[Documents menu] Documents menu
Date: Sat, 11 Apr 98 13:44:27 CDT
From: rkmoore@iol.ie (Richard K. Moore)
Subject: PPI-009-"Closing the Information Highway"
Article: 32153
Message-ID: <bulk.18944.19980412181554@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Closing the Information Highway

By Richard K. Moore, from "Toward Freedom"
Dec 97/Jan 98

Domination of cyberspace is mission-critical for the masters of globalization

As Noam Chomsky documents in Manufacturing Consent, propaganda has always been an essential mechanism in the machinery of democracy, the primary means by which the elite insure that their own interests aren't overwhelmed by what Samuel P. Huntington refers to as the "excesses of democracy" and what James Madison referred to as "mob rule."

In the ongoing see-saw struggle for power, ownership of media -- to influence opinion and ultimately government policies -- has always been used to advantage by economic elites in democracies. Popular movements also have made effective use of the media, from time to time, but in today's concentrated media industry, elite control over public opinion is, for all intents and purposes, total. So total, in fact, that just as a fish isn't aware of water, one sometimes forgets how constrained the scope of public debate has become.

Even opposition to the status quo is channeled and deflected by media emphasis, as with the US militia movements, the Perot and Buchanan candidacies, and nationalist movements in Europe. All these have been used to "define" anti-globalist sentiment as reactionary, isolationist, luddite, and racist.

Demonization of government and politicians -- in fact, blaming government for problems caused by globalism and excessive corporate influence -- is perhaps the single most potent coup of the mind-control media in undermining democratic institutions and promoting globalism.

Revision by Omission

Globalization itself exemplifies the potency of media propaganda. The rhetoric of neoliberalism, with its "reforms" and "market forces" and "smaller government," isn't just a "position" within the scope of public debate. It frames debate. Politicians and government leaders rarely question whether to embrace globalization, but compete instead to espouse national policies accommodating it.

As media itself is globalized and concentrated, it's no surprise that globalization propaganda is one of its primary products. Whether the vehicle is a feature film, network news, advertisement, panel discussion, or sit-com, the presumed inevitability of the market- forces system and the bankruptcy of existing political arrangements comes through loud and clear -- even when the future's dark side is being portrayed.

The success of this barrage is especially amazing in light of the utter bankruptcy of the neoliberal philosophy itself. The whole experience of the robber-baron era has simply vanished from public memory. In true Orwellian fashion, we are told that market forces and deregulation are "modern" efficiencies, the brilliant result of state-of-the-art economic genius.

As a consequence of this historical revision by omission, we rarely hear that these policies have been tried before and found sorely wanting -- that they led to economic instability, monopolized markets, cyclical depressions, political corruption, worker exploitation, and social depravity. Generations of reform were required to re-introduce competition into markets, stabilize the financial system, and institute more equitable employer/employee relations.

In fact, regulatory regimes created a generally reasonable accommodation between the interests of the elite and the people. But, with the help of today's media propaganda, everyone now "knows" that regulations are nothing more than the counter- productive ego-trips of well or ill-meaning politico-bureaucrats with nothing better to do than interfere in other people's business. Today's "reforms" are actually the dismantlement of reforms which moderated decades of market abuse. Yet, old wine can be presented in new vessels, as long as the message is repeated often enough and facts that don't fit are never given airtime.

Image Control

The mass media is the front line of corporate globalist control. This fact, in addition to market forces, adds extra urgency to the pace of global media concentration. The central importance of corporate- dominated mass media to the globalization process, and to elite control generally, must be kept in mind in attempting to predict the fate of Internet culture once commercial cyberspace begins to come online.

In this regard, the treatment of cyberspace and the Internet in the mass media over the past few years lends some portending insights. Two quite different images are typically presented, one commercially- oriented and the other not. The first, frequently seen in fiction or futuristic documentaries, focuses on the excitement of cyber adventures, the thrill of virtual reality, and the promise of myriad online enterprises. This commercially-oriented image is given a positive spin. Suddenly every product and organization on the block includes a www.My.Logo.com on its packaging and advertising, in many cases with only symbolic utility. Madison Avenue is selling cyberspace, pre-establishing a mass-market demand for its future commercial version.

