Questioning Technology: Net Perception

Perception is everything. Two people can stand side by side viewing a beautiful redwood forest. One experiences the sheer beauty of the natural setting; the other can see nothing but the business opportunities of harvesting the valuable lumber.Lately, I've been drawn into several unwanted discussions about the perceived fall of the Internet. In every case, the instigator of the conversation is disturbed that all the hype of the past couple of years has led to very little real profit for the businesses that have poured millions of dollars into Net-based ventures. Doing business on the Internet, these entrepreneurs suggest, is not what it was cracked up to be. For this reason alone, they think the Internet could turn into a big time failure.Such talk gets me excited. Sometimes I'm given hope that maybe, just maybe, the good guys have a chance of winning this one after all. With any luck most of these big companies will loose their shirts on the Internet and abandon it, allowing the Net to return to its roots as a mostly non-commercial communications medium for people to exchange information. It's probably just a pipe dream, but maybe the Internet could actually become an oasis -- a sort of cyber retreat -- from the tentacles of big business propaganda that engulf every aspect of our lives today.I get a kick out of watching the reaction of the businessmen when I politely suggest that their failure might be what actually SAVES the Internet. They scowl and sputter, caught off guard by the sheer outrageousness of such a statement. Because they only know how to think in terms of monetary profit and loss, they cannot envision an Internet without the domination of commerce. A communications system to service the interests of people -- without profit -- is a concept they simply cannot fathom.Yet, for all the bluster and PR hype, the money men are afraid. Very afraid. Most of their graphics-bloated million dollar web sites have bombed. Their idea of content -- inane self-serving corporate propaganda -- has inspired big yawns from Net surfers. For the most part, it ain't selling.The rapidly multiplying "news" sites on the World Wide Web reflect a dulling sameness, making it clearer and clearer that the real unfiltered news of the world lurks beyond the traditional news organizations. Yet old media flails in the darkness desperately trying to control new media, whatever that may be.A good example is MSNBC, the new cable news network and web site owned by Microsoft Corp. and General Electric's NBC television network. Anchorman Tom Brokaw summed up the institutional mentality of MSNBC when he told Charlie Rose: "I...believe strongly that the Internet works best when there are gatekeepers. When there are people making determinations and judgments about what information is relevant, and factual and useful. Otherwise, it's like going to the rain forest and just seeing a green maze, you don't what it means. We can tell you what plant is there, what tree is there, what bird that is and why it's important and how they relate to each other."Sorry, Tom. The Internet doesn't need a "gatekeeper." Especially not the likes of Microsoft and General Electric. The whole idea here is to do away with the gatekeepers. It's the corporate gatekeepers who have reduced television, the most powerful communications medium in the world, to a cesspool of commercial babble. What's needed is a free, bold and democratic medium, a medium where diverse voices can be heard without filters, not milquetoast pundits appointed for their ability to safely limit the debate to an increasingly straight and narrow path.For the moment, the Internet's own stubborn technical limitations are holding corporate dominance in check. Big media needs big bandwidth to deliver its sugar-coated color graphics and video images. Today's Internet swallows such digital window dressing very slowly, frustrating those who want the instant gratification of real-time interactive Net TV.For those of us who perceive the Internet as something more than an interactive advertising and shopping medium, slow is good. Bandwidth is the enemy. Every time the business pages publish reports of corporate disillusionment with the Net or that the Net is in eminent danger of collapse, this is good news (for those want to save the forest).The longer the Internet remains slow, the better the chance that the corporate owners will become frustrated and move on to higher bandwidth proprietary entertainment networks. If that happens -- and it's only a long shot scenario at best -- the Internet could become what it ought to be: a truly democratic, interactive communications medium for people (not corporations.)

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