Pit Schultz on Tue, 5 Dec 95 19:23 MET

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In the late-1980s, the collapse of the credit boom sent the 
world economy back into recession. Despite integrating their
economies within the world market, governments across the
world were now faced with the threat of continual economic
stagnation and permanently high rates of unemployment. As
core workers realised that the days of easy credit were over,
the economic crisis slowly led to political instability. With
a few exceptions, ruling parties within the advanced
industrialised countries were decisively defeated in
elections. However, trapped within an increasingly integrated
world economy, the new administrations encountered great
difficulties in abandoning neo-liberal economic policies.
Yet, without new solutions, popular disillusionment with
the main political parties would increase further and the 
voting patterns of the electorate would become even more
volatile. Harking back to the early-1970s, some leading 
politicians decided to revive the media utopias of the
futurologists. For example, they held up the success of 
Internet system as proof of the long awaited convergence of
computers, telecommunications and the electronic media. After
the election of Clinton, the  American government
increasingly used the construction of 'information superhighways' 
not only as an excuse for state intervention within the economy, 
but also as a potential technological fix for the country's 
intractable social problems. Once again, leading politicians 
were claiming that the solution to the crisis of Fordism was 
the construction of an interactive fibre-optic network which 
would create two-way communications among its users. 

Encouraged by government support, the major telephone and cable 
television companies embarked on a series of mergers and
alliances to mobilise the capital needed for this infrastructural
project. In parallel, the media corporations combined film
studios, record companies, video games developers, television
stations and newspapers within one organisation to provide a
full range of services for the emerging 'information
superhighway'. As other countries developed their own 
interactive networks, the media multinationals hoped to
take advantage of economies of scale on a global scale. By 
eroding cultural differences between nations, they dreamt of
an international electronic marketplace where all forms of
information would be traded under their control. Not
surprisingly, these corporations saw the installation of secure
encryption systems and enforceable copyright laws as the key to
the further development of the network. Once electronic commodity
exchange was fully established, they hoped that the final vestiges
of the public service model could be removed from a globalised
electronic media system outside the control of any national 
regulatory body. Far from increasing political diversity, this
international media oligopoly threatened to turn all new
and current affairs programmes into infotainment. 

Ironically this further development of the media exacerbated 
the crisis of representation across the developed world.
As shown by the sudden success of fringe parties, there 
was a desperation for some magical solution to the political 
and economic impasse. Echoing the New Left, some politicians
called for the creation of direct democracy over the network.
Bypassing the discredited politicians, voters would be able
to make their own political decisions in 'electronic town halls'.
The revival of this utopian vision demonstrated that the new
networks didn't have to be solely used for the sale of
information commodities by the media corporations. Whether
adopted by underground magazines, community radio stations, 
access cable television channels or electronic bulletin boards,
the self-management model provided the only clear alternative
to the dominance of the world information economy by an oligarchy
of a few corporations. While conventional capitalist companies
were limited by the constraints of price formation and copyright 
controls, musicians and other artists had already demonstrated
how the new digital technologies were breaking 
down the rigid divisions between the production and consumption
of information. In addition, Minitel in France and the Internet
in the USA showed how a simple e-mail system could be turned into
a participatory medium by its users. Although initially limited
to text, these networks allowed individuals to carry out both
point-to-point communications and the mass distribution of
information. In a developed interactive system, every user was 
not only a receiver, but also a transmitter. By combining different
systems, a single global network could be created from the different
servers and contributors. Although reliant on subsidies from the
American defence budget and universities, the success of
the Internet system was based on the spontaneous collaboration 
of its participants on a global scale. Dubbed cyberspace, this
fusion of networks could centralise the production and distribution
of media on a scale surpassing the ambitions of the most predatory 
multinationals. Alongside the international electronic
marketplace, a global electronic agora is waiting to be born as 

taken to nettime 

on paper:
Richard Barbrook: Media Freedom
May 1995 240 pages, metric demy Paperback, 12.95, 0-7453-0943-7 Hardback, 
40.00, 0-7453-0944-5

Richard Barbrook <richard@hrc.wmin.ac.uk> is a member of the Hypermedia
Research Centre of the University of Westminster. 

* 11/1995 not for commercial use

# Pit Schultz              Kleine Hamburger 15       tel +49 30 695 33 81
# pit@contrib.de           10117 Berlin              fax +49 30 229 24 29