t byfield on Mon, 29 Jul 96 08:08 METDST

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Re: nettime: The New Sobriety

dwh@berlin.snafu.de (David Hudson), 11:58 PM -0500 on 7/27/96:

> 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.

        I wonder about this. The phrase "speak your mind" revolves in a very
tight orbit around the invisible sun of expression, and it says little
about the _reception_ of what one says. Those circumstances--the who,
where, when, etc. of reading your words--are very heterogeneous, and they
will only become more so as time passes. So, speaking your mind isn't even
half the story; and someone else speaking his or her mind back isn't even
the other half--there's a lot more going on here than the charingly naive
"worldwide conversation" that my enlightened judiciary recently decided to
view the net as. You might write something, and I might respond, and we may
both do so _as though we were speaking our minds_, but we do so through
habits developed in other media--and our habits define only a very small
part of how this medium works.
        The claim that "the net was governed by Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs)
which 'explicitly banned Internet usage aimed at profit-making'" is silly:
back in the good old days, before the dread .coms had overtaken all the
noble .edus, .orgs, and .mils (not to mention all those Other .mysteries:
.tw, .il, .si, etc.), the net was very definitely aimed at
profit-making--but it was a superindividual profit mystified by
educational, organizational, and military "professionalism," within which
individuals were freed from meditating on the political, economic, and
social aims of the organizations that paid their salaries and wrapped their
labors in a cloak of legitimacy. (Hence the complaints about spam etc.: if
professionals hate anything, it's hucksters, con-men, charlatans, drifters,
grifters, freelancers, six-time users, newbies, lusers, etc.--in other
words, _nonprofessionals_.) To acknowledge this isn't to condemn these
professionals--far from it; but one can't formulate a solid critique unless
one gets one's facts straight. The net wasn't built, maintained, or
expanded by altruists for the betterment of humankind's lot; and just as
its sudden expansion into a wider, international public sphere wasn't
expected, the consequences of what we say on it may (or may not) extend far
beyond simply "speaking our minds." And if you don't believe me, fire up
one of those lovely search engines like Altavista or DejaNews and read--for
example--the debates about those very search engines: total disorientation.
        The assumption underlying critiques involving the "commercialization"
of the net is, of course, that up until now it was not commercial; and the
anxiety surrounding those critiques is roughly that this
"commercialization" will impose 'extrinsic' forces on everything that
transpires--ranging from censorship to endorsement to some vague idea of
"spin" to the evil "mass-this" and "mass-that." All of which implies some
idyllic economy of expression "before" the ad execs, petty middle managers,
and insidious overlords came and uglified this secret garden with their
toll-roads and billboards and malls and zoning rules and signs telling us
not to cuss, spit, smoke, or loiter. But those forces are _not_ extrinsic
to what we say or where, and with a few brief exceptions (say, a childhood
in rural Rumania) they haven't been in the lifetime of anyone on this list;
the particular forms they took may have differed in San Francisco and
Ljubljana, but by the time anyone learned how to type, those forces were
intrinsic--they had long since left their mark on how we "spoke our minds"
and what we actually spoke. And on a few other things as well.
        This isn't to say that flashy banners jpegs on web pages are good, or
normal, or won't change anything. And this isn't to say that flashy banner
jpegs are an adequate representation of the perils of commercialization--
hysterical pseudo-paternalistic state "oversight" on the pretext of the
"Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse," arcane router wars and packet
privileging on backbones, conglomerate's efforts to crush mom-and-pop and
shoestring operations, the problems that widespread encryption might pose
for historians, etc., etc.
        But these things aren't the only wretched ideological exports. With
commercialization come simplistic "anticommercial" critiques that falsely
describe conditions prior to explicit commercialization and often assume
that certain levels of wealth and abundance are "normal." "Bandwidth"
constraints produce a "need for speed" and a nonsensical sense of scarcity
amidst abundance. The democratic ideals built into the rhetoric of
many-to-many communications instill a problematic faith in the "individual"
and what he or she has to _say_; and, increasingly, when we "say" something
in this medium, we speak-as-historical-artifact (hence the "pollution"
complaint). And so on and so forth.
        I'm not saying that any of this is "bad" or "good"; but I am saying
that we should be very skepticl about simple observations on what it means
to express oneself through this medium, how the accumulation of those
utterances will function, what "commercialization" actually _is_ in a
capital-intensive environment...
        We all know about Johannes Gutenberg, what a genius he was, how his
invention transformed history, bla bla bla; but only very recently have
historians noticed that the widespread use of movable-type printing presses
required that paper had to be everywhere and cheap. And where did that
paper come from? A burgeoning Italian paper industry that had established
distribution networks across Europe. Commercialization, in a word.


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