THEY PAVED PARADISE AND PUT UP AN INFORMATION HIGHWAY
Okay, so we've all been hyped to death about the Information Superhighway by now. We've heard all the predictions about how it will transform our lives beyond recognition, groaned at the incessant extended "highway" metaphors, cracked jokes about Al Gore being the perfect cyberspace pioneer, 'cause he seems half android to start with. People who wouldn't know what to do with a computer if it came up and bit them on the nose are already preparing themselves for an AT&T-ad future where they fax, access, and download every morning before breakfast.
Still, the idea is enticing, isn't it? When New Yorker writer John Seabrook interviewed cybertycoon Bill Gates on the coming information revolution, he couldn't help thinking back on childhood wishes for a "giant, all-knowing brain" that could answer any question, no matter how trivial--and who could argue with him? For researchers frustrated with shortened library hours and books invariably stolen off the shelves, the notion of instant information retrieval at the touch of a key is a godsend; for activists, the ability to send free mass e-mailings to co-conspirators around the world is a valuable networking tool.
But the true promise of the Internet -- the existing computer network that is expected to provide the foundation for the electronic superhighway -- is more than that. It's also the vision of a virtual community, where information roams free and everyone's bytes are equal, owned by no one but run by everyone in an anarchic stew that stretches the world over. It's a seductive vision, all right.
If only it were true.
THE ELECTRONIC SUBURB
One of the drawbacks to living in a time and place where community has been all but annihilated is that when you do find yourself in a crowd of people, it's all too easy to assume that there's no one else left outside of it.
That was certainly my experience when I first went on-line, with ECHO, a New York-based bulletin board service self-consciously modeled on the Bay Area's WELL. ECHO likes to bill itself as an on-line community, and that's certainly how it comes across -- none of the slick packaging of the big services like America On-line and Compuserve, just a big rambling mass of people sharing stories, arguing politics, changing their names on a daily basis. It took me a while to get hooked, but soon enough it had me -- instant camaraderie with a bunch of total strangers isn't something to be taken lightly these days.
But the seeming openness of our virtual community masked the fact that the edges were well-defined: it wasn't so much a matter of who was there, but who wasn't. What finally drove it home for me was when a bunch of people started a group rant about how New York City cabbies don't speak English well enough, and I abruptly realized that the chances of a multilingual cabbie showing up to give them their comeuppance was damn near zero.
This isn't much of a revelation, I suppose. Cyberspace, after all, comes with a heavy entrance fee -- on top of the initial investment in a computer and modem (at least $1000 if you're doing it right), there are user fees starting at around $15 a month, and heading skyward as you log more hours and explore more services. And on top of that, you have to master a not-inconsequential level of computer skills to access the fruits of the information revolution.
Everyone involved with the Internet is aware of this contradiction, and everyone makes sure to mention "universal access" as a centerpiece of the future information highway. The actual ideas being thrown around range from the utopian to the ridiculous: Al Gore's idea of "universal access" is simply wiring poor neighborhoods for fiber-optic lines. But that would hardly ensure that they'll be able to afford it, whatever it looks like -- Anthony Wright of the Center for Media Education points out that despite near-universal wiring for cable, two of every five Americans don't pay for service. (Even telephone service -- held up by many Net advocates as a model of universal access -- is an unaffordable luxury to many Americans, and in some poor areas as many as 25% of the homes have no phone.)
Meanwhile, you have an ever-growing on-line community populated by the electronic elite. Right now, the bulk of the Internet's estimated 25 million addresses (a single person may have several addresses, and a single address may be used by several people, making electronic census-taking a risky venture) are made up of the government and educational institutions that the system was first designed for. But over the last few years, more and more members of the general public have been hopping on board -- about five million total, with the numbers growing by an estimated 5-6% a month. The worldwide links that put the "inter" in the Internet read like a Who's Who of the First World: Sweden, New Zealand, Taiwan, but no Zaire, Haiti, or even India. And while no one keeps demographics on the exact makeup of the Net's users, you don't have to look any further than Random House's recently issued Net Guide (billed as a TV Guide for cyberspace), which among its thousands of listings contains a grand total of nine for African-American resources -- exactly one less than for space aliens.
This isn't a description of a new populism--it's a description of white flight. The fact is, an army of computer-literate Americans are abandoning RL (as "real life" is semi-disparagingly known to Netheads) for an enclave of pure data where they are more likely to run into a Klingon than a homeless person. For these information consumers, cyberspace provides the same ambience as do suburban megamalls -- what Margaret Crawford describes in the urban politics anthology "Variations on a Theme Park" as a fantasy urbanism, devoid of the city's negative aspects: weather, traffic, and poor people."
