Frederick Noronha on Sun, 9 May 1999 01:30:30 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Internet: A Second Opinion (Roberto Verzola/The Philippines)

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From:           	Roberto Verzola <>
Date sent:      	07 May 99 07:34:39 
Subject:        	[GKD] The Internet: A Second Opinion

                          by Roberto Verzola

     A few decades ago, a technology was born that inventors promised
would revolutionize education, and raise to new heights the cultural level
of millions, and abolish ignorance. No, the technology was neither the
computer nor the Internet; it was television. TV, claimed its original
proponents, would usher a new era of low-cost access to education and
learning for the masses.

     Today, the TV set is called an "idiot box".

     Those who are enamoured with Internet technology and expect it to
usher a new information age should look at our experience with TV. These
factors turned television technology, which promised such high hopes, into
its opposite:

     1. Governments tightly restricted who may set up TV stations.
Instead of allowing anybody with the knowledge and resources,
governments made TV broadcasting illegal, except for the very few who got
government licences. The original technology itself allowed only a few
channels, and reinforced the elitist ownership structure in the industry.

     2. With few exceptions, many governments privatized the
television industry. This put profit-making ahead of other
informative, educational or cultural considerations. Even government
stations had to justify their existence by competing with private
stations on the basis of their bottomline.

     3. Those who controlled TV content made it a marketing medium. TV
became the medium for selling products, services, and life styles. All
other content became secondary. Thus, most television content was
"hard-sell" advertising (actual commercials), "soft-sell" marketing (shows
and movies that sold a life style), or "entertainment" (whose captive
audience was actually sold to advertisers, with occasional news programs
or educational films thrown in as concession to "public service".

     4. Compared to its predecessor, the radio, television --
particularly color TV -- was a highly sensory medium. The technology
could feed the viewer with sounds and visuals, with little need for
response, interaction, or additional imagination. This turned the
viewer into a passive recipient of program material.

     5. Television merged fiction and reality on the same screen.
Coverage of real wars intermingled with war movies that were meant for
entertainment; violent films were shown side by side with news about
violent crimes. This slowly dulled the viewers' sensitivity towards
real-life suffering and injustice.

     Even before the Internet, computer technology had, in a way,
already evolved its own "idiot box". Many parents, concerned that
their children were being left out of the computer revolution and
fooled by marketing hype, rushed out to buy the cheapest "computer"
they could afford: the "family computer". Indeed, this machine had a
computer inside, and it "entertained" the family with games. But it
had essentially zero educational value. Worse, it exposed children to
excessive violence, distorted their values, led to game addiction, and
interfered with real education and learning.

     Today, on the Internet, the same factors that turned television
into an idiot box are also emerging, or have in fact become the
dominant trend.

     Sometime between 1994 and 1995, commercial sites on the Internet
outnumbered government and academic sites for the first time. The trend
accelerated as the U.S., where majority of the world's Internet sites are
located, pursued a conscious program to turn over much of the Internet
backbone to the private sector. Today, Internet service providers tend to
consolidate into larger mergers that cover more areas, provide more
services, and include more subscribers.

     Before 1995, there was a very strong culture against advertising on
the Internet. The only ads allowed were what might be called "demand-side
advertising" -- those that offered to buy, not to sell, something. It was
a type of advertising that did not create needs where there were none, but
acknowledged needs when they existed. Today, the ban on Internet
advertising is gone.

     "Entertainment" and commercialism have long edged out
information, education and learning as the primary driving forces of
the Internet. While the text-only mode was sufficient for most
informational applications, Internet technology has evolved to include
graphics and multi-media, with quality that is approaching and may soon
exceed that of television. Now, they speak of three-dimentional vision and
"interactive virtual reality", offering even more sensory stimulation with
tactile pressure suits. Their immediate selling appeal will probably be

     Indeed, the Internet today is often sold as the television of the
21st century.

     It is true that the Internet, unlike television, is an interactive
medium, where information can flow back and forth, and to that extent it
continues to be useful, particularly for information searching.

