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Commercializing the Internet: Cyberdemocracy or Just Television?

 

by Brett Dellinger

 

Seduced by the perception of unbridled liberty in our new wired lives, we will fail to see ways in which large institutions -- mostly corporations -- still influence and even restrict our choices. We will click through our online universes naively believing that our destiny is our own, when in fact the offerings available to us are driven mostly by profit motives. Worst of all, we won't notice when cherished rights like freedom of expression and privacy are subtly diminished. --Is the Net Democratic? Yes -- and No.[1]

 

During the darkest years of the Great Depression, the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject public assistance for educational and public service broadcasting.  In 1934, with a scathing essay in response to the Senate’s rejection, James Rorty compared the “American apparatus of advertising“ with

 

a grotesque, smirk­ing gargoyle set at the very top of America's skyscraping adventure in ac­quisition ad infinitum ... It is never silent, it drowns out all other voices, and it suffers no rebuke, for is it not the voice of America?[2]

 

Nearly seventy years have passed since Rorty’s indictment, but the “smirking gargoyle“ is still on its perch.  Instead of radio it is the Internet which is now coming un­der the influence of its voice. During those early days of broadcasting there were profound and pressing decisions which demanded the attention of the public at large—decisions which concerned the control, development and administration of that new state-of-the-art information technology.  The problem of controlling and administrating radio broadcasting, says Rorty,

 

is approximately coextensive with the prob­lem of controlling and administering the modern world in the cultural and economic interests of the people who in­habit it.

 

The main decisions were made during the early days of broadcasting when the United States Congress chose the path of least resistance and let “big government“ stay out of broadcasting while commercial broadcasting was given a free rein.  "Market forces" won control over radio in America. 

 

Granted that the radio is socially and politically one of the most revolutionary additions to the pool of human re­sources in all history--how does one go about integrating it with a civilization which itself functions with in­creasingly difficulty and precariousness?

 

Today, as we draw closer to the new millenium, it would seem that we are faced with a similar dilemma:  How do we integrate a new technology into an increasingly pre­carious and difficult society? Obviously, the precariousness of today’s world is not to be compared with that of the 1990s. As far as communications go, it is no longer a question of just one society but many. Considering the global nature of the Internet, the calls for a "market solution" to the control of the Internet would seem, based on past experience, extremely complicated if not absurd.  For Rorty, postulating his arguments during the Great Depression, it seemed so obvious:

 

At bottom of the issue is part of the larger conflict be­tween exploitation for private profit and the increas­ingly articulate movement for public ownership and opera­tion of essential public services.

 

The same choices are awaiting us today. This time, it concerns a global information and communications system.  Control over the Internet cannot and should not lie within the boundaries of just one world power. As John December wrote in CMC Magazine:

 

Intertwined in these policies is the idea that the United States government … has world-wide jurisdiction over this global network.[3]

 

The time has come for a decision to be made by all those who are concerned about freedom of expression over the Internet. This would include freedom of information distribution, in particular the maintenance and integrity of public discourse. The deci­sions must be made now which will decide if the voice of advertising will be allowed to dominate the Internet.  Are world governments able to establish a truly independent, democratic Internet? It was Rorty's opinion that, when it came to radio,  “the control of the radio means increasingly the control of public opinion. Big business knows this…“

 

Parallels with the Past

 

Notably, one of the most powerful features of the new technology is its technical ability to facilitate an interactive flow of information. Old mass communications technology, represented by the press, radio and television, both commercial and public service, offers only a oneway flow.  "News" tends to originate from the usual filtered sources, then flows down to its audience. The Internet, on the other hand, seems to defy gravity by allowing flow to originate from any source on the net.  It would seem, therefore, that our societies are in the midst of a communications revolution in which "the audience" has been empowered to talk back.

 

In the entire history of mass communications there have been other revolutions, to be sure. James Curran, a scholar of the old technology, recalls the communications model prevalent during the middle ages, the one used by the Roman Catholic Church. The church's "technology" consisted of much verbal as well as non-verbal communication which took the form of “religious magic“ and “the whole paraphernalia of ecclesias­tical sorcery and ritual.“ The rites of baptism, confir­mation, mar­riage, purification, extreme unction and even bur­ial gave sig­nifi­cance to the life cy­cle and the church's role, which also affirmed to anyone bold enough to question "that every aspect of hu­man existence fell within the compass of the Church.“

 

The church used its technology to prop up and extend Roman power over large ar­eas of the European con­tinent. The old technology's remarkable success was made possible in part by the Roman church’s “ideological authority“ over all forms of public information exchange and distribution. The expan­sion of Roman power provided the material basis for papal influence, interpreta­tion, manipula­tion and control over most spiritual, political, financial, and military affairs, while it also created and maintained a fully functioning communications net­work uniting the entire European continent.

 

One key aspect of this early, but sophisticated, communications technology was the church’s “ideological authority“ over the technology itself, which derived its authority from “the selective interpretation of the Bible in a way which consti­tuted a com­pelling way of viewing the world.“ Obviously the church used the technology to mold, man­age and guide the “world views“ of the masses of Europeans.

 

I am using Curran’s analysis to call attention to the amazing similarities between the old feudal model of information distribution and the more modern one, that which is represented by our own media. Curran's de­scription of medieval Catholicism and its ideological power over masses of Europeans during the Middle Ages presents us with useful insights into how power can be employed to establish hegemony over a new communications technology for purposes of exploiting public consent for political and commercial ends.  Technology can also be a two-edged sword. Obviously, Gutenberg knew which side of the sword to use and chose to circumvent Roman power and aid the establish of a new social and political order on the continent.

