End User's Corner - August 1996

Jack SolockCautionary Tales from the INET Conference

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

August 1996

This month's column steps away from the nuts and bolts of searching, browsing, and Internet publishing and looks at a few of the bigger issues concerning the future of the Internet. I do this in the hope that we will not get so wrapped up in our love affair with Internet technology that we lose sight of the fact that people have been down this road before, and the road may not lead where we'd like it to.

If you haven't been to an INET (Internet Society) or IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) meeting, it is almost impossible to describe the electricity that flows among the participants. Before joining InterNIC Net Scout Services, I was a Special Librarian in a university academic department library. I had an inkling of the power of the Internet, as I used it more and more with my small client base. But I had no idea of the potential of this medium until I was privileged to be able to attend these conferences in Montreal, Québec in June and hear from the people who have made "Internet" the buzzword of the late 20th century. And so it was that, with program in hand, I scanned the various track descriptions, trying to figure out how I could possibly take in as much information as I wanted to in so short a time.

One of the conference tracks particularly caught my eye. It was called "Internet and Social Transformation." As I had done my undergraduate work in history, I wanted to see what kind of spin the presenters would put on this subject.

What I heard was fascinating and not a little frightening, but, in retrospect, not particularly shocking. People who work with the Internet every day are prone to get caught up in it and become carried away with the hype and rhetoric of its promoters. Two presentations in particular, "The Silencing of a Democratic Medium: Early Public Policy on Radio and the Regulation of the Internet," by John Stevenson, Professor of Communications Studies at Concordia University (Montréal), and "Wired Words: Utopia, Revolution, and the History of Electronic Highways," by Mark Surman, Web Networks/NirvCentre Canada, put historical, social, and political perspective on this new technology. In doing so, they showed that perhaps the only really new thing about the Internet is the technology itself. In theorizing that we had been down this "new technology" path before, and tracing where the earlier paths had led, the authors told a sobering, cautionary tale about where the Internet might be headed, and what role its creators and users might have in its future.

Stevenson's presentation painted a picture of early radio that was startlingly similar to that of the Internet. In the early 1920's, Stevenson said,

"Amateurs were radio's primary programming producers and audience...In 1926, one-third of radio stations were owned and operated by a nonprofit organization, and one-third were run for publicity purposes by area businesses. Only 4.3% of radios described themselves as 'commercial'... From a commercial perspective, the 1920s was dominated by a search for a business model for broadcasting. Advertising and sponsorship, developed in the latter part of the decade, were hotly debated and generally derided as methods of achieving sustainability."

The rest of Stevenson's tale concerns what happened to radio, from the 1930's until today. It began with mostly amateur producers, and one of its primary functions was two-way communication. By the end of the 1930's it was almost completely commercial, and almost totally one-way in terms of active commercial providers and passive receivers, especially in the United States. Through legislation (the Radio Act of 1932 in the U.S.), the commercial sector was able to gain the upper hand in radio, a medium that it almost totally monopolizes today.

Let's take a look at radio. In the old days it had little bandwidth, but had the advantage of an enthusiastic cadre of devoted amateur users who wished it to be a democratizing, active communication technology. Today it is is a medium containing, for the most part, two ranges of very wide bandwidth that are full of...entertainment. The commercial sector has basically turned it into an advertising medium. This is because the commercial sector is, at its foundation, driven by the profit motive. Radio has given us more and more choices over the years, while actually providing less content. Stevenson makes this point clearly in advising caution with respect to what the future of the Internet will be.

"The commercialization of the Internet is not in and of itself bad; what is problematic is the possibility that commercial interests will come to dominate the Internet in such a way that there are fewer meaningful choices. The choice is not simply in terms of individual programs or in types of programming, but also in methods of ownership, decision-making and financing."

Surman's presentation was a bit more caustic, emphasizing by the analysis of the early years of cable TV, that with any new communications technology, users should:

"Beware of self-styled, wired revolutionaries bearing gifts. You probably know who I'm talking about. If you don't, you'll know them when you see them. They'll be carrying all sorts of shiny parcels with words like democracy, plenitude, equity, and knowledge emblazoned across the wrapping in big, fluorescent orange letters...Unfortunately, this warm, fuzzy special-moment-in-history feeling is in many ways the tip of a big pile of collective self-delusion."

Why? According to Surman, it is because we get too caught up in the hardware itself, forgetting about the fact that it is people who own and use technology. Different people have different political and economic interests. No hardware, no matter how "shiny" is going to change that.

Cable TV began in the 1960's with much of the promise for democracy and equity that radio did in the 1920's. Like radio, it was touted as a democratizing, two-way communications medium. In the 1990's, it has ended up just as radio has, with more capacity used to provide less content. The details are different, but the story has ended up just about the same. As Surman puts it, "Great hopes for a new society slowly shrivel away into just another medium defined by big corporate or government interests."

Both Stevenson and Surman suggest the same remedy to help the Internet avoid the fate of radio and cable TV. It has to do with people, not hardware. The people who have created and used the Internet must lobby and advocate for it to remain the democratizing and communicating tool that it is. Stevenson points to the example of the Canadian Radio League in the 1930's, which helped to keep a segment of Canadian radio in "the public interest." Surman quotes Mitch Kapor to make the point that "the openness (in all senses) of the Internet reflects...the sensibilities and values of its architects. Had the Internet somehow been developed outside the world of research and education, it's less likely to have had such an open architecture."

According to Surman, "Politics is a pain in the butt." But it is crucial to the future direction of the Internet. If our love affair with technology continues, we just might miss the development that cable companies, telecoms, and large software companies are beginning to try to set infrastructure standards for the Internet. We might miss the fact that the commercial sector is pushing very hard to find an Internet model that "pays." We might miss the government attempting to control the content of the medium. Miss these things, and we could end up with the radio or cable TV of the 2000s.

Full text of both papers can be found at the Internet Society Web site:


Make sure to connect to the papers from the ISOC home page, as the URLs of individual papers may change. Papers can be found under track E2: Learning from Other Technologies. In addition, nearly 150 other papers from the INET proceedings can be found at the site.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

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