In many sites, however, the quality of the interaction has
deteriorated, simply requiring from the user "click"/"no click", 
yes/no, accept/cancel decisions which are not much different from 
the "next channel"/"previous channel" decisions made on the 
TV remote control. Web gurus today speak of "push technologies"; 
these mechanisms automatically determine a user's
taste and preferences based on earlier selections he had made on the
Internet, and then feed him with more of the same, with no additional
prompting necessary. This will supposedly enable the user to go back to
his couch, relax, and enjoy the influx of Web entertainment in much the
same way that he enjoyed yesteryear's television.

     Is an interactive "idiot box" any better than its earlier

     Here's a summary of recent Internet trends that can help you judge if
     it is indeed going the way of TV:

     - from small service providers to large service providers;
     - from academic and government to business and commercial
     - from information and educational concerns to entertainment and
     - from free access to credit-card access;
     - from demand-driven "pull technologies" to supply-drive "push
     - from text applications to multimedia and virtual reality;
     - from long useful life to rapid obsolescence; and
     - from days or hours to milliseconds and microseconds in response

     Looking at these trends, what appears to be certain about the new
information and communication (or, shall we say entertainment?)
technologies, is that they are going to cost a lot more than the ordinary
TV of old, because in addition to the video set, one needs a computer (and
a fast one with lots of memory at that), a modem (preferably a fast one
too) and a telephone line.

     To get a better handle on the cost of various networking
alternatives, let us see how much it will cost society if we wanted to
make a specific technology accessible to the majority (i.e., 51%) of the
population. Assuming 12.7 million Filipino families, the following table
gives us an idea:

Technology             	Current     Cost per    Total Cost for 51%
                      		Reach (%)    family ($)   reach (million $)

B&W TV only		43%       $ 100        $  102 M
Color TV only              	14          300         1,413
VCR                        	12          250         1,241
Cable TV                    	02         1000         6,236
Telephone                   	06         1000         5,727
Fax                         		01          200         1,273
Internet                  	0.1         1000         6,478
CDROM/DVD                 	0.1          300         1,943
Virtual Reality             	00         2000 (?)    12,982

Radio                      	84           10            20 (100% reach)

Total                                     37,314

     Considering that many of the later technologies are often good
only for three years or so, we are then looking at a social investment of
several billion dollars every three years or so. And these figures do not
yet include the cost of software. Huge amounts indeed for a government
that lacks funds even to supply its capital region with potable tap water.
For those who think these figures are overestimated: round the total up to
$40 billion, and multiply it by some 20 Asia-Pacific countries, giving
$800 billion, an estimate that is still below the $1.2 - $1.5 trillion
that the World Bank thinks is the potential market for the information
infrastructure in the region in the next ten years.

     So let us not kid ourselves, please. Most of these technologies
except radio (and possibly black-and-white television) are beyond the
reach of the poor. They are the toys of the rich and it is the rich who
will be best positioned to make the most out of them.

     What is clear from the table above is that to participate in
these new technologies (at a level that will still exclude around half of
the population), we will first have to turn ourselves into markets for the
hardware and software companies of information economies like the U.S. The
attempt to participate immediately turns us into captive markets of
monopolistic information firms that replace their product lines every few
years or so, trapping us into a never-ending cycle of purchases and

     Assuming that we can cut our investments in other areas like
agriculture, health and other social services, basic industrial
infrastructures, etc. and channel them towards information
infrastructure and content, will we be ready to compete then?

     Let us look at how giant finance firms, most of them based in the
West, can use these same new technologies to concentrate more wealth in
their hands, if they can afford to automate their international financial
transactions. Such automation would involve computers that could do a
round-the-clock, unattended scan of the global financial markets for
opportunities, make decisions automatically, and conclude a financial
transaction within one second or a buy-then-sell transaction pair within
two seconds, and execute such transactions 24 hours a day, 365 days a
year. Compare such corporations with less capable investors who might be
able to do transactions only once a minute, once per hour, or perhaps once
a day. The following table shows how soon each investor would be able to
double their investment funds:

Table: Time needed to double investment funds

                                  Frequency of transactions
Profit Margin for every     Once per    Once per   Once per  Once per
buy-then-sell transaction   day         hour       minute    second

          1%                4.6 mos.    5.8 days   2.3 hrs.  2.3 min. 0.1%
                       46 mos.     58 days    23 hrs.   23 min. 0.01%     
                 38 yrs.     19 mos.    9.6 days  3.9 hrs 0.001%          
           380 yrs.    16 yrs.    3.2 mos.  1.6 days 0.0001%          
          3,798 yrs.  158 yrs.   2.6 yrs.  16 days 0.00001%         
          37,983 yrs. 1,583 yrs. 26 yrs.   5.3 mos.

