dwh@berlin.snafu.de (David Hudson) (by way of Pit Schultz ) on Sun, 28 Jul 96 00:31 METDST

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nettime: The New Sobriety


The New Sobriety

We've had the eureka phase in all its euphoric glory. Then the backlash.
Now that we've gotten over the Internet emotionally, we may be entering the
phase in which our brains finally kick in and get to work.

A quick, amusing aside about that backlash first, though. Clifford Stoll
was on the radio here in Berlin not that long ago, a quick stop along his
Beware the Internet world tour, and among the quotes: "I could feel my life
dribbling away through the modem." And this gem: "Why would anyone spend
hours downloading grainy pornographic pictures? People ought to be out in
the real world having real sex with each other." I kid you not.

At any rate, hundreds of actually sane, real people gathered in Montreal
this June for INET'96, the sixth annual conference of the Internet Society,
and while that's hardly news anymore, I've finally got around to wading
through many of the approximately 170 papers, and I'll be darned if I don't
find the overall tone and spirit of what was said there very encouraging.
And that's news.

The theme of the conference was "The Internet: Transforming Our Society
Now", and while that may sound like yet another clarion call for a
collective back-patting session, that's not how it turned out. With all
those voices, there are sure to be a few dissenters, but Chris Adams of
Goldfarb Consultants put his finger right on the general trend I discern in
the proceedings in his paper, "The 1996 Internet Counterrevolution: Power,
Information, and the Mass Media": "If the first half of the 1990s was the
soil in which the Internet social revolution was planted, the second half
will sprout the counterrevolution."

Adams outlines the rapid deterioration of what once made the Net unique as
a means of communication, its many-to-many model. While still intact
theoretically, in practice, the model is fading fast, the old elitist power
structures encroaching upon the new. Adams places the blame squarely on the
almost immediate acquiescence to the commercialization of the Net aided
significantly by commercial online services and the essential nature of the
Web. He reminds us that it wasn't that long ago when the Net was governed
by Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) which "explicitly banned Internet usage
aimed at profit-making."

While I doubt that Adams has anything against business on the Net per se,
he's rightfully concerned with raising our awareness of the effects of its
glowering presence. It's one thing to speak your mind in a commercial-free
environment, and quite another to speak the same words in a forum "hosted"
by a party with a financial interest in what's said there. Not to mention
the fierce competitiveness unleashed onto the "level playing field" whereby
whoever's got the deepest pockets can out-spend, out-banner, out-sponsor,
etc., anyone of lesser means, regardless of the actual value they
contribute to the discourse the Net is supposed to be all about.

Adams' is one of the many voices representing a general morning-after
sobering up to reality detectable in several key papers delivered at the
conference, too many to mention all of them here. But some of the more
notables place the Net in historical perspective, specifically comparing
and contrasting previous declarations of inevitable social transformation
that never happened with the one not happening now. Hans Klein of the
Institute of Public Policy sums up this cluster best:

"The launch of new communications technologies is usually accompanied by
bold predictions of positive social change. With the successive creation of
telephone, film, radio, television, cable television, and now the Internet
have come optimistic predictions of empowerment, enlightenment, and broad
social benefits. Yet as each of these technological revolutions has receded
into the past and its historical record of social change has become
available for study, that record has frequently disappointed expectations."

If you've got the time, kick back and savor Mark Surman's wry "Wired Words:
Utopia, Revolution, and the History of Electronic Highways", chock full of
vintage parallels between the broken promises of cable TV and those of the
Net - it's longish, but it's a hoot.

The more dour yet more succinct William Birdsall of Dalhousie University
dissects what he calls the Ideology of Information Technology which "links
the adoption of information technology with free-market values and the
commodification of information." Speaking of which, the value of
information itself as an instrument of social change on a global scale is
called into question by Nils Zurawski of the University of Mčnster,
especially when the content of that information is utterly ignored -
"information as fetish" is a phrase that pops up, and it's one that belongs
in any time capsule we bury documenting the early to mid-90s.

As to what will denote '96 and after, the final days of the 20th century,
itself punctuating one hell of a millennium, crescendoing and
decrescendoing with revolutions, counterrevolutions and reformations,
wouldn't it be fine if we could say of our times, This was when we started
asking the questions that mattered: Who's served by our technologies? What
are the values that last, that matter, and how do we apply our abilities
and talents on a global, national, local and individual scale to ensuring
they win out?

And wouldn't it be even finer if we actually stumbled over a few of the
answers and then went so far as to put them to practical use? But don't be
putting any money on that actually happening. No one else is.



David Hudson                    REWIRED <www.rewired.com>
dwh@berlin.snafu.de             Journal of a Strained Net
                                RHIZOME INTERNET
.....see also.....              <www.rhizome.com>



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