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Lo-fi vs hi-tech

You don't need to have access to the latest or most expensive technology to create your own media - you can do it your own way. Amy Spencer celebrates the continuing rise of do-it-yourself culture

November 22, 2009
9 min read

Dishwasher Pete’s ambition was to wash dishes in every state in America and write about it. These written accounts first appeared in his self-published Dishwasher zine and subsequently in his book of the same title, published by HarperPerennial in 2007. Issue No 7 of Dishwasher found him at a cafe in Boulder, No 8 at an Alaskan fish cannery, No 9 at a seafood restaurant in New Hampshire and No 11 at restaurants in Montana, California and Ohio.

Pete didn’t want the responsibility of a job he felt tied to and was happy to travel across the country working temporarily in each town. His writings communicate the sense of freedom as he relishes the addictive experience of walking out of jobs, enjoying the drifting life, travelling across America in search of plates to wash and celebrating the characters he meets along the way.

In many ways, Pete is typical of the young zine writers who flourished from the punk era onwards, using photocopiers and cheap presses, often scrounging or stealing the paper on which to publish their work. Today they are more likely to set up web pages and blogs, but their key characteristics are the same.

They often find themselves working in menial jobs, unwilling to ‘sell themselves’ to any employer and only prepared to work the minimum hours necessary to get by, but wanting to do something different and, through their zines or blogs, having found a way of doing so. They can write down their thoughts and explore their everyday experiences and find an often-captivated audience. Dishwasher Pete is just one among many practitioners of a burgeoning do-it-yourself ‘lo-fi’ culture.

A refreshing alternative

In a world where making everything faster, bigger, glossier and more expensive is so highly valued, lo-fi is a refreshing alternative. It began as a style of music production in opposition to high production values. Think of a cassette produced on a tape recorder in a bedroom by a 1970s punk band or the home-made instruments played by a skiffle band in the 1950s. That’s lo-fi. It’s about using available resources and celebrates the amateur approach to getting things done.

It is also a joke, a subversion of the term hi-fi (from ‘high fidelity’, meaning the faithful reproduction of the original sound), and an attitude that you don’t need to have access to the latest or most expensive technology to create your own media. You can do it your own way. What is produced can often look messy and shambolic at first glance, but it is created with a different set of values. It is at the heart of DIY culture, which has always tried to blur the division between creators and consumers. It is about taking part and taking control of the means of cultural production. Its rallying call is that it is open to anyone.

The low-tech approach of lo-fi, the use of limited technology when faced with a lack of resources, isn’t just present in music but also in print media. Imagine a 1960s radical newspaper produced using bits and pieces of obsolete printing presses or a 1980s music zine ranting against stadium rock, printed by its author on the office photocopier during the lunch break. Lo-fi is about the tools that are used to create something rather than what is created. Your approach might be lo-fi but the results are your own.

But what is the point? Why bother creating something lo-fi when you can just buy something with much higher production values? Lo-fi is about taking control of the process of creation yourself. Never mind that you might not have access to a recording studio or a printing press, or that what you produce might never pass for professional output. It doesn’t matter.

You will probably need to find the cheapest means of production and distribution. This has changed over the years. At different times it may have been pen and paper, a typewriter, a letter press, a mimeograph, a photocopier, an offset printer, a silk screen, a tape recorder or a computer.

You need to find a way of working with what you have to create whatever you want, whatever you think is missing from the world. There is no particular style of music or type of writing that you can call lo-fi. It is the approach rather than the result that is important, an approach that is idealistically democratic. While political manifestos and publications are often published using limited resources and distributed through non-traditional channels, controlling the means of production can be a political act in itself, whatever the content. Radical too is the central idea that someone can create and distribute their work without the aim of turning it into a profitable career or looking for fame and fortune.