 

This "two edged sword," the capability of the new technology to circumvent established hegemony instead of using it to continue along established traditions, succeeded in toppling the mighty Roman Empire and with it papal control over public consent, publich discourse and culture in general. As the American Vice President Al Gore has re­cently pointed out, it is Gutenberg who is given the credit for “revolutionizing" medieval "culture,“ but Gutenberg “exploited" the revolution "...at a moment when the circumstances were conducive.“[4]  Gutenberg didn't create the Protestant Reformation, nor did his version of the Bible, nor even his state-of-the-art infor­mation technol­ogy.  But the printing press proved to be the essential tool which he used skillfully to set into motion the wheels of change, and a revolutionary new way of distributing information.  Public discourse, as it existed in feudal Europe, once liberated from its gothic constraints by printing press technology, broke from the selective confines of the church and became popular information. Through means of a qualitatively new approach in mass communications, an al­ternative source of knowledge was placed on the intellectual map which grew to nourish a new class in its endeavors to establish a new and qualita­tively different social order.[5]

 

Today there is much discussion on the Internet about these very issues. Most advocate a democratic Internet. These "cyberdemocrats" often point to the inadequacies of the  old technology and its oneway system of information flow.  The old communications technology, they point out, is only able to "man­age“ our news and “guide“ public opinion through modern rites of entertainment, news, game shows, sitcoms, and police shows.

 

The devotees of cyberdemocracy welcome the Internet and its interactiveness as a qualitative change in media content. To some, the new technology represents an opportunity to gain advantages over today's established hegemony in media, opening up possibilities for another spiritual, political and economic reformation in the millineum to come.

 

 

Cyberdemocrats and Cyberspeak

 

As Mitch Kapor of the EFF (Electronic Frontiers Foundation)  pointed out a few years ago when it was still fashionable to talk about the National Infor­mation Infrastructure (NII), “The emerging consensus between business, government, and policy watchdogs“ is that it is the  “private sector, not the government“  that

 

will build and operate the NII. …Telephone companies and cable television operators, not the government, will be the principal carriers of traffic into the home.[6]

 

Only ten years ago, what we then rather pretentiously called “cyberculture“ was really a marginal occurrence, only a "virtual" space occupied by an elite of computer scientists, researchers and hobbyists. Not to be forgotten is the "cyberleft," a remnant of 60s culture, with its nucleus centered in the two Bay Area networks known as PeaceNet and The Well. "Cyberculture" is and always has been a fringe, mostly English-speaking American phenomenon, isolated from the main­stream by its technological demands on user skills and cultural capital, causing it to be dominated in practice by “techies,“ “nerds,“ “cyber­punks,“ “geeks,“ and a more highly educated group of Net intelligentsia. Those eccentric specialists of the “cy­berage,“ computer technicians, enthusiasts and hackers, shared many of the same technical interests typical of the pioneers of the early years of radio broadcasting, when the ability to tune in a faraway station was considered an enviable skill.[7] At the dawn of the digital age the upper-middleclass computer enthu­siasts with a radical predilection were instrumental in tossing radical ideas about the net which offered unique solutions to the world’s problems—solutions which ranged from liberation theology to libertarianism--and reflected the new conditions of the Internet age--conditions which are still consistent with today's needs at a grassroots level. 

 

Many of those early solutions offered by Net pioneers had to do with some very old concepts, such as freedom of speech, de­mocracy online and freedom of access. The trailblazers of “cy­berdemocracy,“ better able than others to see the inherent po­tentials of a wired world, were among the first to oppose giv­ing net users only “indirect, or limited control over when, what, why, and from whom they get informa­tion and to whom they send it.“  That, said Mitch Kapor, is “the broadcast model.“ The broadcast model, of course, refers to commercial broad­casting as it is known in the United States.  Such a model, according to Kapor, “seems to breed consumerism, passiv­ity, crass­ness, and mediocrity.“[8]

 

The other scenario was a future in which all users of the Internet could “have decen­tralized, distrib­uted, direct con­trol over when, what, why, and with whom they exchange infor­mation.“  That, according to Kapor, is the “Internet model,“ and “it seems to breed critical thinking, activism, democracy, and quality.“  If the "Internet model," as Kapor re­ferred to it, could have been implemented, it may have rendered the dis­cussion of media democracy, and indeed the entire ongoing de­bate over "who controls our media," redundant.[9]

 

True cyberdemocracy, it must be said, could lead to a radical rearrangement of the real world; a rearrangement in which con­trol of or sovereignty over governments, multinational corpo­rations and even whole armies could be reestablished—and changed to make them subservient entities, outdated structures from a predemocratic past.  According to many cyberdemocrats, the Internet could circumvent the power of the media, bringing forth a new age of pluralism.[10]

 

As reality sets in and the new millenium nears, it seems that Kapor’s “broadcast model,“ his negative scenario, is indeed beginning to take hold over the Internet. The influence of those free-wheeling, free-spirited “cyberpunks,“ the pioneers of cyberspace, is dwindling while whole new technologies bus­ily go about supplanting the established patterns of Net activities.[11] To echo James Rorty’s warning, the Internet is now being embraced by an ideology consumed with the drive to market more and more goods to more and more people.

 

This is not to say of course that there will be no support for cyberdemocracy in the future, nor that it no longer exists today. There is still a broad basis and widespread belief in those early net principles and concepts as they were envi­sioned among net veterans nearly a decade ago. Still, there is a gnawing feeling that interaction online has changed.  Even the concept of interaction has taken on other meanings.  For one thing, in the early days, there was a certain level of ho­mogeneity in the way netizens viewed their world.  This uni­formity of thought and purpose has given way to immense diver­sity as the population of netizens increases rapidly.  The “real“ world, like the slow but sure approach of Stephen King’s Langoliers, is becoming more and more of a reality on­line. Netizens, in other words, are beginning to resemble real world citizens.

 

Perhaps we can only look back and be nostalgic. What might have been if those haughty ideas of cyberdemocracy had actually taken hold.  It isn’t easy to sit pssively and watch as something of immense and imperceptible value begins to slip away while that spark of originality and justice—perhaps a  last remnant of the 1960s—beings to fade.

 

“Our“ Internet, the one with universal access, an old concept among cyberdemocrats, is rapidly changing into something else—something closely akin to commercial television as it was dur­ing the early years of its development.  But commercial television never really had the possibility of becoming “interactive“—a concept only dreamed of by Nielsen and other marketing profes­sionals.[12]

 

Will we get the openness, freedom, and diversity that represent the true promise of new information technologies? Or will we end up instead with networks controlled by mega-corporations, fostering addiction to a new generation of useless electronic narcotics (glitzy, interactive multimedia successors to Nintendo and MTV), and encouraging instant gratification through sex and violence?[13]

 

“Our“ Internet, claim proponents of net democracy, is really a emancipator because it extends the concept of civil society and therefore must remain free of corporate and government controls.