The other image has to do with sinister hackers, wacko bomb conspirators, and luring pedophiles. Those who use the net daily find such stories ludicrous and unrepresentative, but because we dismiss them we may not realize that's all much of the general population hears about today's Internet.

The infamous Time article on Cyberporn, for example, was pure demonization propaganda, and standard publication procedures were surreptitiously violated in order to get it printed. And the effect wasn't undone by the mild apologies offered later. A recent US regulatory initiative (actually an attempt at censorship), whose passage was assisted by that well-timed article, was fortunately rejected by the US Supreme Court. But the defamation campaign continues. The relationship between cyberspace and democracy is complex indeed. Internet culture has enabled a renaissance of open public discussion -- a peek at a more open democratic process. But this phenomenon has been experienced by a relatively tiny minority of the world's population, and may in fact not survive the commercial onslaught.

On the contrary, as universal transport for mass media products, cyberspace may in fact become the delivery vehicle for even more sophisticated manipulation of public opinion. Rather than the realization of the democratic dream, cyberspace may turn out instead to be the ultimate Big-Brother nightmare.

In a world where most significant events will involve online transactions, and where backdoors are built into encryption algorithms and communications switches, everyone's every move is an open book to those who have the keys to the net's nervous system. From the accounting records alone, there would be a complete trail of almost everything one does, and the privacy of this information (from government, police, credit bureaus, advertisers, direct mailers, political strategists, etc.) is far from guaranteed. Systematic massive surveillance by govern- ment agencies would be extremely easy. There's even the possibility of surreptitious gathering of audio and video signals from home sets which are thought to be "off," and the remote overriding of home security systems or automobile functions. Mandatory chip-based ID cards or implants may sound fanciful, but the number of initiatives in those directions worldwide is cause for serious alarm.

In short, cyberspace could turn out to be the ideal instrument of power for the elite under globalism, giving precise scientific control over what gets distributed to whom on a global basis, and full monitoring of everything everyone does. Some readers may may react with "It can't happen here." I would ask, "What is there to stop it?" The corporate domination of information flows is an inherent part of the seemingly unstoppable globalization process.

Utopia for the Few

One can think of digital cyberspace as a kind of utopian realm, where all communication wishes can be granted. But who will run this utopia? Net users tend to assume we'll waltz in and use it for our creative purposes, just as we have the Internet. But others have designs on it as well.

We're willing to pay a few cents per hour, while complaining about any usage charges, and our need for really high per-user bandwidth is yet to be demonstrated. The media industry, in contrast, can bring a huge existing traffic onto cyberspace, a traffic with much higher value-per-transaction than email and web that can gobble up lots of bandwidth. We want to pay commodity prices for transport, while the media industry is willing to pay whatever it needs to -- passing on its costs to consumers.

)From a purely economic perspective, the interests of the media industry could be expected to dominate the rules of the road. But economic considerations may not be most decisive in setting the rules of cyberspace. Continued mass media domination of information distribution systems is necessary if the media is to play its accustomed role as shepherd of public opinion. This is mission-critical to the continuance of the globalization process and to elite societal control in general.

The mechanisms of domination include concentrated ownership of infrastructure, licensing bureaucracies, information property rights, libel laws, pricing structures, creation of artificial distribution scarcity, and "public interest" censorship rules. These tactics have all been used and refined throughout the life of electronic media technology, starting with radio, and their use can be expected as part of the cyberspace commercialization process.

Indeed, signs of each of these tactics are already evident. The US Internet backbone has been privatized; consolidation of ownership is beginning in Telecom and in ISP services; WIPO (World Information Property Organization) is setting down over-restrictive global copy- right rules, which the US is embellishing with draconian criminal penalties; content restrictions are cropping up all over the world, boosted by ongoing anti-Internet propaganda; pricing is being turned over increasingly to "market forces" (where traditional predatory prac- tices can operate); chilling libel precedents are being set; and moves are afoot to centralize domain-name registration, beginning what appears to be a slippery slide toward ISP licensing. And these are still very early days in the commercialization process.

