Role playing.

In a few years, if technology and media companies continue to innovate at their current breakneck pace, entertainment will finally be as interactive as it was in 1599, when the Globe theater was built.

I was reminded of just how much we misplace the past while watching a YouTube clip of Andy Kaufman performing his Great Gatsby bit on live television and in front of a live studio audience in 1978.

It’s a routine which cannot work without a live studio audience and one which would be much less effective were it not also broadcast live to an even larger television audience. Yet neither could it be done without recorded media.

In a way, it’s still state of the art interactive television. (What difference would IPTV make other than allowing the viewers at home to groan and heckle along with the studio audience? I’m sure they did when this show was first televised.) The skit’s lasting effect comes from its script which requires audience participation in order to affirm the almost tyrannical power of the broadcaster: she or he who controls the stage. Both the studio and television audiences are trapped.

The ways we can transmit information today are certainly different and its these technical permutations – of one one to one, one to many, many to one and many to many – which we often mistake for the cutting edge of media. (Especially within the confines of consumer capitalism, where changing business models have very serious implications for the political economy.)

But the real novelty is and always has been who can say what to whom.

Consider the true story of a husband and wife who were born into slavery and escaped by her playing the role of a white man (free) and he her slave. Their escape lasted several days. Can you imagine that performance?

Our modern freedoms are rooted in ancient rituals of performance. Who commands the nation’s attention, what is permissible speech, these are the questions which change society. Whether we interact via papyrus or electronic packet is almost immaterial.

We hope for liberation from the past via increased access to an ever widening stage, perhaps longing for a play without distinction between audience and performer. But freedom for all depends on who gets to play what role not the dissolution of roles altogether. The laughter at the end of Kaufman’s bit is proof positive that we are bound to role playing the passive and active.

New scripts will change the media industry far more than new set top boxes.