 

Trends like personalization, decentralization, and disintermediation (the circumventing of middlemen) will allow us each to have more control over life's details… Hierarchies are coming undone. Power is devolving down to "end users.[14]

 

Others see the Net as a replacement for the “radical political“ movements of the past.  James Wriston, author of the popular Twilight of Sovereignty, gives a neo-pluralist twist to the Net by recalling that “the last thing these people“ who used the slogan, “Power to the People …had in mind was actually giving all of the people a real voice in their government.  But that is what is happening now,“ with the Internet.

 

While this radical political movement has lost its momentum, the information age is rapidly giving the power to the people in parts of the world and in a way that only a few years ago seemed impossible.  What has made the impossible almost inevitable is the technology of modern communications.[15]

 

Howard Rheingold, in the Virtual Community, also argues that the Internet can be used by net activists to bypass (“disintermediate“) the “old media.“ The “new media,“ he claims, have a global dimension, a clear advantage in the scramble to circumvent traditional lines of global communication, information distribution and public discourse.

 

 

The Chiapas War

 

At this writing, more than 100 people have died since the December 22, 1997 killings in the Mexican state of Chiapas.  Presently there are 70,000 Mexican troops stationed near the conflict zone. The Mexican government has expelled more than a dozen international human rights workers since January of this year.  On April 8th, 1998, 3,000 Mexican troops closed off the northern part of the city of San Cristobal. The troops raided homes and arrested twelve people.

 

Chiapas could have served as a shining example of cyberdemocracy. After all, the Internet, according to Mitchell Kapor, is presumed to be serving “…individuals and communities, not mass audiences…“  Its global nature cuts across national boundaries. “…In fact,“ claims Kapor,

 

life in Cyberspace is shaping up just as Thomas Jefferson would have wanted it: a decentralized democracy, founded on the primacy of individual liberty and committed to pluralism, equality, and community.

 

There are similar views supported by cyberdemocrats who made statements pertaining directly to the Chiapas uprising.  For example, writing on “Women's Issues in Chiapas,“ Steven Froehlich  compares the Chiapas “revolution“ with the American “war for independence.“ The interesting thing is, writes Froehlich, that the American revolution bears  

a striking resemblance to the Zapatista revolution. For instance, where the EZLN calls for life with dignity, a government based in democracy, and enough land to live off of, the catch phrase of the US war for independence is "Life, Liberty, and Property." (Property is a common definition for "Pursuit of Happiness" and appears that way in several of the Thirteen Colonies' state constitutions.) In fact, there seem to be overtones of ideas similar to Jeffersonian Democracy and the populist movement of the late nineteenth century in the EZLN communiques.[16]

“Jeffersonian Democracy“ and the “populist movement“ of the late 19th century are often the very models seized by Americans as models democracy in cyberspace. It is therefore no mystery why the intentions of the Zapatistas can interpreted as being similar to those of the founding fathers of the American Republic. This interesting paradox has been noted by Saira Mullick in her thesis on the “California ideology“ of the Internet. However, she asserts,

 

…as one well knows founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, the celebrated American leader, based his ideals of freedom on the domination of others, namely the black population of America.  … A far cry from the New Left ideals of an electronic agora where true democracy and free speech for all is the key.[17]

 

Mullick describes the Internet and the entire computer industry as having been constructed

 

on the foundations of military funding and support, presenting the "virtual class" with an irony in the set of rules they claim to swear by, that they want no state interference in new technology whatsoever.

 

Mullick contends that Internet technologies are in fact

 

relying more and more upon funding from large corporate bodies…which also cripples freedom of speech, and places the entire industry at the will of the corporations…


Does the example of Chiapas present net users with dashed hopes for the liberating powers of the new media?  The Chiapas affair reminds us of the desire to undermine the present order of hierarchical relationships, and to cyberdemocrats the new media represent a door opening to the future "horizontal" struggle against oppression.

 

Such questions about the new media and global communications have indeed been studied by none other than the RAND Corporation.  RAND (standing for “Research ANd Development“) received some notoriety during the Vietnam war for its collaboration and role in long range strategic planning for the U.S. government and the military.  RAND later commissioned studies of the “information revolution“ and subsequent “emerging modes of conflict.“ One such study which received some notice on the Internet went so far as to pre­dict the outbreak of “cyberwar.“ Written in 1993 by John Arquilla and David Ron­feldt, the analysis seemed to actually predict the Chiapas uprising:

 

The information revolution, in both its technological and non-technological aspects, sets in motion forces that challenge the design of many institutions. It disrupts and erodes the hierarchies around which institutions are normally designed. It diffuses and redistributes power, often to the benefit of what may be considered weaker, smaller actors. It crosses borders, and redraws the boundaries of offices and responsibilities. It expands the spatial and temporal horizons that actors should take into account. Thus, it generally compels closed systems to open up.[18]

 

The Chiapas rebellion, although reported widely over the Internet, became something of a cause celebre among cyberdemocrats when Alexander Cockburn, writing for the obscure leftist publication CounterPunch, exposed a memo written by Chase Manhattan advisor Professor Riordan Roett of Johns Hopkins University.  Roett’s memo, dated January 13, 1994, was written twelve days after the rebellion and pointed to Chiapas as a major dilemma for investor confidence.  According to Roett,

 

While Zedillo is committed to a diplomatic and political solution to the standoff in Chiapas, it is difficult to imagine that the current environment will yield a peaceful solution

 

It was Roett's foolhardy and callous suggestion that the Mexican government

 

will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy…

 

Although only a relatively small number of people read Cockburn’s expose in CounterPunch,[19] protests began to be heard around the world when the article was uploaded to USENET and other listservs dealing with Mexican and North American issues. Henceforth, Chiapas became synonymous with the goals of cyberdemocracy and the capabilities of the new “infobahn.“  Information about the Mayan Indian uprising was now available to anyone in possession of an Internet connection. This seductive development attracted the North American and European media, thus spawning numerous press reports about the little known Chiapas state and inviting more media attention.

