“Columbus, Ohio and QUBE: Democracy, Interactive Cable Systems, and the Digital Town Square in the Early 1980s”

In 1978, Warner Communications-American Express went live in Columbus, Ohio with their new interactive cable system called QUBE. Making use of the infinite data transport capabilities of coaxial cable and an increasing interest in cable services, Warner-AmEx provided a glimpse of the digital future of residential internet service and online communities. Though they conceived of and sold the service as empowering an engaged and thoughtful citizenry, QUBE ultimately reproduced divisions of class, race, and space. Rather than a home for all citizens of Columbus and its suburbs, QUBE functioned not as a town square but a gated community.  

Warner-Amex’s marketing balanced emphasizing QUBE’s cutting-edge interactive technology and new content with the notion that its services would not simply entertain. They lauded QUBE’s potential to give citizens an ongoing voice in local issues. In an early 1980s promotional film, the company underlined how its interactive systems allowed residents to register their opinion on public issues like taxes and snow removal. The film also presented the broader notion that national political culture could be changed by showing real-time reaction to President Carter’s national address colloquially known as the “malaise” speech.[1] The narrator goes so far as to tout QUBE interactivity as a successor to the “great American town meeting” where citizens meet virtually and discuss pressing issues of the day. Indeed, QUBE had a relentless focus on local issues, culture, citizens, and celebrities. Out of 30 channels, 10 were labeled under column “C” for community that included comparative shopping guides, local talk shows, and direct access to network tv affiliates in the region.[2] 

These ideas about enhancing participatory democracy appeared alongside more traditional marketing of the system’s private features in the grand tradition of utopian framing of new technologies geared for profit. Foremost, QUBE provided access to new channels such as Pinwheel, the forerunner of Nickelodeon, and, Sight on Sound, the precursor to MTV. QUBE also made gaming possible through its remote control. Lastly, for an extra fee, the system could provide home security and fire monitoring. In closing, the film tied together the civic and entertainment functions that interactive television facilitated. It showed residents react in real time to different events including naming a newborn baby as well predicting more opportunities for shopping, banking, “information retrieval,” and “narrowcasting,” their term for distance learning through the “College at Home” premium service.

This merging of work, play, education, and democracy obfuscated how the system ultimately did not facilitate participatory democracy but instead brought postwar political divisions to the digital world. The massive expansion of suburban development premised on racial and class exclusion shifted political power to these largely white and middle-class enclaves. These communities were where, by the early 1980s, approximately 12 million homes had cable service. In Columbus, this meant that mostly suburban households had cable service or could afford QUBE’s premium features leaving many without access to the democratic possibilities of this new service. When QUBE did function as a town square where citizens could air their views, it remained the exclusive domain of already empowered (and perhaps already overrepresented) white, middle class suburbanites who could afford the service. This lack of widespread access extended the broader political empowerment of suburbanites by bringing the ongoing impediments to equal representation and visibility to the virtual town square. QUBE could not provide a civic digital space to call home for all, presaging the ongoing digital divide and battles over representation and content on social media and in search algorithms that structure the digital world of many Americans.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.