It's a process that is only part of a larger trend, what "Variations on a Theme Park" editor Michael Sorkin has termed "Cyburbia": an interconnected grid of exurban office buildings and Net telecommuters for which time and space are increasingly obsolete. In this world, no person ever sees another as they travel highways both electronic and real in the safety of their own cars and computers. MIT architecture professor William Mitchell has already predicted that telecommuting will result in a world where urban "cores" are built not around physical infrastructure but around neighborhoods with access to telecommunications and pleasant cultural activities.
In fact, the advent of cyberspace threatens to institute an all-new literacy line. In a country where a large percentage are already functionally illiterate in the RL sense of the word, this is inevitably going to include huge chunks of the populace. The electronic literacy line is largely overlooked for now, in part because the technologically challenged aren't missing out on much more than role-playing games and glorified party-line chats. But as more and more of the business of everyday life is played out on the Ubernet, its influence will become too big to ignore. A consortium of megacorps has already announced the launching of "CommerceNet," an Internet business venture that will allow companies to, among other things, collaborate and bid on projects over the Internet -- and woe unto those businesspeople who aren't connected. As commerce, news reporting, and social events disappear into cyberspace, those locked out of it will be left with ever-dwindling resources -- no way to read the new electronic newspapers, no way to get started in the electronic business world, no way even to mail a letter after postal rates inevitably skyrocket as the USPS customer base abandons "snail-mail" for the electronic variety.
And as the media, the economy--the entire power structure of America -- disappears from view for those that are shut out, so will the poor disappear from view for the powerful. What will panhandlers, demonstrators, and other people who depend on reaching people in public space do when space itself is an anachronism? How do you set up a picket line around a teleconference call? Cyburbia, like suburbia, is designed for insulation, and for those on the outside looking in, it will be no different than for L.A. rioters trying to reach jurors in distant Simi Valley: you literally can't get there from here.
THE ELECTRONIC MALL
But the unwashed masses won't be totally left out, of course -- not as long as they have enough cash to be potential consumers. (Those without will be left in the information ghettos, written off just as they increasingly are from the economy itself -- see permanent 7% unemployment.) Smelling profit, the big telecommunications companies have already started pawing the ground where the Infobahn will be built, plotting ways to present the coming electronic revolution in a way that is accessible and affordable to the average consumer. These services won't be about playing role playing games or downloading the text of "Alice in Wonderland"; if their builders are going to justify the costs involved, these services will have to be about buying things. As one of the Internet's architects ominously warned in Time magazine last year, "It's a perfect Marxist state, where almost nobody does any business. But at some point that will have to change."
One reason: the cost of installing fiber optic links to individual homes -- the "on-ramps," in that annoying info highway jargon -- is estimated at anywhere from $5 billion to $275 billion. But more importantly, Joe Couch Potato is never going to take to a medium that requires you to master desktop skills before you even get behind the wheel, and even then is more like piloting a jumbo jet than a car in terms of complexity.
If the Internet right now is about at the crystal-radio level of accessibility -- comprehensible to an ever-widening circle of the technologically adept -- the force that brings it into most American homes promises to be the same one as did the trick for radio: sponsorship. The physical form this is likely to take is "set-top boxes" -- descendents of the cable box that will enable you to plug in through your TV. (This alone would mean a huge leap forward in access; the TV is in more American homes than computers, cable, or the telephone.) Internet consumer groups hope this will mean making the joys of late-night Internet surfing accessible to anyone with a TV set. The other view, as presented approvingly by the L.A. Times: "For anyone who wants to sell you something, the coming epoch of interactive television ought to be a dream come true."
In fact, the people who want to sell you things already have a jump on the game, with Interactive TV experiments already in action in Virginia and Florida that are little more than home-shopping networks run amuck. And such setups are hardly missing on the "non-commercial" Internet, either. Prodigy, one of the two largest on-line providers, is little more than a home-shopping service targeted to upscale consumers. (It has yet to even offer its users -- who, it claims, have an average income of $75,000 -- access to the greater Internet.) Its main competitor for on-line king, Compuserve (each claims a subscriber base of one-million-plus and counting), offers an "Electronic Mall" promising "Free shopping 24 hours a day, every day." ("Free" here means there's no hourly hookup fee; whereas nonconsumer activities like database searches will run you extra charges.) Another twist on the same gimmick are "magalogs," electronic catalogs that guide you -- via CD-ROM or online service -- through an animated selection of products, to be ordered at the click of a mouse.
