Questioning Technology: AT&T and the WebBoy

If you believe the recent headlines, access to the Internet is about to get much easier and cheaper. At first glance, corporate America's grand promise to liberate the Net from its high-tech mantle appears to be a victory for ordinary people. However, as with most new technology, there's a hidden agenda that obscures the true cost of the deal.AT&T, MCI and others want to make Internet access as simple and cheap as standard phone service. Computer and consumer electronics companies like Oracle, Apple/Bandai and Sega Enterprises want to create cheap "network computers" that allow Internet access without the high cost of a fully-equipped personal computer. Both goals are being widely celebrated as needed breakthroughs to make the Internet accessible to a wider spectrum of the population.However, if one combines the effect of the two developments a subtle change occurs: The Internet shifts from being a participatory medium that serves the interest of the public to being a broadcast medium where corporations deliver consumer-oriented information and interactivity is reduced to little more than sales transactions and email. AT&T says as many as 80 million of its long distance customers can now get five hours of Net access for "free" over the next year. The telecom giant also claims that it will make it easier to go online and eliminate the annoying technical glitches that currently plague the Internet experience. But, what does AT&T get in return for holding our hand and leading us into the chaotic and often anarchic world of the Internet?Our loyalty and our trust, they hope, followed by our money. Since most of AT&T's new customers are novices to the Internet, they will also be highly susceptible to the company's "suggestions" as to what makes up the Internet experience."The Internet can be a daunting place for people who suddenly arrive there," said Tom Evslin, vice president of AT&T WorldNet Service. "To just dump new users on the Internet is about as friendly as taking them out of town and dropping them into Times Square and asking them to find their way around."For this reason, AT&T says, it is moving beyond providing just technical services to offering "edited navigation, directories and customer care to make it easy to use the Internet." This includes a directory of more than 80,000 Internet sites which includes ratings, reviews and descriptions. It also includes an Internet "Exploration Station" that provides a series of theme areas for family entertainment and education.Of course, AT&T's corporate guidance is not motivated by the public interest and it would be naive to assume the corporate giant will direct any Internet user to a location that might criticize or reflect negatively on its corporate interests. No critical analysis of communications policy or the Telecommunications Act here!"Advertising revenue streams are part of our business plan," said Evslin, clearly acknowledging AT&T's commercial mindset. "If you think of us as being the front door to the Internet then there's the opportunity for advertisers. It's not very glamorous but think of us as a billboard in a subway station."The other side of this coin is a new stripped down Internet access appliance that's been dubbed the "network computer." Since it's essentially a dumb terminal with little memory and no hard drive, this device depends on the Internet for its operating software.Priced at under $500 and jokingly called "WebBoy," the network computer does little more than allow its user to browse the Internet and do simple transactions, such as purchase consumer goods, play games and use email.Add AT&T's advertising approach together with the cheap WebBoy appliance and what do you get? How about the functional equivalent of interactive commercial television. Good old advertising-based, consumer-oriented mass media just like we have today, plain and simple.Under the AT&T/WebBoy scenario, the vision of a truly democratic, participatory interactive media gives way to no more than crass commercialism. Internet users are simply reduced to "consumers" whose very reason for existence is to continue a relentless cycle of buying and expending goods and services.Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch and AT&T's offer to its customers should be viewed as such. The WebBoy, on the other hand, is essentially a receiver -- a cheap radio, so to speak -- that all but removes the most powerful feature the Internet offers: that is the ability to communicate and express ideas with others anywhere on the planet. Rather than blindly celebrate corporate efforts to open the Internet to more users, we should closely examine the real implications that this twist of the technology might take. There's much more here than meets the eye.

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