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Internet Treasure

Andrew L. Shapiro

Bob McChesney's essay is a worthy addition to the immensely valuable work that he and a handful of like-minded scholars and journalists have done in recent years to warn us of the dangers of media concentration and commercialization. I agree with the thrust of this analysis and most of its conclusions, including many of the specific recommendations made here. But, having spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about the impact of new media such as the Internet, I believe McChesney and other progressive media critics have substantially underestimated our ability to use this interactive technology to democratize media and communications. In other words, in assessing the state of the media today, McChesney is letting the bad news obscure the good.

At the end of his piece, McChesney asks "Will the Internet set us free?" and not surprisingly, his answer is far from affirmative. But the question should be: "Does the interactive network of the future, if used in certain ways, have the potential to change the communications landscape so that it is more consistent with democratic values?" The answer to that question is yes. In fact, difficult as it will be to achieve, that change could erase much of what is wrong with our current media system.

Consider some of the staples of a democrat's wish list for media reform: More material generated for its own sake by individuals, nonprofits, and small companies; far-ranging coverage of news and public affairs; vibrant material for children; affordable access for political candidates; and uninhibited artistic expression. Also, a focus on the diverse interests of communities. And unencumbered opportunities for common folks to say their piece.

Because of the Internet and its future progeny, this wish list is a possible reality. The decentralized, interactive, many-to-many architecture of the Net could mean the end of Big Media's choke-hold on the information marketplace. This is different than the increase in information sources associated with cable TV, direct broadcast satellite, or the recent proliferation of magazine titles-because all those sources, as McChesney points out, remain under the control of a few global conglomerates. If there's one thing that cyber-evangelists are right about, though, it's that the interactive age could be different. The Net can be used to change the power dynamics of our media culture. Individuals can take control of what they read, listen to, and watch, and can release an unprecedented wave of vibrant public discourse and creativity. Unconstrained by the scarcity of the airwaves or the costs of large-scale print publishing, anyone online will be able to get the word out-via text, audio, or video.

Already, the diversity of cyberspace is a bracing alternative to the conformity of mass media. Web zines and email newsletters are ubiquitous (there are more than 100,000 of the latter). Artists are showing their work in virtual galleries. Musicians are uploading their compositions for others to hear. As bandwidth expands and technologies improve, Internet auteurs might even go head-to-head with the Disneys of the world-creating a wide-open market for cheap video distribution. Activists, too, have turned to the Net to spread their views, garner support, and coordinate action. They've done so not just to fight for cyber rights (e.g., free speech and privacy online), but for the environment, human rights, and political reform. In December 1996, when Slobodan Milosevic shut down Belgrade's Radio B92--an important pro-democracy protest station--it fed its programming to the Net and got enough support internationally to force Milosevic to reverse course.

There are, of course, many obstacles that could prevent us from realizing the Net's democratic potential. One is government intervention, particularly when nations subtly alter the architecture of the network in a way that allows for censorship or invasions of privacy. Another is the lack of government intervention. As McChesney correctly notes, the laissez-faire consensus on communications policy today threatens to allow large companies-most notably Microsoft-to dominate the Net just as media conglomerates have captured traditional media. But the answer to this is not to say, as McChesney does, that we should view the Net as just another part of the existing media battleground.

In fact, it should be the other way around. As audio and video transmission online increases, the Net eventually will subsume much of our electronic communications. And because it has the capacity to be so different than the top-down, one-to-many model of broadcast television, this new medium deserves our special attention and protection. The commercialization of the Net may be disheartening, but it is far too early to conclude that it will "be brought into the existing media (and telecommunication) empires." Indeed, such pessimism would seem only to ensure that this will occur.

Media activists need to focus more on cyberspace so that opportunities there are not squandered. (Even if they are not optimistic about the Net's potential, they should recognize that ignoring this domain can only make things worse.) Already, Microsoft is using its dominance of PC operating systems to influence what people encounter on the web, capitalizing brilliantly on what might be called the "path of least resistance" theory of media domination: As a powerful gatekeeper, Microsoft doesn't need to restrict the choices of its users, because it can simply steer them-subtly but strongly-where it wants them to go. So, for example, Microsoft's Windows 98 has features that lead users directly to its own content and commerce sites on the web as well as those of partners such as Disney and Time Warner. It's a classic case of a dominant access provider giving preferential treatment to its own content and discriminating against the content of others. And it's only one of the ways that Microsoft plans to control content on the Net, according to industry insiders.

This should make small content providers nervous, citizens irritated, and antitrust officials suspicious, as the Justice Department's suit against Microsoft illustrates. It should also help progressive media critics realize that their focus must change as the communications landscape changes. In the era of television (including cable and direct broadcast satellite), the challenge was to overcome the scarcity of the medium to save a place on the dial-usually by legislation-for community access, educational shows, and other nonprofit programming that would otherwise be ignored by profit-driven broadcasters. The task is different, however, in a post-television world of converged media, where "channels" are essentially unlimited and almost anyone will be able to speak. The problem is not scarcity of space, but the opposite: an abundance of space-and content-which creates scarcity of attention. In other words, the good stuff will be out there, but with so many competing information sources it will be difficult to get anyone to know about it, let alone listen.

This is a major challenge for advocates of public-interest programming and democratic media generally. In an age when almost anyone can be a multimedia publisher, railing against the corporate media oligarchy may not be the most effective or compelling strategy. Instead, we should use new technologies to create an attractive alternative, as many artists and activists already are. They are embracing interactivity, finding new audiences, and taking advantage of affordable delivery modes such as email (probably the most underrated medium in terms of its democratic potential).

Bottom-up communication is inherently threatening to Big Media, which wants to control audience share in order to sell advertising. Recognizing this, progressives must focus more on emerging technologies and less on the battles of the past. The trick is to fight media concentration with media propagation and appropriation. This means using the Net to create new outlets and to find alternative content. And it means preventing new media from becoming hindered by foes of freedom, be they bureaucrats or profiteers. The interactive communications network of today and tomorrow can be a bountiful public resource-if we make a concerted effort to tap this treasure and keep it from being plundered by a greedy few.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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