SOLOMON: The Malling Of Cyberspace
Are you ready for the Internet Shopping Network?Ready or not, here it comes. The guy who pioneered home shopping channels on television, Barry Diller, is now blazing trails into cyberspace.Despite the stock market's current jitters about such ventures, Diller plans to go forward next year with an initial public offering for the Internet Shopping Network. It's part of his effort to become "electronic-commerce czar," according to The Wall Street Journal -- which reports that Diller "is once again demonstrating his ability to position himself at the cusp of the business world's next big thing."Strip-malling the Internet is quite a concept.Not long ago, we kept hearing about "the information superhighway." But these days, that sounds almost quaint. Images linking the vast Internet to exploration and discovery now take a back seat to media preoccupations with the wonders of marketing and buying, cyber-style.The emergence of the Internet Shopping Network is a symbol of how coolly calculating heads are prevailing over gushy platitudes about democratic discourse in cyberspace.More than ever, a visit to the opening screens of America Online or CompuServe indicates just how tightly the biggest on- line services are interwoven with the nation's largest TV networks, weekly magazines, daily papers, wire services and the like. The medium of the Internet is new, but its main "content providers" are mostly providing the same old content.Meanwhile, as traditional media outlets supply endless hype for some aspects of the World Wide Web, the touted heroes are often entrepreneurs who combine high-tech computer advances with shrewd marketing strategies. Implicit in such coverage is the assumption that colonizing the New World of cyberspace -- with corporate enthusiasm that echoes notions of Manifest Destiny -- is logical, creative and laudable.There is a case to be made for allowing commercial interests to dominate the Internet. It's similar to cases that were made for commercializing other technologies at pivotal stages of media development -- radio in the early 1930s, broadcast television at mid-century and cable TV in the 1970s.At all those historic junctures, lofty rhetoric has been expended to justify the prerogatives of capital. But in each instance, the underlying quest can be summed up in two words: maximize profits.Spin the radio dial, or click through the channels of a TV set, and you may -- or may not -- appreciate what reliance on the "free market" has produced. Overall, the airwaves and cable byways have been ravaged by unflagging zeal to shoot the bottom line through the roof.The Internet is apt to seem very different. Unlimited and decentralized, it's far more participatory than radio and television. Cyberspace has much lower barriers for people with something to say.Freedom of speech is one thing, however, and freedom to be widely heard is another. You can put up a Web site. But if you want to reach a mass audience, you'll need either a lot of money or promotional backing from some entity with a lot of money. The exceptions are rare counterpoints to the dominant rule.As an emerging lord of cyberspace, Barry Diller is a perfect example of grim synergy. He now runs USA Networks Inc., which produces "The Jerry Springer Show" as part of its array of TV output. Diller has the resources to launch his Internet Shopping Network into the media heavens."Television programming and direct selling are related," Diller explains, "and our bet is that they will become more related."Conveniently, media magnates tend to have plenty of influential pals and business partners. For instance, Diller doesn't worry about any tough-minded scrutiny of the Internet Shopping Network by the country's largest-circulation magazine of media criticism -- Brill's Content, the ballyhooed monthly that began publication last summer. Diller is one of the magazine's four owners.None of this means that we should be discouraged from doing all we can to use the Internet for independent purposes. Many individuals and groups around the world are doing just that. But let's get the cyber-stars out of our eyes.Technologies don't create vibrant public debate or democratize societies. People do -- or at least they can try.