 

The Chiapas rebels understandably took advantage of the new technology and developed their struggle into a global cause.  The rebels can be credited with developing their rebellion into a prototype for the new information age.  They built what they called new “horizontal“ structures for “networking.“ Networking, in this case, meant more than just public protests and press conferences.  Networking in Chiapas was done globally over the Internet.  It concerned

 

the creation of a network of struggles, a network where their presence is effective, tangible, fraternal, and solidary. Above all, it concerns the launching of a common struggle… [20]

 

The "horizontal struggle" of the movement employed Internet listservs, discussion groups, newsgroups and homepages.  Chiapas95-L, for example, was one listserv which distributed news about the movement and other movements in Mexico for several years with information and analysis provided by anyone interested in joining.  Documents for the listservs came from a variety of sources, including contributions from individual subscribers.  Although the flow of information was primarily one way, it was basically a system of a flow from a few to many. On the Chiapas95 list replies and comments were included from subscribers, in both Spanish and English. The list grew by about 30 new messages each day. Nevertheless, some considered the information flow to be excessive.

 

This is not helpful unless the information is well organized for some use -- which only raises the question, who will organize the information? Sorting information requires political collectivity. It implies a calculated division of labor… It also poses the related problem: what struggles deserve what attention, and who decides?

 

One possible solution to the problem of "what struggles deserve what attention," according to Stefan Wray, was to move "away from sender-based information distribution systems (SBIDS)" toward a "user-based information retrieval system (UBIRS)."[21]

 

What do I mean by a user-based information retrieval system? I mean a system in which the individual user has more power and control, hence autonomy, over what information he or she receives or doesn't receive. In such a system, rather than receive large batches of email, some useful and some not, the user would receive documents that would be based on a set of keywords that each user individually designs.

 

Experience with computer networks has demonstrated to Wray that "power and control" over information is only possible if the user retrieves the information.  When the user is delivered "large batches" of news and information, "some useful and some not," "information overload" occurs. By using a "set of keywords" designed by the user individually, the user becomes “empowered,“ as Wray put it, to act on his or her own as an "autonomous user" of Net resources and consequently “more in control of the information“ received.

 

It was the debate over a North American trade agreement with Mexico combined with the networking facilities available from PeaceNet, Usenet and others, which prompted support for the Chiapas rebels in the United States and Mexico.

 

So, when the Zapatista National Liberation Army marched into San Cristobal and the other towns of Chiapas not only did those already concerned with the struggles of indigenous peoples react quickly, but so did the much more extensive organizational connections of the anti-NAFTA struggles.  Already in place, and tapped daily by a broad assortment of groups were the computer conferences and lists of the anti-NAFTA alliances.[22]

 

This same pre-extant web of channels helps explain why the incredibly rapid circulation of news and information about Chiapas was followed not only by analysis and written declarations of sup­port, but by a wide variety of tangible actions as well.[23]

 

The Chiapas rebellion reinforced the social significance of the new technology and the lofty goals of cyberdemocracy at a relatively early stage in Internet development, and for this reason alone, Chiapas will go down in history as an example of the circumvention of power through computer networking.  It really did seem likely that the unlikely mixture of the Chiapas Indian rebellion and state-of-the-art communications technologies would open up new possibilities for direct action in global social processes--a rare opportunity to seize the power from the hands of Chase Manhattan and the IMF. This seemingly intrinsic capability of our new communicatons technology to bring about social change has on the Internet been equated with the struggle between David and Goliath. The power of radio and television to bring about social change has also been discussed by scholars many times in the past. To paraphrase Raymond Williams, who knew nothing of the scope of today’s “information superhighway,“ there is no basis to the claim that an increase in the amount of information available within a given society represents an in­crease in a given society’s level of democracy.[24] In the past, the “old media“ were always exploited by powerful interests, both governmental and commercial. Therefore, one must assume, access to all the information in the world about everything that happens will not realize the “goals“ of cyberdemocracy.

 

In retrospect, on cannot help but wonder if Wray’s analysis of the problem is more revealing than it may seem at first glance.  Perhaps the structural inability of the listserv to empower its users more efficiently that prevented the Chiapas rebels from presenting their case to the world adequately?  It is true that Net users were indeed receiving large batches of data about Chiapas, some of it useful and some not. These developments would seem to contradict the optimists who believe that the Internet “is more egalitarian than elitist, more decentralized than hierarchical.“ The reason for such optimism may lie in the traditional view of the Internet as a research, educational, or enthusiast tool. 

 

 

Digital Delivery: New Old Media

 

Herbert Marcuse denounced the language of the commercial media because it “controls by reducing the linguistic forms and symbols of reflection, abstraction, development, contradiction; by substituting images for concepts.“ It is common practice for critics of our media to point to the lack of available alternatives on commercial and public service television. Television audiences, critics claim, have no other choice but to turn to available broadcasting channels with their news programs and their professional news apparatus.

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, Sir George Lewis, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued for the benefits of the free market media "as a means of controlling dissident opinion" because market forces would nourish those newspapers "enjoying the preference of the advertising public." Advertising and commercial journalism, in other words, were recognized as "a means of controlling" dissident and public opinion as early as the mid-nineteenth century, which corresponds with the beginnings of commercial journalism. Advertising served "as a powerful mechanism weakening the working-class press." The growth of advertising, therefore, allowed "the market to accomplish what state taxes and harassment" could not, namely the muzzling and shaping of public opinion. "Advertisers thus acquired a de facto licensing authority since, without their support, newspapers ceased to be economically viable."[25]

 

In the years to come, as the Internet becomes the object of more capital investments and progressively falls under the sway of the market and advertising, "free enterprise" may indeed no longer be able to maintain a "neutral system" in which user choice decides. Other choices, those made by advertisers on the Net, may begin to determine to which extent a site survives and prospers. Advertising, as was the case with print journalism in the 19th century, could very well become a powerful mechanism which will be able to weaken non-commercial sites on the Net. Advertisers, and other investors, therefore, may gradually acquire "a de facto licensing authority" over the Internet because, without the support of the market, websites could cease to be viable projects for non-professional.

