Rick Prelinger - Online Archives, Creativity & Serendipity
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Rick Prelinger is the creator and curator of the biggest moving image archive on the internet that offers material which can be reused for commercial purposes. Here he explains why he put the films, which he also sells as stock footage, online and what the results have been. He talks of his offline library without computers, and how that relates to the value of serendipity in the time of the query driven information environment. http://footage.stealthisfilm.com/video/2
This interview was recorded for Steal This Film II
. The project tries to bring new people into the leagues of those now prepared to think 'after intellectual property', and think creatively about the future of distribution, production and creativity. This is a film that has no single author. It makers encourage its 'theft', downloading, distribution and screening, and have made the entire film and its footage available for download in HDV format, on their website and on Pirate Bay.
Interview with Rick Prelinger
Steal This Film II
So the Prelinger archives online
stemmed out of casual conversation
that I had when I first got on the phone
with Brewster Kahle in 1999
and within the first 20 seconds he said:
"Do you want to put your archive online for free?"
And I started to stutter, I said "I make money
charging for access to my collection,
how could I give it away, I don't know about this".
And I was new to California,
I hadn't been inculcated in the values
of the open source movement
and I knew nothing about free culture.
But after thinking about it for a while
I realized this was an experiment worth trying because
I'm a contrarian and I felt that
there were a lot of things wrong about the
whole archival and stock footage world.
And in addition we had always given out footage for free
or just for duplication costs
to worthwhile projects like this one
or social and cultural artistic community projects
that we wanted to see
- do our little bit to help enable.
But it was expensive,
because it cost just as much to give something away
as it does to charge for it, it's still time and all that,
so in a lot of ways
this seemed like it offered us a way to do the right thing
without experiencing the adverse consequences of doing that
and beginning at the start of 2001
we started to put material online.
To the best of our knowledge
we've had over 7 million films downloaded
Now this may not seem like much
but these are very obscure films,
the most well known film that we've put up
"is Duck and Cover".
But there's a lot of stuff that's of interest
just to rail-road buffs and train-spotters,
or the telephone collectors,
or the people interested in the history of
the small slices, small interest groups.
But all in all we think about 7 million films,
and this is an educated estimate,
is that about 80,000 derivative works
have been made from the material that we've put up online.
A lot of people who own content or who control content
or who are gatekeepers to content,
are freaked out about giving things away and
our experience has been
to them, very counter intuitive.
To us quite fulfilling what we found
after we put all this material up online,
and we put all our good stuff,
the stuff that we knew people wanted, is that our sales went up.
One of the things that intrigues me tremendously
about the proliferation of material
that's out there in the world for people to grab
is the potential creation of millions of new authors.
And the consequent breakdown of
that long lasting barrier between
consumers and producers that's bandied about
all over the place as participatory media
My personal experience is that
when you begin to get millions
of new authors really, really interesting things can happen.
And from an archivist's point of view,
or a librarian's point of view when you put
put primary materials in the hands of ordinary citizens
really interesting things can happen.
History is no longer the province of academics and intellectuals,
definitions of culture begin to shift
and change in very interesting ways
and as we know questions of what's high culture
and what's low culture often get inverted
or scrambled in ways that I think are tremendously productive.
Larry Lessig talks about the model of scarcity
being supplanted by the model of plenty,
which is a way of thinking that I like a lot.
When the model of plenty begins to rule,
as I think it is now, people have a tremendous
amount of information at their disposal.
Some of it is fact, some of it is not necessarily fact,
but in terms of history,
which is what i work with, when you put history
in the hands of ordinary people
you enable them to do what I call historical intervention.
Our archive is a historical intervention,
this library is a historical intervention.
It means re-injecting the past, re-injecting the content,
the discourse, the ideas, the text,
the images of the past, into the present and giving
us the opportunity to look at the present differently.
In other words recontextualizing the present through infusion
of historical material - tremendously exciting.
It means it gives us the opportunity
to snap ourselves out of this eternalised present
where we believe that everything is new, everything is fresh,
we're the first generation to experience what's happening now.
I actually find it provocative and fascinating,
when I started showing people old educational
and industrial films back in the 80s I realized
that we all had tremendously sterotypical ideas
about the 30, 40s, 50s and 60s in American life,
and when I started showing people these films,
quickly, in conversation, we could move
beyond these simplified formulations like
'it was a simpler time',
'people were kinder', 'it was safer',
'it was better for kids',
'there was no dissent in the 50s'.
All these simplified ideas kind of fell away
and we could see the past and the present in its complexity.
In general I'm all for abundance
because I think it enables new forms of
social expression and critique
but I don't think that's inherently true.
People could always go to libraries
and use what they find in libraries in different ways.
Its not so much the pre-existence
of a lot of information that changes it, I think it's
the use that people make of it.
I think to me the abundance of authors
and the abundance of voices is much more central.
You know all over the place there's
these amazing stories about people,
making new work without permission and using the net as
this amazing distribution system.
I made this fairly rarified experimental feature film,
put it online and got into the Rotterdam film festival,
got reviewed in the New York Times.
I'm fundable now to make more work
in ways that I wasn't before,
and I'm not even the most...
I'm one of a million examples.
What interests me is the fact that the world is bifurcated
between people who believe that they can do that
and know they can and often do it,
that see it as an opportunity,
And then the other group who's often older,
who's completely threatened by that.
So the world of documentary film is very interesting.
Documentary film makers have always been interested
in getting their work presented
behind the red velvet curtain.
PBS, Prime Time, HBO, Theatrical, Channel 4 UK.
There has always been this interest
in the best possible presentation for your film,
and that system can only absorb a small number of works at anyone time.
And a lot of people from that group
who have great talent and great abilities
to do wonderful work don't want to make online work,
for them the web is for lower life forms
or for people who are just getting established.
And what I'd be very concerned about
is trying to get these people won over to this much more
open system - it means they have to compete,
it means they lose privilege,
they lose that sort of handicap they already have.
But that to me is a big problem,
that there are people who basically
don't want to pick up these great tools that are there.
We need to also move away
from a query driven internet
where you have a search engine and
you fill the box with something that you think you want,
you put your intention in the box,
and then something comes back to you.
We need to be able to surprise people.
This was great about the early net and the ???C
and the what's new and the what's cool-buttons,
you'd be surprised.
So in Google you have the I'm feeling lucky- button
but you don't have the surprise me-button
Serendipity, discovery surprise -
very, very powerful functions psychologically
- again, endangered species.
This library which my partner Megan and I built is about serendipity.
It has an idiosyncratic taxonomy that Megan designed,
the idea's that you go to
an area of interest and then you become surprised.
We don have a catalogue, we're not query based,
we're not the typical library where the first thing
you see when you walk in the atrium
is a computer asking you to formulate a query
and then it tells you where to find a book.
We don't believe in that.
We believe in letting people look at the books and be surprised so
a writer recently said about us that we want people
to find what they're not looking for.
This is getting to be hard to do online bb
because things are all query based.
You could do wonderful things with databases
especially when they're very, very large
mass databases but just like science is
science, medicine, education
and the criminal justice system are trying to breed out the unusual
and shift us in the direction of a monoculture.
In a lot of ways this is what a query based interface
do in terms of knowledge.
How are we going to be surprised?
How are we going to be exposed to new things?
I think we really need to keep that alive.