Canadian Internet Handbook:|
by Carroll, Broadhead,
The Theory of the Virtual Class
by Arthur Kroker, Michael A. Weinstein,
Post Your Opinion
by John Oughton
THESE ARE INDEED STRANGE times. While it is true that wide distribution of personal computers has made some changes in our lives -- helping small businesses and home offices compete with larger organizations, and restructuring the work force - it's equally true that the connection of them in networks is leading to a new, and very different, kind of change. Consider some not entirely random data.
Fact: the software and protocols that allow,the Internet to connect as many as 50 million civilians".. around the world were developed to allow scientists working for the military-industrial complex to share research, and to create endless back-up communication links for computers in the event of a nuclear attack.
Fact: a Japanese teenage pop star named Reiko says that soon she will pursue her career while never leaving her apartment. With a World-Wide-Web site where fans can "visit her" and a living space loaded with technology including a wall painted Chroma-key blue that will allow her image to be superimposed over "sets" from anywhere else, we can all be at home with virtual Reiko.
Fact: During the hard-liner putsch that briefly ousted Gorbachev in the Soviet Union's death throes, the most reliable and timely news came not via the official media, but from Russian Internet users.
Fact: the Usenet section of the Internet, where users create and contribute to special -interest discussion groups, had more than 5,400 groups the last time I checked, ranging from alt.alien-visitors and alt.fan.barry-manilow (seriously!) to rec.arts.poems and soc.women.
Fact: the Internet invades the Ontario legislature's official record when the Conservative leader Mike Harris gets virtual egg on his face arguing that a transparently concocted spoof message purporting to be from Premier Bob Rae is a "serious breach of security."
I suspect that when future historians of the collisions between culture and technology look back at the 1990s, they'll see a time of conflict, not so much over political or economic ideals as over visions of knowledge, entertainment, and reality. In particular, the metaphor of the Information Superhighway will mark a crossroads in their research. Superhighways, after all, serve the manufacturing, resource, and tourism industries by transporting people and products quickly and efficiently. Now that the Internet has made the quantum leap from a computer-geek hobby to a brave new marketing world that big corporations and big governments are scratching and sniffing, its role in the development of the Information Age is up for grabs. Will it continue the direction taken in its infancy -as a chaotic, not-for-profit, user-driven network that allows uniquely interactive communication, where individuals are free both to consume and broadcast information in the communities they choose? Or will "market forces" transform it into a delivery route for mass-media products -- be they CNN newscasts, Hollywood movies, virtual- reality video games, or corporation-friendly music -- in which they dictate and we only pay and play? Today's buzzword is "convergence," as it becomes feasible to send various types of signals through one wire and make a multi-media computer the universal translator for TV programs, CD-Roms, movies, faxes, software, and even phone calls.
In the hot-selling 1995 Canadian Internet Handbook (Prentice Hall, 798 pages, $21.95 paper), Rick Broadhead and Jim Carroll argue that there are really two highways being confused here: the oneway "couch potato" route, which will essentially extend the kind of service we now get from cable TV, and the "cerebral" one, which facilitates Internet-style search, research, response, and creativity. They suggest that business can be part of the Internet through first learning to respect its culture and then by engaging not in "spamming" advertisements (the practice of copying commercial messages to thousands of groups at once) but in subtler marketing, which allows the consumer some choice over seeing the message at all.
Interestingly, that's not the view of the managing editor of Wired, the Bible of the Net Age. John Battelle is quoted in Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein's Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class (New World Perspectives, 165 pages, $14.95 paper) as saying:
People are going to have to realize that the Net is another medium, and it has to be sponsored commercially and it has to play by the rules of the marketplace ... when the Time Warners get on the Net in a hard fashion it's going to be the people who first create the commerce and the environment, like Wired, that will be the market leaders.
It's worth noting that Canada has long been one of the most communications-technology-intensive nations. Not Wayne Gretzky but Brantford's other local boy, Alexander Graham Bell, changed the world -- by inventing the telephone. Canadians have since held international records for per-capita phone use. Marconi sent the first trans- Atlantic radio signal from Newfoundland's Signal Hill. We're one of the most intensively cabled of all TV nations, with around 90 per cent of households connected. And now we have one of the highest concentrations of communication ownership, with Ted Rogers leapfrogging into becoming our unanointed communications czar, holding all or pieces of everything from Unitel and CNCP Communications to the MacleanHunter periodical empire -- and he's eyeing the Internet as a new product to sell through his pipelines. Home-grown "knowledge" corporations such as Gandalf, Mitel, and Corel have been winning and losing fortunes in sync with the IBMs, Apples, and Microsofts. Last year's edition of the Canadian Internet Handbook surprised everyone by surpasing self-help books, celebrity biographies, and diet books on a few non-fiction bestseller lists. As corporations, schools, and government and non-governmental organizations increasingly go on- line, Stentor (representing provincial phone companies) and the cable industry manoeuvre for pipeline rights for the 500-channel, multimedia flood coming soon.
Facts come and (mostly) go in usefulness. More important, of course, is what this cyber- ferment means. Canadians have also been prominent in interpreting the effects of technological change, with early efforts by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Montreal's Arthur Kroker is now bidding to join their pantheon with his defiantly postmodern, phrase-spinning commentary. Wild and woolly as Data Trash may be, it does attempt serious criticism of what Kroker and Weinstein call our "will to virtuality."
The thesis of the book is worth a brief decoding here -- inasmuch as that's possible with a text that runs to sentences like "Virtual positivism for the era of windowed culture: a recursive space of ambivalent signs that slips away into an infinity of mirrored, fractalized elements." We want to become virtual, the authors suggest, which is perhaps not surprising when civil war, drive-by shootings, and plagues like AIDS make "really being there" too dangerous. Hence, entertainment, media, and software/hardware corporations are the new engines of the economy, making virtual reality and computer networks "hot." But in satisfying our "will to virtuality," we join a new class war that transforms the old Marxist opposition of workers vs capitalists into the non-material or "virtual" sphere, in which the "virtual class," exemplified by Microsoft's Bill Gates or the bosses of Wired, make the rules our expanded-into-networks nervous systems will run by, and earn the royalties. Meanwhile, the rest of us become "data trash," our bodies little more than sites of information and desire ready to be uploaded into someone else's data files. By wanting to be "virtualized," we end up just re- commodifying ourselves -- more barcoded bodies washing up on the cybershore, awaiting disposition by firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's a depressing and believable scenario. Historically, each advance in masscommunication technology has attracted big business, which then took over the "major" outlets and rendered all citizen/consumer-originated information marginal. By letting advertisers pay the direct costs of creating and distributing most radio and television programming in North America (rather than levying a tax on consumers that supports non-commercial programming, as in Britain), we end up with content that is repetitive, formuladriven, and all too often aimed at the lowest common denominators of taste and intelligence. If the same thing happens to the Internet, we'll inherit not the much-hyped "transformation of global consciousness" that seers predict, but rather the multimedia equivalent of "Geraldo," "Wheel of Fortune," and "Married with Children." It's really up to cyber-citizens now to heed the timely warning of the Time Warners. Either we seize control from the burgeoning virtual class, and let all those who can afford a cheap computer and modem become their own stars, publishers, reporters, and critics on a free-access cerebral network; or just lie back and run our direct-payment cards through slots wired to the bank balances of high-tech business interests, who think the best use of chips is munching them along the couch-potato tollway.