 

At this point in the rapid growth of the Internet, investors on Wall Street are rushing to place their bets on technology and Internet stocks.  One of the many new buzzwords among investors is “digital delivery,“ formerly known as "nar­rowcasting," today it is commonly referred to as “push tech­nology.“ It is no wonder that advertisers and other junkmail marketers on the Internet are eager to try out this new innovation which is guaranteed to increase "cash flow" for customers. “Push,“ as opposed to “pull,“ where the netuser goes to the trouble of selecting his or her own content, can actually push information or other content directly onto netusers’ screens—thus propelling all of us into the next century by re-inventing television and thus in­creasing the chances that behemoth-sized news corporations, like Time-Warner’s CNN, will begin dominating the Internet.[26] As one advertiser wrote, describing push,

 

Forget surfing the Web-stay at your desk and have the Web come to you. New push channels hit the Web wire every day, making it difficult to keep up with quality channels offering real value.

 

Advertisements for push sound surprisingly like advertisements for television programs.

 

…Browser-based push technology can deliver Internet content directly to your desktop… without making you type a bunch of URLs. …The benefits of push-ready browsers are convenience and targeted information. …The content is organized and packaged by the channel's administrators and is typically a subset of the newest or most important content found at the channel's corresponding Web site. …

 

Quality channels offering useful information may not always be available.

 

Quality channels that offer exclusive and useful content are rare. But by digging a bit, you can find worthwhile channels (see the sidebar "Channel Surfing"). … So fire up your browser, and let the Web come to you.[27]

 

The big media corporations already have expertise in old-me­dia-style “push“ by way of satellite and cable TV.  And so it would seem that “push technology“ is transforming the Internet from a tool for enthusiasts and scholars into a highly developed mar­keting instrument for advertising professionals. 

 

While push technology is in vogue with marketers and the “newer“ variety of netusers, it is still quite an innovational concept in Internet technological development—and not just be­cause it is rapidly getting the attention of Internet entre­preneurs.  Many reckon that push will become the next step in the maturing of Internet news services and that such new firms as PointCast (re­ferred to by some as the “next CNN“) will indeed be one of the first Internet compa­nies to start distributing news around the world with a push format.

 

So far, PointCast has millions of users with ads representing its main source of revenue. A much better known and better understood variety of “push“ is of course television broad­casting. In the European Union television and radio are currently undergoing a "revolution" of their own.  The “old media,“ including state-supported public service broad­casting and competing satellite-based commercial broadcasters like CNN, are being obliged to compete in a "market-driven revolution," one which, according the philosophy of neoliberalism, demands "a new regulatory environment allowing full competition." Still, one should keep in mind that Europe’s state-supported public serv­ice broadcast­ing traditions were estab­lished according to the principle that broadcastin, as a public institu­tion, should be responsible for education and community service. A concept remarkably reminiscent of the Internet in its infancy.

 

The many changes which are now occurring in Europe’s media en­vironment are not just moti­vated by chang­ing ideologies, but by changes in mar­keting and changing technologies, in particular the appearance of satellite, cable and digital broadcasting.  Most impor­tantly, changes in advertis­ing practices have become necessary to meet the growing competition in Europe from the United States and Japan and the Far East.  The new requirements and stringent guide­lines instigated by Europe’s unifiers—those who envision Europe as an eco­nomically more com­petitive and formi­dable trading community--also dictate changes in the present information structures.[28]  Perhaps of most significance is the growing demand on the part of investors for more advertising outlets, a problem exacerbated by European in­tegra­tion, rap­idly changing economic struc­tures, and the needs of capital within Europe.[29]

 

The Internet would seem, as it were, an excellent solution to the problem of creating new advertising outlets.  But “cyber­democrats“ still argue that the Internet's strength is derived from the interactive nature of this new information technol­ogy.  They often site, for example, new global information networks, including PeaceNet and the Well, which are at this moment dealing with problems of environmental protection, re­lations between the weak and the powerful, racial, religious, gender and ethnic discrimination, as well as other essential knowledge and information which does not normally find a niche in—or is even censored out of--today's established broadcast and print media. Furthermore, the "broadcasting marketplace," in particular commercial television and radio broadcasting, constricted and chained to the rules imposed on it by adver­tising, as well as sponsor-imposed, political, social and lin­guistic considerations, is seen as virtually powerless to guarantee audiences a broad and serious discussion of those essential issues.

 

The Internet, representing the "new information order," argue the optimists, is a viable non-commercial medium which will change the concept of individual liberty. They have seen the Internet as representing a genuinely free flow of information which is now becoming available to the world's peoples on a global system of interconnected computer networks--a develop­ment which will supposedly guarantee an uncensored give and take of information. 

 

Pessimists, however, claim that netizens are actually only ex­periencing a preliminary age of "technological utopianism" in which "the Net" and "the Information Superhighway" and "cyber­space" are only buzzwords for "big-money tech-talk," and that the concept of "interactivity" will eventually only serve those who can afford the know-how and the highly developed technology of market research.

 

Another revealing observation made by RAND researchers Ar­guilla and Ronfeldt was that the new media tend to "produce a deluge of informa­tion that," when received "must be taken in, filtered, and integrated in real time." Thus, hierarchical institutions have long been vulnerable to "overload and bottlenecking" because of their "centralized…structures for command and control."  Those old fashioned institutional "designs" will, henceforth, need "to be adapted to network-oriented models to allow greater flexibility, lateral connectivity, and teamwork across institutional boundaries."

 

Such language sounds familiar. Just what is the ideology expressed when speaking of "network-oriented models"? What do Arguilla and Ronfeldt mean by "flexibility, lateral connectivity, and teamwork"?

 

Returning briefly to James Rorty's "solution" to the problem of advertising, many of the questions raised by radio in the 1930s are or should be raised today.  For example:  What is the significance of advertising's "smirk­ing gargoyle"? Is it also going to perch itself "at the very top of America's skyscraping adventure," in ac­quisition of the Internet? If so, how do we prevent it from drowning out other voices, including our own?  Does this ideology suffer no rebuke, as Rorty claims? Like radio in the early day, the Internet is socially and politically "the most revolutionary addition" to the "pool of human resources in all history." It was Rorty's solution, in his day, to seek the integration of radio "with a civilization which itself functions with increasingly difficulty and precariousness." Is this not a description of our civilization today?

 

Paul Treanor has observed that the "philosophy of the Internet" is essentially the philosophy of neoliberalism. He sees European policies (including such documents as the Bangemann Report) as reinforcing "a free market ideal," which serves to reinforce "the dominance of the market model." There are, accordingly, "Two elements of belief," says Treanor, which are "visible… in neo-liberal ideology, and its associated belief in cyberspace."

