SUNDAY, APR 14, 2013 06:00 AM PDT
The Web today is a far cry from the utopian digital playground envisioned by its early users and pioneers
BY JAMES ORBESEN
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.
“Let’s grab all this new technology in our teeth once again and turn it into a bonanza for advertising.” These are the words of former Procter & Gamble CEO Edwin Artzt. Renowned for his business acumen, Artzt, always one to turn a profit, told his fellow captains of industry to aim their attention to something new, something unseen before, something that needed to be conquered.
The early Internet was certainly a different place. It seemed a time of unlimited potential, when the old barriers to communication and information were said to melt away like so much butter in the microwave. People would be linked in ways never seen before, all in a purely public and noncommercial space. Early analysts claimed that the old media conglomerates were going to be swept aside by a coming Digital Age. For those looking to the future, the Internet would be the democratic space since its underlying principle, the networked sharing of data, was inherently leveling, free, and transparent.
For many children of the 80s and 90s, myself included, this time would be beyond memory. But Robert W. McChesney remembers. His latest book, “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,” looks at the development of the Internet, the initial befuddlement of media and telecomm firms at this seemingly uncommodifiable space, the eventual conquest of cyberspace, and how the original promise of the Internet has not only been subverted, but turned against the functioning of an open and democratic society.
For all the highly visible failings of American capitalism, which McChesney points out to the reader should she have slept through the past five years; the system itself is still very much a sacred cow. Indeed, so entwined is capitalism with American society that, to many, it is almost synonymous with democracy. In a time where corporations are legal persons and money is equated with free speech, it doesn’t take too far a leap to see the author’s point. As McChesney says:
And there is little doubt that in the United States, real power is with those who have the most money. Now of course the contemporary United States is not a police state and does not have gulags, but it has a variety of powerful material and cultural inducements to encourage a hands-off policy towards capitalism. A ritualized chant to the genius of the free market is a good place to start.
Perhaps one of the most compelling hinges in McChesney’s book is his project to irrevocably divorce the notion that capitalism is essential to a democracy. In fact, it might be downright antithetical. McChesney cites that the Athenian experiment with democracy predates capitalism by almost 2,000 years. The two are not one and the same, despite what many cheerleaders of the free market expound. It is not a stretch to say that capital is always looking for the next great thing, something that would provide prodigious returns. It was only a matter of time before moneyed interests took a shot at one of the fastest growing fields on the late 2oth century.
Few technological innovations have made bigger waves than the Web. The sheer access to information alone is remarkable, to say nothing of the heightened connectivity between individuals. Access to broadband, Wi-Fi, and the proliferation of mobile devices has only accelerated this trend. Americans are increasingly plugged in for longer and longer periods of time. And this trend has produced an astonishing amount of data. McChesney cites Eric Schmidt, of Google fame. Schmidt calculated that if you digitally recorded every human document, text, and cultural artifact from the beginning of time until 2003, you would need a computer with 5 billion gigabytes of storage. Now, consider that by 2010, humans were producing that amount every two days.
That is a lot to keep up with. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come for free. Maintenance, server space, software development, these are only a few of the costs that go into maintaining the sheer mass of the Internet. McChesney relates a sad, but increasingly common, story. What was once open, public, and largely noncommercial has become the frontier of modern capitalism. Look at the Internet, as it exists, today. It seems a distant cry from the utopian dreams of its early users and pioneers, people like McChesney himself. This is not how it was supposed to be, the author says. So what happened?
Profits happened. After the Internet, nurtured for years at public and non-profit expense, was handed over to the private concerns due to intense lobbying, things quickly went south. The key word: monetize. Keep Internet service a luxury, rather than a utility. Ply politicians into backing draconian copyright legislation. Stockpile patents. Advertise everywhere. Turn the Internet into a series of closed, proprietary loops. Along with the numerous infringements of person privacy, which advertisers shell out cash, hand over fist, for, this begs the question, cui bono? Simply look at the massive profits raked in by Internet, telecomm, and tech companies: Google, Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, Facebook et al.
Private concerns weren’t interested in providing public goods, rightly so, because, as McChesney says:
This situation results not necessarily from a conspiracy, but rather from the quite visible, unabashed logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism is a system based on people trying to make endless profits by any means necessary. You can never have too much. Endless greed—behavior that is derided as insanity in all noncapitalist societies — is the value system of those atop the economy. The ethos explicitly rejects any worries about social complications, or ‘externalities.’
This is not a wholly new revelation. But McChesney makes it all the more compelling because it is still so fresh. Perhaps the real impact of his book is that it details a course of events which is still ongoing. Discovering that AT&T, for its mobile and Internet service, not only, willfully, charges more in the US, but provides an inferior product compared to services rendered abroad, is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling since it seems to be manufactured into such a nonissue that it is hardly, if all, discussed by our political leaders. The cherry on top is I could have learned this on my own, without McChesney’s thorough work. The Internet, and all its resources, is right there.
But, shockingly, the game appears already rigged against Internet freedom: “…human beings are capable of meaningfully visiting only a small number of websites on a regular basis. The Google search mechanism encourages concentration because sites that do not end up on the first or second page of a search effectively do not exist. As Michael Wolff puts it in Wired, “The top 10 Web sites accounted for 31 percent of U.S. pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010.’ By 2012, according to the web traffic measurer Experian Hitwise, 35 percent of all Web visits now go to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Facebook.”
