A global market
The free flow of information was a promised and promoted doctrine, incorporated into the creation of a global network. The developed Internet allowed participants to provide and consume information in a two-way flow of personal and political global interaction. Langham (1996: 54) suggests the convergence of computers, cable and telephony allows ‘access to, and manipulation of, a bounty of information and informational products. ‘ It is ‘… only one amongst many loosely linked networks capable of sending information and moving images across the world’.
(McQueen, 1998: 218). The Internet has been viewed as a ‘free-space’ unfettered by moral codes, promoted as an information provider and as a new means of accessing information. Eric Hirsch argues personal computers, the Internet, and the ‘Information Superhighway’ offers novel possibilities for the domestic sphere, perceived as challenging our conventional patterns of domestic consumption centred on broadcast television. Marris and Thornham (2002: 839) view the Net as an ‘anarchic, self-organising, system into which its users fuse. ‘ ‘…
The Internet is not a monolithic or placeless ‘cyberspace’; rather, it is numerous technologies, used by diverse people, in diverse real-world locations. ‘ (Miller and Slater, 2000: 1) Shields (1996: 1) believe Internet has become the ‘preferred venue for
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‘The Net offers a cheap and universal means through which people can share information, contribute to political discussion and interact with individuals, groups and institutions on a local, national and international level. ‘(McCullagh, 2002: 110) Many theorists suggest it provides democracy of access and the democratising of content, creating a more open public sphere of informed population, contributing to political and social life. Langham (1996: 56) believes ‘cost will force people to accept ‘information packages’ provided by information suppliers’; suggesting cost would determine access.
… Information now free may cost in the future… the Internet itself may be replaced by more organised services offered by Microsoft and its competitors. (Branston and Stafford, 1999: 201) Branston and Stafford (1999: 198) express their concern that current access protocols and the ‘culture’ of the Internet may favour some users rather than others and question who will benefit from the information. Price (1995: 223) states ‘The more complex the technological environment, the more opportunities to tailor messages, to move among media…
‘ Although we are ‘great consumers of technology’, we are anxious about technologies’ capacity to consume us. (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992: 2) Microsoft, owned Bill Gates, already owns the computer language that dominates worldwide computer use, and is seeking to gain monopoly control over access to the Internet. Technological developments… are largely controlled by powerful oligopolies, which are likely to make bigger profits if they can sell us packaged services, rather than grant us the access to use the new technologies as we wish…
The ‘digital domain’ will increasingly become a site of struggle over the future of personal access and use of media technology. (Branston and Stafford, 1999: 204) The huge capacity of information may result in the adjustment of information to personal needs with an emphasis on individuals “creating”, exploring and constructing what they need or want. McQuail (1997: 39) agrees ‘… individuals can be connected with each other actively exchanging, sharing and interacting in a communication relationship. ‘ People who have the most need of functional information…
are those most frequently denied access’ (Sussman, 1997: xii) ‘Participatory democracy requires a citizenry that is both informed and has a continuing opportunity to be heard in the market-place of ideas’. (Melody in Ferguson, 1990: 18) Computer-networked communications are dominated by profit-seeking business organisations. ‘The Internet seems to have given rise to a new kind of community formation based on shared interests among otherwise anonymous interlocutors. ‘ (Rheingold, 1994). ‘Registration has the potential for making private audiences and private exchange into publicly accessible data. ‘ (McQuail, 1997: 40).
Interactivity is ‘the quality of electronically mediated communications characterised by increased control over the communication process by both sender and receiver’. (Neuman, 1991: 104) which ‘denotes more self-control, choice, involvement, a richer experience, resistance to influence. ‘ (McQuail, 1997: 144) Peter Golding is sceptical about outcomes such as ‘… increasing democracy, empowering citizens through accessible information and educational materials, improving communication, being achieved as large-scale private interests dominate the Net, bringing advertising, e-commerce and commodified entertainment services.
