The Failure of the Internet

Just a quick post rantlet about my latest experience with “new media.”

The first class meeting of the semester for my American Television History class was today at 11 am, CST, or, as it is more widely known, the exact moment of the Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. Knowing this, I planned on showing the events in my classroom live. This room does not have, nor has ever had, a standard television set or feed. Lots of other options (including a brand new, simple, Ikea-like multimedia port), but no over-the-air or cable TV. No problem, I surmised: it’s all over the web, covered by many news organizations. Piece of cake.

As it turned out, not so much. The event was live, and plentiful online, of course. It was just that the network traffic completely clogged it up, rendering every source I tried as four minutes of waiting fitfully followed by 18 seconds of choppy, distorted audio and a wash of live-streamed rendering artifacts, followed by more waiting. Frustrated, I sent the class out at what I think was the beginning of Obama’s address to watch the event down in the atrium in the Owens Art Center, where apparently a portable jumbotron was set up for just that event. (I say “apparently” because I knew nothing of this, save what a few students told me this morning).

So, while they went to watch, I waited for stragglers and missed the whole inauguration. Now granted, this is 2009, and this event will be available universally online and on cable and broadcast TV (already, not quite one hour later, there are about a dozen videos available of it on YouTube). But the liveness of the moment is gone. And I blame the internet.

In our rush to go all “smart” in our media technology, we may be forgetting the sheer elegance and simplicity of terrestrial broadcasting. Cheap devices, many of them iPod-sized, have been available for decades that do one thing very, very well: receive live broadcast radio and television. You know all those stock film images of people crowding around TV sets and radios? My Macbook can’t do that, and neither can my iPod. Even in ideal situations, live broadcasting online is hit-or-miss, with everyone’s favorite word, “BUFFERING,” attempting to mollify our frustrations. Still. Now. Almost 20 years into this whole cyber- internet- phenomenon thingy. We would never have put up with such interruptions back in the analog age; now we expect them.

Anyway, this will be a great talking point for situating television history on Thursday and down the line in my class. Television, as a social institution, is greater than whatever electronic components make it up. But when those components fail us, it does challenge the idea of the institution of television.

On a related note, I’m also cooking up a rant on the Failure of the Digital Transition, or, as it is known Chez Kompare, “why the hell is Tina Fey missing half of her face”?


7 Responses to “The Failure of the Internet”

  1. Miranda Says:

    Sorry to hear about your frustrations and failures to join the innaguration “live.” I too had a class that started at noon (EST). In preparation I got to class 10 minutes early and hoped to log on to No luck. (Busy) Then (Busy) Then (They didn’t have it!) Finally–inspiration from abroad. Thank goodness for the BBC! The only upset was that we lost the signal twice–thankfully for just under a second each time. The good news, my students and I found the BBC commentary quite interesting. The bad news, the digital transition is still a rocky road. Ultimately, there’s still no better place to watch TV than on a TV.

    Happy inauguration day.

  2. dkompare Says:

    It crossed my mind to try the BBC, but I figured I’d run into the UK IP address restrictions. And also: how many feeds do you attempt simultaneously? 🙂

  3. Bob Rehak Says:

    Derek, my sympathies on the headaches you experienced! Here at Swarthmore the system worked pretty well — numerous feeds around campus, and a handsome HD projection in our main theater space. It provided a good opportunity to discuss the inauguration as a global media event with my course in TV & New Media, which had its first meeting just minutes after Obama departed the stage.

    All this aside, I share many of your reservations about, and skepticism toward, new media’s promise of seamless, pervasive microcasting, and whether it improves on, supplants, or actually constitutes a retrograde step away from the established material base of television. Your experience suggests that it was precisely digital media’s strength of interconnecting large numbers of autonomous data nodes that make the feeds unusable — an interesting companion to this NY Times story:

  4. Jonathan Gray Says:

    I never knew I could get home from school so quickly — I ran from my morning class at Lincoln Center, and made it just in time for Biden’s swearing in

  5. Jason Mittell Says:

    We have a brand-new high-end building housing our film & media department, with a great screening room with 35mm & HD video – but alas, no cable! So we streamed the feed on the big screen with pretty good results – seamless audio, and near perfect video. But I would have much preferred an HD feed with the (almost) guaranteed quality of cable.

  6. ndsuenglish Says:

    WE actually gathered around a colleague’s second screen hooked up to his MacBook Pro. It streamed like a champ (except for a slightly delayed Yo-Yo Ma et. al quartet). Yes, it was the BBC. How ’bout that good old Empire (TM) coming through in a pinch, eh?

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