Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom

Digital Media and the Internet


And to some extent we need to impose control to preserve the democracy that might otherwise become polluted if left to its own defenses. Here enters American politics. Is government obsolete in cyberspace? No, not entirely, but the possibilities of centralized control are drastically diminished. What will happen to monopolies? Will, or, can the market throw them off? As yet, no definitive answers to these questions exist.

The overwhelming ethos of the Internet is, theoretically speaking, libertarian. We cannot jump to conclusion that government is or will be --- or even should be --- uninvolved. Some radical libertarians such as George Gilder demand that "an information superhighway cannot be built under a canopy of federal tariffs, price controls, [public policy] mandates, and allocated markets" ("Is Government Obsolete?" 88). Some less optimistic --- and, I would argue, more realistic --- critics say "The bigger and more unpredictable the industrial tiger, the more cautious Washington ought to be in poking it with the stick of national policy" (Kline 90).

On the one hand, the free market has shown itself to be the most effective force in society for creating new wealth and spreading that wealth relatively broadly among the population. Governments may pontificate about desirable social goals, but business has a much better track record in turning innovative technology such as communications network into a material force that transforms millions of lives for the better. On the other hand, while tomorrow's decentralized, networked economy offers great potential for letting the creative forces of the market tackle some of the social tasks previously managed by government, historical experience suggests that society's best interests (i.e. anti-monopolist legislation, environmental issues, etc... ) will probably still require governmental intervention---even if it is vastly downsized. "The law of supply and demand has never by itself prevented businesses from skunking the consumer...." (Kline 92).

Newt Gingrich, the most digital-minded politician out there, perhaps, and his advisors Alvin and Heidi Toffler are, of course, leaning toward the libertarian approach. Says Newt's spokesperson (from his 'think tank') "He believes in a strong culture underlying the free market. But he does not believe it is the government's job, beyond the most basic levels of right and wrong, to be the moral policeman." Gary Chapman, in his article in FEED online magazine, "The Exxon Divide," discusses the divisive effect the Internet has had on right-wing solidarity. To another ilk of right-wingers swayed by radically distorted media sensations, "the Internet has become the world's filthiest pipeline of hard-core pornography and pedophilic seduction." The extent to which the Government assumes control in censoring information on the Net is a much disputed topic. I shall examine the recently enacted telecommunications bill as a reflection of where we stand today in terms of governmental control of commerce and free speech in cyberspace.

On February 8, 1996 President Bill Clinton claimed that with a strokes of his pens "our laws will catch up with the future." In the immutable fountain -pen ink used by our forefathers, and in the colorless blood of our future (bits of light as ephemeral as they are duplicable widely distributable, issued forth from an electronic pen), he signed into both reality and virtual reality a telecommunications bill which has been bouncing around congress for years and has undergone radical revisions. As a result---even taking the modifications into account---corporate moguls are toasting him with the finest crystal, and cyberrights activists are shaking their fists.

Basically this bill means that our government is investing a whole lot of faith in the free market, and not so much in free speech. The media industry is now substantially deregulated and plutocratic America will---if only temporarily---reach vertiginous heights. In a newly expanded, free-for-all market, the country's biggest telephone and media companies are scrambling to merge together and dip into each other's markets. Cable companies, for instance, are thrilled about infiltrating the local phone business. They are now allowed to provide on-line access which means expanding the capacity of bandwidth about five hundred percent. But, in the absence of anti-trust legislation, the mighty monopolies will increase their purview. Within moments of the bill's passage, chatter abounded regarding a potential merger between NYNEX and Bell Atlantic and an alliance between the long-hostile giants AT&T and MCI. The NYNEX/Bell merger could mean that the consolidated powers will control phone lines from Virginia clear up to Maine. As reporter John Keller explains in a recent Wall Street Journal article, AT&T and MCI claim that their alliance may lead to an unprecedentedly extensive network of phone lines which "could be used by any company providing local service... [MCI executive Gerald Taylor says] 'The opportunity here is to have a carrier's carrier... that other carriers could buy from.'"

In the best of all worlds, these monopolistic mergers will eventually lead to greater competition among a larger number of small business---and, we hope, decreased prices and far wider choice for the average consumer. But as far as I can tell, the executives of these gargantuan companies are only securing their positions at the tippy-top of the socio-political hierarchy---perched as if Greek gods in Olympus, fiddling at will with their small-company-pawns on the chess board of international economics.