Chitty (1999) provides a similar argument, ‘The Wild Web is being tamed by the webward expansion of commerce, through the kind of content structuration used in the larger media marketplace. ‘ Many believe freedom will fall a victim of technological absurdity as the period of choice and convergence brings ‘Privatised choice’. The concept of freedom was a further promise and premise. Miller and Slater (2000: 16) argue ‘The Internet has both produced new freedoms and come to stand as a symbol of potential freedoms. ‘
The Net offers the capacity for citizens to talk directly to other citizens without a media or state gatekeeper. McCullagh (2002: 117) questions whether there is evidence that the Net is more open and democratic than conventional media. While no censor to restrict available information, ‘there is no mechanism to guarantee the accuracy and completeness of that information’. (McCullagh, 2002: 119). One may question the reliability and trustworthiness of such information. According to Kramarae (1998: 110) quoted in McCullagh (2002: 120) the difficulty of sorting out ‘real from unreal, authenticated from rumoured’.
‘… The anarchic phenomenon of the Internet did not at first prove amenable to commercial exploitation by established media corporations. ‘ (Wise, 2000: 126). ‘As the Internet grows almost exponentially, a fully commercial set of backbone systems has been constructed in place of the developed by the government. Discouragements surrounding the Net include the ‘clutter and absurdity of most information… ‘ (Winston, 1998: 335 quoted in McCullagh, 2002: 114) and the lack of any control over access leads to personal attacks and insults, known as ‘flaming’.
Schiller (1983) acknowledges stratification in society, which he calls ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’. On the one hand, the Net, which appears free of commercial interference and beyond political control, provides a means of constructing a genuinely participative democracy. On the other hand, however, some believe the Net is being captured by dominant commercial interests and turned into a technology for the generation of profit. The Net is caught between two models for future development, one controlled by large organisations and on the ability to pay, the other, more open, democratic and participative.
(Mosco, 2000) quoted in McCullagh (2002: 123). The government have facilitated the ‘increasing promotion as a channel for advertising, development as a platform for e-shopping and attempts to capitalise on its potential as a means to deliver home entertainment’, impeding its full commercialisation. (McCullagh, 2002: 123). This would suggest a dominant commerciality with the Net. It is the conflict of interests between business and the state, rather than between commercial and public uses of the Net, that may determine its future direction’. (McCullagh, 2002: 123).
Nicholas Negroponte and Alvin Toffler believe that digital media technologies will ‘spell the demise of the large monopolistic mass-media corporations’. (Wise, 2000: 115) Information and communications technology can change the balance of power between holders of information… The wider availability… can potentially allow an individual to make more informed choices either as a voter or as a consumer. (Dean in Wise, 2000: 143-144). Many question who should control information or whether a gatekeeper is required at all. Certainly, with the Internet, one could suggest that due to the commercial interests, some form of regulation is needed.
According to Steven Miller, ‘privacy is the power of information self-determination’. It can be argued that commercialisation will result in organisational control and with the lack of government regulation, will regulate in their interest. This would restrict the quality and quantity of information available and reducing the value of the notion of a new public sphere. ‘A viable democracy depends upon minimal social inequality and a sense that an individual’s welfare is determined by in large part by the welfare of the general community.
(McChesney in Herman and Swiss, 2000: 33) Transnational corporations constitute the driving force for the creation of a global marketplace, for a deregulated world arena, and for global production sites selected for profitability and convenience… central considerations behind the National Information Infrastructure’ (Schiller in Brook and Boal, 1995: 20) A privately owned and managed information superhighway will be turned towards the interests and needs of the most advantaged sectors of the society.
‘The notion of a ‘new world’ awaiting new-age exploration is a dominant metaphor among Net enthusiasts and commercial enterprises alike… The attraction seems to be that the Net offers us psychological space which… seems in the real world to be more and more restricted’. (Watson, 1998: 262). The future of the Internet and democracy is still unclear, however, the economic market and financial drive looks to steer the communications medium further down the road of commercialisation.
It may be that on the one extreme, government continue to restrict from applying legislation to regulate information with large organisations initiating control of such material. The other extreme would illustrate a scenario where the government enforce regulation on all mass media, including the Internet, to hinder the possibility of another medium that is completely dominated by moneymaking schemes. As the development of the Net continues as looks set to saturate, the future of a tool for democracy looks increasingly doubtful.