 

The first is flow maximisation, the second is link maximisation. Traditional studies of liberalism ignore these beliefs and hopes. I think they have always been present in liberalism—and that the Wired world-view, techno-liberalism, and cyber-ideology generally are part of the liberal tradition.

 

Treanor gives us a hypothetical example of neoliberal practice:

 

…a consultancy in the Netherlands fires its staff, and insists that they set up a business to employ themselves. These then compete against each other to sell their own services back to the consultancy. There is no theoretical end to this. Every department of every firm can become its own free market—of thousands of competing firms.

 

According to treanor, the underlying ideology of many "cyberdemocrats" is in fact very similar to that of modern-day "neo-liberals." For example, neoliberals will say that all entities must flow, and flow must occur.  The "number of links, along which there is flow, must be maximized."  The "flow on each link must be maximized and repeated…every link must link to every other link…every flow must reinforce every other flow." "With neo-liberalism stated in this way," says Treanor,

you can see that the distance from Wired to the EFF to New Age, feminism, and spirituality, is not as great as you might think.

 

Treanor sees this development as "part of a quasi-religious belief," a belief which, in fact, is "related to other "new beliefs" in our age of neoliberalist hegemony. "The irony is," says Treanor, "its opponents can probably see it better than the believers."

 

 

CNN and PointCast:  The Future of the Internet?

 

When you buy a month of PointCast advertising, your mes­sage is broadcast to computers with the ease of turning on the television and with the frequency you need to make a lasting impression.[30]

 

The status of Time-Warner’s CNN has grown significantly among marketers in the European Union. 

 

After CNN won the Gulf war, European public-service broadcasters…set up a competing channel… [But] Euronews… has been a financial and managerial disaster. … CNN, still the only broadcaster to make money in the pan-Euro­pean market…is starting to broadcast in European lan­guages.[31]

 

CNN has a hot commodity for advertisers.  News continues to be popular but considerably cheaper to produce than most other television programming. The real chal­lenge to European broadcasters, especially public service broadcasters, from the perspective of an advertiser, is CNN’s professional use of the traditional American commercial broadcasting style of dis­course.[32] This “commercial television talk“ pur­posely mimics real interac­tion in or­der to present tele­vision audiences with the illusion that they are in­deed wit­ness­ing a spontaneous event which should not be missed.[33] To accomplish this purpose, commercial television’s writers and producers use vari­ous discourse strategies, in­clud­ing con­tent arrangement, inclusion of sensa­tional remarks, mu­sic, ban­ter or some personal exchange between a news anchor and the weatherman, to em­phasize the familiarity of the situation or to establish a certain “feeling“ or a certain point of view for the audience.[34]It has proven itself as an ex­tremely efficient generator of revenues in American markets and its suc­cess and expertise is bound to influence European broadcasters as well.

 

The 24-hour format is a television news product virtually cre­ated for American sponsors by Ted Turner’s CNN nearly two dec­ades ago. While CNN bills it­self as a 24-hour global news-gathering net­work with multina­tional con­tacts, its broadcast discourse style is largely taken from the traditional American model and uses the standard commercial formulas which were de­vel­oped over decades of commercial broadcasting activity.[35]

 

In the latter part of the 1980s, CNN introduced, what seems to be, a conse­quential product to European markets. The idea of an all-news tele­vi­sion chan­nel was virtually invented by CNN for European audi­ences when the Atlanta network’s sat­el­lite broad­casts first became available in ho­tels and on ca­ble sys­tems across the Atlantic. Although CNN has been gener­at­ing non-stop news broad­casts since June of 1980, it was the in­stanta­neous re­porting from the war in the Persian Gulf which pro­pelled CNN into the spotlight and gave the all-news channel more in­fluence. 

 

CNN expresses uses neoliberal methods in its labor practices. According to Hank Whittemore, author of CNN: The Inside Story, in the early days, just after Cable News Network began broad­casting,

 

To get around unions in the bureaus, CNN had been using sub­con­trac­tors who hired people to run cameras and crews—such as Mobile Video, run by Sheldon Levy, who had been CNN’s first sub­contractor in Washington, DC  If those em­ployees voted for a union, then CNN could simply cancel its contract (which was what happened in the case of Mo­bile Video) and go to an­other outfit.[36]

 

CNN's news-reporting style continues Sheldon Levy’s legacy, who is known in the in­dus­try for his Action Movie News, which sold footage, mostly about crime, fires and ac­cidents, to the networks’ New York affili­ates in the early 1970s. Levy de­scribes a new concept for televi­sion news:

 

Our busi­ness—our serv­ice—enabled this reporter to now say, “Here, this is what happened last night.  I’m standing here now in front of this building, but here are the scenes of what actu­ally happened.  Here are the people being rescued, here are the people in­jured.  Here is the building actually burn­ing.“

 

CNN has taken Levy’s lead and applied it to reporting news sto­ries from around the world. Today CNN garners pres­tige from the notoriety it received dur­ing its cov­erage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The Atlanta-based network has trans­formed itself into a much sought-after commercial television news model, one which is subscribed to and imitated by Europe’s commercial and non-commercial broad­cast­ers, making the news network from the American South a for­midable com­peti­tor for the more established public broad­casting mo­nopolies on the European conti­nent.

 

CNN has also discovered cyberspace. CNN’s electronic version of its televison news can advertise the news to audiences while they work. Advertising sales erupt during a breaking story like the Persian Gulf War, and CNN is there providing coverage by means of  digital delivery.

 

During the week of April 7-13, 1998,  CNN Interactive won out over the Washington Post as the favorite news site of more than 32,000 AJR NewsLink readers. SIMBA Information Inc., a unit of Cowles Business Media, based in Stamford, Connecticut, which provides news, analysis and market research reports about the media projects that total online advertising will grow to around $2 billion in the year 2000.  Only about a dozen leading ad-supported Web sites, such as CNN, ZD Net and Yahoo!, account for the majority of Web advertising revenues today.  The report projected that most Web site growth is expected to follow established brands. “Traditional media brands like …CNN …have the financial and marketing resources necessary to make advertising a success on the Web. Startups without the advertising sales expertise or the ability to leverage existing advertisers and audiences will face an uphill battle.“[37] Most online newspaper update two to four times daily. CNN, with its vast network of news-gathering professionals, is the only online news source able to update continuously.