Statistics like that remind me of a line from Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis”: “We’ve already won. And they don’t even know!”
We’ve become unwitting tools of our own confinement. As Eli Pariser points out, this keeps users trapped in a “filter bubble,” where the message corporate elites have signed off on is reinforced again and again. This indirect filtering of information is dangerous and leads into McChesney’s key point about the Internet’s potential to undermine democracy.
Few professions have been as gutted by the rise of the Internet like journalists. It seems every other week, a story appears about a newsroom getting the axe or the consolidation of media into massive, monopolistic firms. McChesney places a great deal of emphasis on the role journalists have in protecting the public from the encroachments of private interests. An informed populace, as McChesney channels Thomas Jefferson’s support of a free and publicly subsidized press, is the soul of a democratic society. However, it seems the Internet came and hung journalists out to dry just when the American public needed them most. While the decline of traditional print journalism had been ongoing for decades before the Internet, McChesney claims that the confluence of media consolidation and the weakening of independent publishers, through the precipitous decline in advertising revenue, is, perhaps, the biggest threat to a democratic society.
Capitalists are constantly locating new places to generate profits, and sometimes that entails taking what had been plentiful and making it scarce. So it is for the Internet. Information on it is virtually free, but commercial interests are working to make it scarce.
Disturbingly, this manifests itself as the ongoing trend for publications to do less investigating and more reporting. Due to slashed budgets and control by corporate interests, with their fingers in many, many different pies, newsrooms are forced to play coroner. Instead of doing the costly legwork required to inform the populace, journalists can only afford to comment and report on events after they’ve happened. This can have tragic consequences. The 2010 cave-in of a coal mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners, was found to be in flagrant violation of numerous safety standards. Two exposes ran in both the Washington Post and New York Times, highlighting the scope of the crime. However, this scandal only saw the light of day after the cave-in had already occurred. McChesney quotes Josh Stearns: “we are entering an era of ‘hindsight journalism,’ where some of the most important stories of our time emerge after the fact.”
This lack of journalistic oversight on the activities of the Internet’s movers and shakers is appalling. One simply needs to consider the cases of Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz, and other Internet freedom activists, to see how tightly controlled the Web has become. The collusion of large tech, telecomm, and Internet firms with dollar susceptible politicians is obvious. It’s happening and there are a few scant sources remaining, according to McChesney, capable of bringing this fact out into the open, let alone reversing its course.
For a glaring example, look at China, Google and their lovechild, the “Great Firewall.” The blocking of information and the monitoring of dissidents helps suppress genuine democratic reform. Even in the United States, personal information is bought and sold, without consent, by unidentified third parties. Most users don’t even know if or when they’re being tracked. It should be criminal. But it makes sense to the rulers of the Web, it’ll generate profits. McChesney: “In short, the rational course for these firms — even the ones not presently working closely with the military and security agencies — is to cooperate with the national security state. Any other course of action would threaten their profitability. It’s a no-brainer.”
So when McChesney makes the claim that the, “evidence is clear: the Internet corporations place a lower priority on human rights and the rule of law than they do on profits,” it isn’t the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. The amble, and always approachable, context he has provided reinforces his perceptiveness, rather than writing him off as some sort of academic outlier. The Internet, once seen as a great democratizing engine, might actually be an indispensable tool for the powerful to remain so.
The Internet is here to stay. That is not in doubt. It is too useful, too entertaining, too enmeshed in everyday life to go the way of the dodo. But it doesn’t seem to be the gift from the gods it once was. Consider: “In 1935, New Republic editor Bruce Bliven characterized himself as among those ‘who find advertising so obnoxious that they wish the radio had never been invented.’ One wonders if the Internet will produce its modern Blivenites — or if, as with broadcasting, people will come to accept its degradation as the natural way of the world and barely recognize, let alone question, what is taking place.”
Considering the amount of perversity that goes on behind the Internet’s curtain, this is not altogether a throwaway sentiment.
What does McChesney offer as a solution? Is there hope? For him, yes, and it is a mixture of democratic initiatives to work within the system so as to pushback capitalist concerns, along with public subsidies for proactive journalism. The solution seems ideal, but it is almost impossible for me to imagine it ever happening in today’s hyper-partisan environment. McChesney is a self-identified optimist, after all. As someone who was raised on the Internet, rather than a witness to its birth, I feel the key is not the establishment, who already seem breathlessly in bed with corporate concerns, but with digital pioneers like an Aaron Swartz, individuals or groups that are willing to turn the tools of the Internet against its owners.
McChesney does confess that the Internet is still being developed. Who knows what it will look like down the road? His observations could merely be the last gasp of late capitalism, rather than the establishment of a New Digital Order.
But since the Internet is still a work in progress, the sheer size of it, one day, might work against corporate concerns. It doesn’t even take an overly savvy user to know how to bypass many of the hurdles between users and information. While an informed populace is essential to the functioning of democracy, maybe the way forward is a populace informed of how the Internet works, capable of navigating the Internet in a more meaningful, independent way. The key to democratizing the Web might be a generation of users who know what the score is, empowering themselves through their daily usage and online choices. Just look at Kickstarter as an example of democracy, albeit monetized, digital style.
One can only hope all those uncountable hours online will pay off. In time, the very people seen as outsiders, hackers, or enslaved to their laptop might be the Internet’s best option for meaningful, democratic, change.