However, in his February 8 article, "Communications Bill Signed and Battles Begin Anew," Edmund Andrews admitted that "even some consumer activists who had warned that the new law would raise prices for consumers and lead to a new era of media conglomerates said the final bill had been moderated by pressures from Mr. Gore and Senate Democrats and might actually be good for ordinary people."

What concerns just about everybody in the community of cyberspace is a provision that makes it a crime to publish "indecent" or "patently offensive" material anywhere on the Internet in reach of children younger than 18. The "indecent" material refers specifically to pornography, bad language,' and information about abortion (the Justice Department, however, assured that the latter was unconstitutional and would never be enforced). Violators face a $250,000 fine and a two-year prison term. These provisions, to be sure, are already facing lawsuits from such organizations as The American Civil Liberties Union. The bill also requires television-makers to build into their sets devices called V chips that will allow parents to keep violent and sexually oriented programs out of their children's reach. This, too, faces a court fight.

Netizens expressed their defiance not through riots but through written ranting and blackened screens. Within minutes of the law's signing, the backgrounds of Internet home pages started turning black through the efforts of this newly minted breed of digital-age dissenters. We can bet that a strong fight in support of the First and Fourth Amendment rights in cyberspace will continue as long as censoring persists.

But according to Michael Joyce, the free flow of information cannot truly exists. Refer to the interview included in the Appendix for the details of his argument. The hope lies in hypertext, although it's having a real time of it gaining on the obstinate heels of print technology. In a FEED article, "Written on the Web," Carolyn Guyer, a writer of hypertext fiction since the late 80s, discusses the hypertextual format of the web:

Our postmodern era is particularly concerned with multiplicity, with equalized and decentralized authority, which is actually reflected in the decentralized structure of the Web itself. Yet in reading through many of the requirements people have for inclusion on literature and hypertext lists, or for participation in collaborative web projects, I found that there is much retrograde insistence on author-provided continuity of narrative , and little insistence given to reader-provided coherence. In truth, the urgency for print-style continuity belies every web traveler's experience in this environment, and reveals the widespread cultural assumption that voice and individuality are had through the control of other voices. Of course that doesn't even touch on what constitutes narrative or story...Collaborative fictions generally deserve much more attention and effort, and though so far I've only seen a little here I really like, web hypertext may be where that can finally happen.

Reading and writing these works might even be perceived as similar to the experience of web travel: the propensity to move, make a line, fill in a gap, gather myriad views which we blend to a tensional event held by its own momentum. Hypertext proceeds from the notion that style and function, form and content, are intertwined, and the processes of reading and analysis become simultaneous. But mainstream visionaries such as Bill Gates (a corporate mogul in this case) see the linear narrative as indefatigable and cannot conceive of hypertext supplanting the traditional story-line. The following is an excerpt from Gates' best-selling book, The Road Ahead:

Among all the types of paper documents, narrative fiction is one of the few that will not benefit from electronic organization. Almost every reference book has an index, but novels don't because there is no need to be able to look something up in a novel. Novels are linear. Likewise, we'll continue to watch most movies from start to finish. This isn't a technological judgment---it's an artistic one: Their linearity is intrinsic to the storytelling process.

The success of CD-ROM games has encouraged authors to begin to create interactive novels and movies in which they introduce the characters and the general outline of the plot, then the reader/player makes decisions that change the outcome of the story. No one suggests that every book or movies should allow the reader or viewer to influence its outcome. A good story that makes you just want to sit there for a few hours and enjoy it is wonderful entertainment. I don't want to choose an ending for The Great Gatsby or "La Dolce Vita." F. Scott Fitzgerald and Frederico Fellini have done that for me (excerpted in Newsweek 64).

But in order for the message of the hypertext medium to reach its full volubility, the artistic world ---including, and especially literature --- must not remain impervious to the hypertextual format.

If print produced the linear, rational man , what is the fate of hypertext man? The mosaical arrangement of the medium itself, and the process of revealing information profoundly shapes our ways of thinking and feeling. The Internet links millions of people in new spaces that are challenging the way we think and the way we form our communities. Does this mean we are moving from a modernist culture of calculation to a postmodernist culture of simulation. "Computer screens are the new location for our fantasies, both erotic and intellectual. We are using life on computer screens to become comfortable with new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, sexuality, politics, and identity" (Turkle 149).

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