Consider the U.S. Telecom Reform Bill of 1996. Theoretically, it's supposed to lead to "increased competition." But consolidation is permitted both horizontally and vertically" a telco can expand its territory, and can be sold/merged with content (media) companies. Prices and the definition of services are to be determined by "the market." There's also a transition period, during which a determination must be reached that "competition is occurring." After that it becomes a more or less laissez-faire ball game, especially given the ongoing climate of deregulation and lack of anti-trust enforcement. There's no going back, no guarantee that if competition fades regulation will be restored.

Just as the media industry is already vertically integrated (owning its own distribution infrastructure -- satellites, cables, and the like), so it will seek mergers and acquisitions in the telecom industry as the digital network gets closer to implementation.

Following awesome merger wars among huge conglomerates, a single media-communications mega-industry, dominated by a clique of vertically-integrated majors, is likely to emerge. Regulation will indeed govern cyberspace but -- in accordance with the globalist paradigm -- it will be regulation by and for the cartel of majors.

Control of Distribution

The whole point of monopolization is to create an all-the-traffic- will-bear marketplace. This is the market paradigm that operates today, for example, in cinemas and video rentals. Films compete on the basis of consumer interest, not price. So, cyberspace majors will compete with one another, but in content acquisition -- seeking to have the most successful product offerings and coverage -- and in extending their market territories. This competition may bring consumers ever more titillating entertainments, but the scope and "message" of their entertainments (and information) will be limited and molded by corporate interests.

International regulations being laid down for libel, copyright, and pornography combine to make Internet culture ultimately untenable. A bulletin board, for example, would not be run in open mode; in essence, a bonded professional staff would have to filter out submissions to avoid liability to prosecution. List owners would be forced to become censors, verifying contributor's statements as do newspaper editors. The open universe of today's Internet seems destined to be marginalized, just like America's CB-radio or public- interest broadcasting, thus completing the commercial domination of cyberspace and the corporate domination of society.

The ability to distribute media products at reasonable rates to large (but not quite mass) audiences translates into the ability to start up a competing media company, with production costs as the only major capitalization required. This is exactly what the media cartels wish to avoid; discouraging start-ups is what "control over distribution" is all about. In the case of TV, scarce bandwidth translated into expensive licenses, and the cartel was easy to maintain.

In cyberspace, the cartel can maintain its traditional distribution control by defining services, and setting prices, in such a way that media-distribution is artificially expensive, and becomes cost- effective only on a massive scale, requiring massive capitalization.

What do you think it will cost you to send a message to one person in commercial cyberspace? My guess is that the "traffic will bear" about as much for a one-page message as a first-class letter. This may seem over-priced to you, but so what? I consider my voice phone service (and CDs) over-priced - c'est la vie in the world of monopoly market forces. The advertising brochure will boast, "Get your message instantly to anyone in the world -- all for one flat rate less than a domestic postage stamp."

At 25 cents/recipient, you can see what happens to the Internet mailing-list phenomenon: a 500-person list carries a $125 posting fee direct from the poster to the telco. You can play with the numbers, talk about receiver-pays, and point out that corporate users will insist on affordable networking, but monopoly-controlled pricing has the power to totally wrench the foundations out from under Internet usage patterns.

The media-com industry will make plenty of money out of 1-1 email messaging, and plenty more out of their own commercial products. Whether or not they want to encourage widespread citizen networking is entirely up to them, according to their own sovereign cost/benefit analysis. If they don't favor it, it won't happen -- except in the same marginalized way that HAM radio operates.

There likely will be some kind of commercial chat-room/discussion- group industry, but monopolized by online versions of talk radio shows, and presided over by an Oprah Winfrey Larry King -- with inset screens for "randomly selected" guests. "Online discussion" can thus be turned into a new kind of media product, and its distribution eco- nomics can be structured to favor the cartel.

The prospects surely seem dim for both democracy and cyberspace, and cyberspace itself may be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

Restore democratic sovereignty
Create a sane and livable world
Bring corporate globalization under control.

Posted by: Richard K. Moore | PO Box 26, Wexford, Ireland
mailto:contributions@cyberjournal.org | http://cyberjournal.org
* Non-commercial republication authorized - incl sigs *

[World History Archives]     [Gateway to World History]     [Images from World History]     [Hartford Web Publishing]