Amsterdam and London recently played host to two very different conferences on new media technology. In the terribly hip and happening city of London, the big players met to discuss the future media, business and legal problems streaming media presents. And in Amsterdam, a bunch of artists, activists and anarchists hung around the trendier bars and clubs showing off their pirate streaming stations, guerrilla media and online art.
What united the two events was not just their focus on the technology – in effect the delivery of digital audio and video through the internet as a continuous stream rather than as a single downloaded file – but their belief that we are at a turning point. It was common wisdom until recently for website managers to tell their marketing bosses that there was no way of including video or even audio on a site. "No one's going to wait for a 10MB file to download," they would say.
But the capacity to stream that video, increased access speeds even among dial-up users, a software standards battle between Microsoft and Real, and a must-have content, have all contributed to the viability and reach of streaming media.
Amsterdam provided a showcase of what the technology could do in the hands of people with imagination, who have something to say and refuse to follow the traditional rules of business.
The conference was not actually packed out with people in suits. In fact, even if you worked in the industry you could feel a little marginalised. These were the shock troops of new media, taking a new technology, seeing how far it could go and seeking to exploit it before the corporates got their hands on it.
But of course the suits already had their hands on it. And most of them were in London networking at Earl's Court at one of those giant noo meeja trade shows. Ironically, the same event last year in Amsterdam was much smaller, with a tightly-knit group of hard-core evangelists and a handful of stands. Not this year. The name badges were a who's who of traditional new media companies desperate for a steer on what could and should be done with this new potential.
Whereas in Amsterdam the talk was of the power of networking, building communities and grass-roots media, in London it was of broadband webcasting, video on demand and rights management. What united the two conferences was a common theme – the threat to traditional systems.
What is clear from the experience of attending both events was that it is not the technology that is important, it's not even what you do with it, it's how it fits into your broader project. Do you see it as part of a larger plan to open up communication, build more powerful relationships with your comrades or customers or as the next inevitable stage in the evolution of an existing medium, another must-have element in an increasingly fragile defence against the future?
The ability to make video accessible is tempting. Putting corporate presentations online or creating accessible and attractive information packages for clients cheaply and simply, catches many imaginations. But unless it is integrated into a broader reworking of how a business inter and intra-relates – in the same fundamental way in which the Amsterdam activists made streaming part of a structural reworking of their culture and communities – it is doomed to be a gimmick.