Technological impetus

Clearly, technology has played a huge part in setting the course of lo-fi history. Increases in DIY production have come at times when different forms of technology became more accessible and affordable. This is especially obvious in the history of independent publishing. There was a boom in small presses in the 1950s due to advances in offset printing. Radical independent newspapers and magazines of the 1960s also embraced offset printing and the opportunity it brought to publish whatever they wanted, which was often at odds with the established press of the era.

The explosion of small-circulation dissident publications that appeared alongside punk music in the late 1970s was made possible when the photocopier became more widely available. The idea that anyone could create anything was central to the punk ethos and the amateur approach was celebrated in words as well as in music. The photocopier was a vital technological development as it meant that anyone could publish at a fairly low cost. The means of production suddenly became cheap and readily available, and publishing could be almost instant.

Jon Savage, who produced the London Outrage zine in the 1970s, explains his impulse to produce issues at speed. ‘In the lunch hour, I’d sit on the bog attacking bits of paper with glue in a very real fever – got to do it now, now!’ New technology provided a vehicle for Savage’s speed of production and he could photocopy and distribute issues as soon as they were finished. This was an immediate form of cultural production that soon engaged a substantial readership.

As soon as a new affordable technology became widely available it was seized upon by people eager to share their views and creative output with others. With each new development, the technology it replaced suddenly became cheaper and much more accessible. In the hunt for resources, creators have often looked to obsolete technology to find an affordable way to produce work.

Steve Clay, who wrote about self-publishing activities in his book A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, believes that improvements in technology often lead to an increase in self-publishing activity: ‘New technology allows, maybe even forces, old technology to be put to different, often artistic purposes.’

When publishers, as well as small presses, saw the promise of publishing using new offset printing methods in the 1950s, many individual writers began to use the mimeograph to publish cheap books of their own writing. The technology had suddenly become available at a much cheaper price and could be put to good use.

Hi-tech option

Today, technology is playing its part once again. The internet has made media production accessible to millions of people globally. It is now commonplace. Almost anyone can now publish their writing on a blog, use online print-on-demand technology to produce small print runs of their own books, share their music through downloads or write about their life on Facebook or Twitter. Amateur media production runs along entirely new avenues and individuals are able to share their artistic creations and their lives with a potentially huge audience.

This use of digital media may at first appear to have nothing to do with a lo-fi approach but as digital technologies become more and more prevalent it is the most obvious choice for many people. Of course, motivations vary wildly but the numbers of people who can potentially take part in DIY cultural production have been vastly increased. The lo-fi approach is now often to take the hi-tech option.

Just as punk zine writers used the photocopier and the four-track recorder, digital technologies and the internet are often now the most accessible and appropriate tools to use. Just as in the past, however, people may not be using the latest cutting-edge technology. They may be limited to the budget (or pirated) versions or old copies of software. The lo-fi approach has developed but the limitations can be the same.

Lo-fi has always simultaneously embraced and opposed new technologies. People have both celebrated technology and rejected it. For some, lo-fi will always be about about finding low-tech solutions rather than opting to use the most obvious and available technologies. Someone might have access to the internet and a flashy laptop but want to record music on a four-track and only release it on cassette. Instead of a blog, someone might want to hand-write a zine and print it on paper.

There is often a sense of nostalgia as unusual technologies are chosen instead of the most obvious. With so many technological options now available, the creator may have access to a range of options and pick the one that best suits their needs. Some celebrate immediacy while some want what they produce to last as an enduring record of what they did. What remains the same is the freedom to be able to choose the most appropriate medium and the most suitable tools.

Really it doesn’t matter what choices you make, whether you choose to record your next album using analogue or digital technologies, or whether you publish using the internet or on a photocopier. The importance of a lo-fi approach is firmly entrenched with a wider understanding of DIY culture. It is more about sharing your political, social or cultural views, asserting your independence or building a community than making a vast profit or finding fame. Lo-fi is a celebration of the tools and resources you have available, whatever they are. It is up to you to decide what you want to do with it, just as Dishwasher Pete did.

Amy Spencer’s book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture is published by Marion Boyars

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