But these clunky cyberizations of old-style advertising pale in comparison to the new opportunities opened up by electronic advertising. From Wired magazine, the meeting place of all things cyber and corporate, we learn that there's already a phone company that offers to pay customers to listen to ads when they dial their phones. (They claim to pay out an average of $20 per month per customer -- at a rate of five to ten cents an ad.) Wired foresees participatory advertising as the wave of the future: "Answer this brief survey from Kellogg and we'll pay for the next three episodes of Murphy Brown."
This is what advertisers like to call a "one-to-one relationship" with the consumer--i.e., targeted to your particular demographics ("no kids, owns own home, drinks light beer"), and geared for your active participation. Some observers even predict that, following on the success of video games that feature brand-name items (one current game stars the 7Up "dot"), advertising itself will become more like a video game. It's an extension of the marketing genius of physical malls: the shopping itself is the entertainment, making you complicit in your own consumerism.
But the effects of commodification won't stop with the commercials. As with TV, the essential goal is to commodify the content itself, which in the case of the Net means nothing less than information. "Information wants to be free," goes an Internet credo, but one person's anarchy is another's free market, and market forces are already hard at work making inroads into dominating the information flow on the Net. Last year, tabloid baron (and Fox-TV co-owner) Rupert Murdoch purchased Delphi, the fifth-largest online service, and stated his intentions to launch "an electronic newspaper unlike any other and an electronic version of TV Guide." And with the rise of other new megacorporations, such as Time-Warner and the newly formed Viacom/Blockbuster/Paramount, that combine production facilities and transmission routes under one roof, the door is opened to a proliferation of easy-access online media services that will easily drive out alternative information sources. If we've learned anything from the history of popular culture, it's that the accessible with a tinge of avant garde beats difficult-but-authentic for market share every time.
Consumer advocates know this, and are organizing to push for legislation to ensure that 20% of the Net is reserved for non-profit uses. But since there's no mechanism in the works to fund non-profit production, it's easy to see where this could lead -- a low-tech public-access ghetto that is overwhelmed by userfriendly commercial services, much as public-access TV is right now.
Despite the recent online uproar over a lawyer who, disregarding the Internet's "noncommercial" credo, sent out thousands of copies of an e-mail advertisement (getting thousands of e-mail hate messages in response), commerce is already lurking on the Net. The lawyer could have avoided all his troubles if he had followed the lead of the Electronic Newsstand, a private company that offers online publication and subscription services -- for a fee, of course -- to magazines and newspapers. The range of publications available, as you might expect, runs the gamut from one end of the political spectrum to squarely in the middle: there's Foreign Policy, New Republic, a host of computer magazines, but nothing that would make John McLaughlin raise an eyebrow. This is the future of Internet advertising: "cool," low-key, easier to use than scouring the Net for an interesting zine -- and because of that, all the more effective in selling you the same old shit.
VIRTUAL REALITY? YOU'RE SOAKING IN IT!
To hear many Netheads talk, the battle to prepare for is one to defend the integrity of the Internet from government encroachments. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in particular, has focused nearly all its energies on trying to secure "privacy rights" on the Net, mostly in the form of freedom from government spying on your electronic mail.
Fights like these are important, but nowhere near as much as the danger of a new technology, at least as addictive as TV, that can be used to pump brand-name consumerism into every corner of our consciousness. Certainly the experience is like that of TV -- I already have switched over from late-night channel surfing to late-night online cruising, and when I hang up the modem it leaves me with the exact same brain-fogged buzz. All that's missing are the commercials -- and who's to say I wouldn't accept them if they came packaged with a friendlier interface, more services, a better-quality product.
After all, the original highways--back when we drove cars and not metaphors -- were supposed to free inner-city dwellers to enjoy the open spaces of the country. Instead, they just freed the upwardly mobile to settle the open spaces and leave their less fortunate cousins behind -- and, not incidentally, paved the way for the television age, where the community of urban neighborhoods was replaced by the prepackaged community supplied over the airwaves. This was the true beginning of virtual reality -- you're in it every time you hum the Meow Mix theme or treat Murphy Brown as if she were a real person. All that a new level of technology does is to advance it another level: to one where you are more complicit in the process, where the real power behind the system is even more hidden from public scrutiny, and where it is ever-harder to master the technology necessary to make yourself truly heard.
Because in cyberspace, quite literally, no one can hear you scream.