one
governmental ISP in the far regions of the country who themselves only had a
56k modem connecting all users with Indonesia and then going into the
backbone hell knows where, this was not a feasible solution. Today they are
retrieving news from remote stations via cellular phones, digitize the
material, add their own commentary in the studio and then push it up onto
the satellite.

Without a reliable, safe and reasonably fast Internet connection in place,
such tactical networks need to be centrally organized. In Nepal the
situation we discovered is even more difficult. A commercial TV station,
broadcasting satellite television every day, is producing the shows and news
in Nepal, then they put the tapes into a suitcase, someone flies to Bangkok
and they put the material on the satellite there. So television will deliver
yesterdays news. This might sound strange, but once you are about 200
kilometers outside Katmandu, print media will possibly be two days late
anyway. And then you might realize that there are not that many people who
can read.

Sometimes it is surprising to see that online here in the West we might be
able to get radio stations from very remote places in reasonable quality.
The reality is that you might not be able to pick up the signal 10
kilometers from the station itself. In many cases, streaming over the
Internet is only available because some local ISP puts a radio receiver into
their office and takes the signal off that radio and into the Internet there
and then. The station producing the program might not even have an Internet
access itself.

So you can see that right now it is easier to get a streaming signal out of
developing areas and into the Western world than providing the information
to a neighboring village, island (Indonesia) or valley (Nepal).

The development for radio networks in these areas is lagging behind, but
creative solutions are filling the gaps the infrastructure leaves open for
the time being. But building a decentralized network does require a
reasonable infrastructure to allow the exchange between stations in the
periphery, without requiring a central hub.


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