 

PointCast Incorporated was founded in 1992 to provide current news and information services to viewers and corporations via the Internet and corporate intranets. Since PointCast launched the PointCast Network in February 1996, the Silicon Valley company has brought out a new version of its advertiser-supported software.  PointCast now calls itself "the first broadcast network on the Internet." Simply put, PointCast exists in cyberspace as a screen-saver that is able to download “personalized“ news stories, sports, stock quotes—with, of course, advertising.  The screen reminds one of television.  More than 2 million people have downloaded PointCast to use on their computers. But what sort of people use PointCast? The average PointCast viewer's household income is $109,080; 31% of PointCast “viewers“ have household incomes greater than $100,000, compared to 16% of typical Internet users. 70% of PointCast viewers have a college or postgraduate degree, compared to 42% of typical Internet users.  90% of PointCast viewers are employed full time, compared to 66% of typical Internet users. Additionally, PointCast viewers are professionals, with 39% saying they work 51 or more hours per week. Therefore, 44% of PointCast viewers work in middle or upper management positions, compared to 33% of typical Internet users.[38]

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusions

 

Is there in the making a "neoliberalist hegemony" over the Internet? A look at the Bangemann Report, which states that Europe's communications infrastructure "should reflect the reality of the newly emerging global mar­kets...," can give us some clues.[39]

 

The report emphasizes “…information infrastructures“ and the fact that there must be a “borderless…open market environment“ with “an essentially global dimension."

 

Large and small companies and professional users are already leading the way in exploiting the new technologies to raise the efficiency of their management and production systems. And more radical changes to business organisation and methods are on the way.

 

On the basis of the Bangemann report, the Council decided to adopt "an operational pro­gramme defining precise procedures for action and the necessary means. …Effective rules must emerge to protect pluralism and competi­tion." (Emphasis mine.)

The Bangemann report, therefore, stresses the importance of such concepts as "pluralism" and "competition.“ Because, “Competition is a key element in Europe's strategy.“ And these new rules for competing must also “reflect the reality of the newly emerging global mar­kets...,“ namely those areas in which global companies have the most to gain.

 

Some of these issues are raised in a recent speech given by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who has often spoken out against the “technocrats in Brussels.“ Bourdieu believes that the European and the global economy is going through a period of "neoconservative restoration." In contrast to past years, the leaders of the "restoration" are claiming to be "progressive, sensible, scientific" and base their claims on the rules of economic theory. This theory also "attempts to discredit progressive thought and action." The economic theories of "neoliberalism," Bourdieu claims, support the philosophies of multinational corporations and those of "high finance."  Bourdieu goes so far as to suggest that neoliberalism has been raised to the level of a "new evangelism" with a new mathematics of theology which, nevertheless, consists of an "ensemble" of poorly defined terms, such as "globalization," "flexibility," or "deregulation."  This evangelism can be call “liberal,“ sometimes even libertarian, causing its conservative philosophy to appear on the surface, among the politically and economically uninitiated, to be a reasonable doctrine of freedom and liberation. In fact, says Bourdieu,

 

this philosophy knows and recognizes no other goal than the creation of more and more wealth which will concentrate itself in the hands of a small minority of the privileged.

 

Seventy years ago, Rorty's solution to the problem of the commercialization of radio consisted in relying on government sponsorship and regulation of radio, which ultimately failed.  Government, it was believed, represented those forces in society who, in the America of the 1930s, were in favor of "public ownership and opera­tion of essential public services." 

 

Bourdieu, however, tries to draw a more up to date scenario, one which can answer to this pressing problem of the globalization of the economy, the new European state, and the Internet.  His answer may sound rather radical in nature. But, significantly, Bourdieu is not opposed to European cooperation.  He believes that opposition to neoliberalism, in any form, must "be organized on a pan-European basis."  This oppositional movement would be the antithesis of the "fatalism of the Bankers, who attempt to convince us that the world cannot be any different from what it is now."  Those who reject neoliberalism in Europe can also "reject the reasoning used by bankers," which is to make the market "the measure of all things." The resistance to neoliberalism and the conservative restoration, says Bourdieu, can and should be organized by means of a concentrated initiative led by intellectuals, trade unionists, and other such organizations across Europe. In Bourdieu's words:  "I mean parliaments, international organizations, European associations of truck drivers, publishers, teachers, as well as organizations for the protection of trees, fish, mushrooms, the air, children and so on."

 



[1] Andrew L. Shapiro, World Media Forum. http://cyber.harvard.edu/shapiroworld.html

[2] Erik Barnouw, Tube of Plenty (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 74-77. James Rorty also wrote in “The Impending Radio War,“ for Harper’s Magazine, November 1931, pp.714-15.

3] John December, Editor of CMC Magazine, wrote the following about the changing nature of the Internet in the August 1997 issue of that magazine ( March 16, 1998):

 [4]"Gutenberg had a great idea, but he is given credit for revo­lutionizing our culture because he exploited his idea at a moment when the circumstances were conducive to the rapid spread of print technology." Key Note Address by U.S. Vice President Al Gore at the G-7 Ministerial conference on the global information society in Brussels, Feb. 26, 1995.

[5] James Curran, "Communications, Power and Social Order," Michael Gurevitch, Tony Bennett, James Curran and Janet Woollacott, eds., Culture, Society and the Media. London and New York: Methuen, 1983, 202-235. Curran borrows this passage from E. H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957). 

[6] Mitchell Kapor, "Where Is the Digital Highway Really Heading? The Case for a Jeffersonian Information Policy." March 14, 1998.

[7] For a more detailed picture of the early years of radio, see Barnouw's first chapter, "Forebears," in Eric Barnouw, Tube of Plenty (Oxford University Press: New York, 1990), 23.

[8]Mitchell Kapor, "Where Is the Digital Highway Really Heading? The Case for a Jeffersonian Information Policy," Wired Magazine, No. 4, 1993,(Online edition). March 14, 1998.

[9] For a detailed look at the debate over media control see “Analyzing the Media“ at March 15, 1998.