     Even with the thinnest margins of profit, a suitably-equipped
finance firm can double its investment funds within days, if not
hours. Who but the largest financial conglomerates would have the
resources and the connections to set up and maintain an automated,
round-the-clock facilities with a global reach that can conclude a
transaction every second? We had better think again, those among us
who imagine that the Third World can leap-frog second wave economies
and ride the third wave by surfing the Web or by selling our
agricultural and manufacturing commodities and our cheaper labor over the
Internet. While we are still saving money to upgrade our obsolete
computers, they will have multiplied their investment funds many times

     Last February 2-6, this year, some 90 Asian academics and
scholars met in New Delhi, at the Indian Social Institute, under the
conference theme "Colonialism and Globalization: 500 years after Vasco da
Gama". Many papers observed that colonialism hasn't left Asia; that
globalization was simply an extension -- or a new form -- of colonialism.
>From their vantage point, the emerging global information economy was in
fact the leading edge of this new form of colonialism.

     Pursuing this track further, it can be said that there have been
three waves of globalization. The first wave was colonialism, which
involved military conquest and physical occupation. The second wave was
the globalization of capital and markets. We are still deep under this
wave, but a third wave is already lapping on our shores: the globalized
information economy, which information and communications technologies at
its backbone.

     What about the negative impacts of technologies themselves? Very
often, because of the profit-driven nature of technology marketing, we
only hear about the good things a technology will bring. This was true
with chemicals, with nuclear power, with genetic engineering, and of
course with television. It often takes several decades -- twenty to thirty
years or more -- before wide-scale actual experience with a technology
would bring out its bad impact. Then, we can develop a more balanced
assessment of the social impact of the technology.

     When cars and other machines were first invented, for example, we
thought they were all wonderful gadgets because they saved us a lot of
physical effort. But people who depended heavily on cars and other
machines got less physical exercise and therefore became prone to obesity,
hypertension, heart disease and other physical problems common to modern
populations. If reliance on machines for physical labor leads to physical
problems, isn't it obvious what reliance on machines for mental tasks
would lead to?

     People, in fact, are already complaining today how they have
grown dependent on their word processors, unable to go back to
traditional forms of writing using paper and pencil or even a
typewriter. After years of word processor use, the screen and keyboard has
become an integral part of their thinking processes; they are lost and
unable to think without a screen and keyboard in front of them. Is this
what we want: people who can't think without a 50,000-peso machine in
front of them?

     We are not quite sure how staring at a radiation source several
hours everyday will affect our eyesight. But most computer nerds wear
thick glasses and are practically blind without them, which is not at all
reassuring. It is in fact downright scary, considering that the government
plans to require computer courses in high school, if not elementary

     Several decades of experience with some technologies have allowed us
to make a more enlightened judgment about them. Most publics, for
instance, now shun nuclear power because -- considering the thousand-year
half-lifes of its fuels and waste products -- it is simply beyond human
scale. A similar conclusion might eventually be forthcoming for genetic
engineering, considering the potential for biological pollution and damage
of run-away genetically-engineered organisms which reproduce, mutate and
evolve by themselves.

     Other technologies may be worth pursuing further, but only after a
major social redesign. The motor vehicle, for example, has become a major
Earth threat in the form of the automobile, but might still play a major
transport role in the form of public buses. To cite another example, a
network of community radio stations directly accessible to its local
constituents through public phones may approximate the services, at a
small fraction of the cost, of a computer-based digital network .

     The Internet as a public phenomenon is only a few years old.
Thus, it is too early to form a balanced assessment of the
technology's social impact, especially one that is made by people who will
not make money selling the technology.

     In the meantime, let us be wary of marketing hype that will
simply enrich those who control information infrastructure and

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