Is the internet elitist?

Rant by Matthew Arnison
January 1999

I got so pissed just now. I was reading this book, by Jock Given, the head honcho of this mob called the Communications Law Centre. It's called ominously The Death of Broadcasting? and the subtitle is Media's Digital Future. Most of it seems to be about digital radio and telly, which are kind of side shows to the main event if you ask me.

But, you know, I thought it might be interesting to learn about the issues in digital telly - there might be something in it behind the hype.

Well if there is, this guy isn't going to help me find it. He's gasbagging on about what fancy new things digital broadcasting is going to give us consumers. One of them, apparently, is interactivity.

The Internet is a highly interactive medium, but so are existing talk-back radio services interactive.

I'm flabbergasted! How can someone, in a book about Media's Digital Future put talkback radio and the internet in the same sentence like that! Talkback radio involves two people filtering calls from hundreds of people, then talking over the top of anyone who doesn't fit the narrow agendas of the producers. This one point of view then goes out to a hundred thousand or even millions of listeners. What has that got to do with the net, which is two-way and editor free from the ground up?

Well there's is some nice writing in this book. Nicely quoted bits and pieces from the global scene as huge corporations and increasingly dwarfed governments tussle over digital broadcasting. Jock seems to be making a couple of points:

Stomp, stamp, stomp! What elitist glasses is this guy reading his websites with?

Elitist? I get asked sometimes, "isn't the internet elitist? It's only accessible if you've got a computer and you know how to use it." Well, yes, I agree, the net is elitist. For now. But telly is way more elitist. And the elitism is built into the technology.

My city has four million people living in it, and probably one telly for almost every person. Very nice, no class divisions there, everyone can get their TV fix. Aha, but how many transmitters are there? Six. Six transmitters for four million people. Most of those four million people wouldn't know anyone who produces television. Much less know anyone who had the power to control what went on air on those six transmitters. It's a numbers game, they probably never will get any closer. Even with cable and digital TV, the onwership of the media is still so concentrated that it's a very elite group of people that are making the media that provides the shared experience for so many.

Looking at it this way, the internet is already much less elitist than TV. Sure, maybe only half a million people have convenient internet access out of those four million, but of those half a million online, there are lots of people who have direct access to the thousands of internet servers that must be running in this city. Thousands of independent info transmitters compared to just six? Just four years after the net went public, when TV's been around for fifty? Who's looking elitist now?

And as far as computers being inaccessible, we just have to look to telly to dump that myth. Within 5 years of television broadcasting starting here in Australia (1956), 80 percent of homes had one - and they cost the modern equivalent of $4000 and didn't even have colour! People must have really wanted them gadets. The reason I reckon there has been slow takeup of pootas in the home until now is that a lot of people couldn't see much use for them. You could fiddle with them, get work done, or play video games. Not that many ordinary people are going to be into that stuff at home.

But the net means pootas have come into their own as communciations tools for talking to other human beings. Suddenly people want the box, because they can see useful stuff that it can do. It can help them communicate, electronically, with words, pictures and sound. It lets them be creative, in ways that television helped us forget.

Isn't it a little condescending to assume that four million people have only six different interests at any one time? And that so few of them are interested or able to tell electronic stories to groups of people? Is Funniest Home Videos the best we can do?

Television is all about elitism. We know what you want. We are the only ones smart enough to be able to tell entertaining stories. You will watch our biased version of the news. You're going to spend a quarter of the time watching ads for stuff you never even considered wanting.

But also television has provided defining moments for national culture. What's bogus is to assume that more distributed technology - the net - is not possible of drawing vast communities together at times or celebration or crisis. Or indeed that television can't continue in that role while the real business of electronic communiction gets done on more suitable technology.

At heart, the net is a community media. Its veins pump with social connections. The geeks who built it designed it that way. The foundations have been built so well, that elitist media ventures in digital waters are regularly running on the rocks, as the net's immune system kicks in and dumps any attempts to corral creativity behind corporate walls.

People seem to think that because television has been around for as long as most of us have been alive, then it must be here forever. That because it now plays such a crucial role in modern power and socity, that it always will. The truth is, that it's only been around for fifty years, it's done great stuff, but it's also helped cement some really dodgy things - alienation, depression, lack of community, obsession with consumption.

People are more than just consumers damnit! We are creative! Centralised creativity is going down. Microsoft is the first ship to start sinking. Their failure to corrupt the net means others will soon follow. (Luckily the old media haven't fully cottoned on that Microsoft has been fighting a losing battle on their behalf.) The record companies are panicking, trying whatever they can think of to ward off the evil MPEG3, which lets ordinary folks swap CD quality music in net-size chunks. This breaks a decades old stranglehold on who can make music that anyone outside their garage gets to hear.

The TV networks may be next. They're so caught up in the switch to digital TV, but why would anyone toss out their old TV for a new digital TV, when the money could be spent on a two-way net link?

Check out a net cafe near you: whenever I do, I see most pootas are busy with web email. People chatting and creating. Not passively alienated, surfing some web brochure. If they were going to do that, they might as well stay home and watch TV!