[10] The “old“ pluralist model of modern society is described by Daniel Bell in his classic The End of Ideology (New York: The Free Press, 1960), 21-22.  Pluralists, according to Bell, leave little room for elites, in particular, an educated elite, whose "critical standards" no longer hold judgment nor shape opinion or tastes. "...the critical standards of an educated elite no longer shape opinion or taste... Because of all this, the individual loses a coherent sense of self..." Perhaps, in some ways, the lack of social elites is to be lamented, for the individual in modern society may lose a "coherent sense of self." 

[11] For more about “Cyberpunk,“ see: Mondo Magazine, Cyberpunk:  Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier by Katie Hafner and John Markoff. The Hacker Crackdown, Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier,  by Bruce Sterling.

[12] See Jib Fowles, Why Viewers Watch: A Reappraisal of Television's Effects (Newbury Park: Sage Publishers, 1992).

[13] Mitchell Kapor, “Democracy and the New Information Highway.“ March 28, 1998.

[14] Andrew L. Shapiro, “Is the Net Democratic? Yes and No.“ In World Media Forum . March 30, 1998.

[15] James Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty, p. 170-171.

[16] Steven Froelich, “Analysis of the EZLN Opinions on Women's Rights,“ March 28, 1998.

[17] Saira Mullick, The Californian Ideology, March 28, 1998.

[18] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Cyberwar is Coming! International Policy Department, RAND Corporation, (Copyright 1993) Taylor & Francis, ISSN 0149-5933/93. March 8, 1998.

[19] Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn, "Major U.S. Bank Urges Zapatista Wipe-Out: 'A litmus test for Mexico's stability'" CounterPunch, Vol. 2, No. 3, February 1, 1995.

[20] Guillermo Michel , And with the Indians, what now? Five hundred years of struggle and hope. March 24, 1998.

[21] Stefan Wray, “Toward Equalizing the Net and Solving Information Overload Developing User-Based Information Retrieval Systems,“ paper presented at the II. Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, 26th July to 3rd. Aug. 1997. . March 24, 1998. 

[22] Harry Cleaver, "The Chiapas Uprising and the Future of Class Struggle in the New World," University of Texas at Austin.. March 7, 1998. gopher://mundo.eco.utexas.edu/00/fac/hmcleave/Cleaver%20Papers/The%20Chiapas%20Uprising%20Feb94

[23] Harry Cleaver, "The Chiapas Uprising and the Future of Class Struggle in the New World," University of Texas at Austin.. March 7, 1998. (See link above.)

[24] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[25] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent:  The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1988), 14. 

[26] CNN Interactive is a web-based news service set up by Time-Warner’s Cable News Network.  The “news“  consists of the usual categories, such as “world,“ “business,“ “sports,“ “weather,“  and “show business.“ 

                [27] April 01, 1998, TechWeb News. http://www.techweb.com/ April 15, 1998.

[28]See the discussion in Heikki Hellman and Tuomo Sauri, Suomalainen Prime-Time (Jyväskylä:  Jyväskylän yliopisto, 1988).

[29]According to a Helsingin Sanomat report by Juha-Pekka Raeste from September 8, 1994:

 Mainostajat uskovat mainontansa kasvavan ensi vuonna rajusti.  Mainostajien liiton tekemään kyselyyn vastan­neista mainostajista 45 prosenttia aikoo lisätä mainon­taansa ensi vuonna...

Perinteisistä mainosvälineistä kasvua on odotetta­vissa 1995 erityisesti aikakausleh­dissä (+24) sekä koti­maisessa televisiossa (+23).

[Translation mine:] Advertisers believe that their advertising will sub­stantially increase next year.  According to a questionnaire created by the Association of Advertisers, 45 per cent of those who responded intend to increase advertising next year...

Traditional forms of advertising are expected to in­crease in 1995, particularly in magazines (+24 per cent) and Finnish television (+ 23 per cent).

[30] “Why Advertise on PointCast?“. March 7, 1998

[31] “Unsnoozing the Continental News, “ in The Economist, November 22nd-28th 1997, p. 38.

[32] For a detailed analysis and discussion of this style see B. Dellinger, Finnish Views of CNN Television News, Chapter 3, Vaasa, 1995, March 9, 1998.

[33]"Happy Talk," as described by Ron Powers, The Newscasters: The News Business as Show Business (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977), 35, is an excellent example (and a very inane example for a Finn) of simulated conversation.  Originated at WLS in Chicago in 1968, it simulated gossipy banter between news anchors or other talk-show personalities (also commonly seen on the Today Show).  It was at first a trademark of ABC News but has now become a standard feature of practically all commercial newscasts on American commer­cial television.  "Happy Talk" derives form the "bantering remarks made among anchormen, reporters, weathermen, and sports casters during transitions from topic to topic."  It also serves to divert audiences from "abstract...disturbing...vital" topics which may weigh the newscast down or make it too complicated or dull.

[34]See Ron Powers, The Newscasters and Roger Fowler, Language in the News, 62.  See also Hallin, Daniel C. , "We Keep America on Top of the World," in Gitlin, Todd, ed.,  Watching Television (New York:  Pantheon Book, 1987) 26-27.

[35]To be fair to CNN, it should be pointed out that much more than just "breaking news" stories are offered, especially on CNN International.  A typical weekday schedule in Finland will in­clude, in addition to headline news, world news, several business reports, an international hour, enter­tainment news, etc.

[36]Hank Whittemore, CNN: The Inside Story (Little, Brown and Company: New York 1990), 223.

[37] April 14, 1998.

[38] Statistics are from a 1997 PointCast Viewership Study conducted by IntelliQuest., March 7, 1998

[39]The European Council, in its Brussels meeting of December 1993, requested that a report on the future of Europe's "information infrastructure" be prepared for its June 24-25, 1994 meeting in Corfu. This report, when completed, was signed by a group of "prominent" Europeans (including Martin Bangemann, Carolo de Benedetti, Pehr Gyllenhammar, Gaston Thorn) and dealt with specific reccommendations for consideration by the European Union and member states.

According to the Bangemann Report (http://www.ispo.cec.be/infosoc/backg/bangeman.html), Europe’s system of information exchange is undergoing a "revolution." This is a "market-driven revolution," one which, according to its supporters, demands "a new regulatory environment allowing full competition.“