Questioning Technology: 'Push' Comes to Shove

The two browser kings -- Microsoft and Netscape -- are pushing hard to become commercial broadcasters. America Online is not far behind. The only remaining question is whether these companies succeed in turning the nation's computer desktops into online shopping malls.The technology in question is called "push." The idea is that Internet content is automatically broadcast to our computer desktops rather than our seeking it out and manually retrieving it. You might have guessed that most of this "pushed" content is an attempt to sell us something.Push goes under different names. On the new Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, Microsoft calls its groupings of media companies Active Channels. Netscape's push component is called Netcaster. AOL is mixing commercials and information lite in what it calls Channels.I've been informally surveying friends and associates about their opinions on push technology and have yet to find one who likes it or even finds it vaguely useful. The most common complaint is that push content overwhelms the desktop with a steady stream of meaningless drivel. Even some who are opening promoting the technology tell me they don't personally use it.The success or failure of push technology will influence what kind of Internet we create for ourselves. Are we going to allow cyberspace to become an extension of the immersive consumer marketing culture that now fills every nook and cranny of our daily existence? Or, will we insist on a place we can go to seek diverse information without a bombardment of in-your-face advertising? The choice is ours.Even in its earliest implementation, most push content is overly generic -- a short hand version of the standard news and information fare repeated on hundreds of media outlets everyday. Personalization is supposed to deliver content customized to the interests of the individual user, but in my experience very little of this content is truly new or unique. The reason for this is apparent. The few large media organizations that provide content to television and newspapers are spinning off the same information to the Internet.Much of this attempt to organize the Internet into demographically-tailored, television-like "channels" comes from the belief of many media executives that cyberspace must be tightly organized if it is ever to become a dominant component of daily life for a mass audience. This philosophy helps explain the significant effort now underway to shape the Internet as an extension of today's commercial broadcast media.Each time I hear these executives speak of trying to tame the Internet, I think of Peter Sellars, the distinguished director of theatre, opera and film who offered some thoughts on the information glut several years ago at a symposium at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sellars' words came before most of us had even heard of push technology.Hundreds of years ago, Sellars said, people in search of knowledge went on personal pilgrimages for information. The process, he said, could take years. By not having the information easily available, there was experience attached to the search that made the finding of the information far more meaningful to the recipient."The actual act of finding something had value," he said. "It was a beautiful thing because when you found something it meant something."Now we are getting all this information with no experience attached to it," Sellars continued. "Where there is no pilgrimage the information itself is debased, devalued and dehumanized. In a sense, the ratio of experience to information content is radically altered today. What's irritating about the age of information is that it creates this yuppie denial of experience. We have everything at our fingertips but we don't value anything."Contrary to mainstream thinking, Sellars embraced the "untamed quality" of the Internet structure because it allows the user to wander and discover information through his or her own personal experience. "To just meander is one of the pleasures of life," Sellars said. "To have the user making wrong turns through the information is exactly the point. That's where the juice is."Today's commercial mass media, said Sellars, reflects only a single voice, not the broad range of human experience. "You get the feeling that huge parts of human experience are going undocumented and unrecognized. A very narrow group of people are creating this insane (communications) gridlock," he said. "We are aware there are many, many voices that we don't hear today at all. The CBS Evening News represents only one voice."The creators of the next generation of media, he said, "must break out of the official information structure" to find new ways to express important subjects that mainstream media refuses to address."Aristotle wrote about the attempts to touch the totality of an experience," said Sellars. "As human beings, we are complex, divided and multilayered. Therefore, what satisfies us is complex, multilayered and has all these built-in conflicts just as we do. How do we set up (new media) structures that show how we really feel?"(Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer. Visit his web site at: http://www.beacham.com. Mail: 163 Amsterdam Ave. #361, New York, NY 10023. Email: frank@beacham.com )

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