"How the threat of terrorism and crime in Cyberspace is actually the US Government's new bogeyman aimed at replacing the obsolete concept of "scarcity" of broadcasting bandwidth in telecommunications."
THE OBLITERATION OF "SCARCITY"
Since the early to middle part of this century, when the last great "land rush" over AM and FM radio and VHF television frequencies took place, the Federal Communications Commission has made ownership of broadcasting stations an extremely difficult proposition. Aside from the high costs of licensing fees, tariffs, and regulations, one of the things that makes broadcasting stations expensive to begin with is the fact that the radio and television frequency spectrums (also known as "bandwidth") are physically limited in the amount of individual stations that they can carry--a finite expanse of "slots on the dial" or channels to turn to.
For the FCC, this made their jobs a lot easier. Monitoring illegal, unlicensed broadcasting was limited to the same amount of bandwidth across the country. Regional agents of the FCC had their work neatly cut out for them. While the tools of amateur radio (ham, citizen's band and even illegal, pirate radio delivered over the FM and AM spectrum) have been relatively easy to access for the enthusiast in recent history, television cameras, editing and broadcasting equipment all remained rather expensive, making them a rather remote option for most people. But ever since the advent of cable television, bulletin boards, and now, of course, the rise of the Internet, the FCC argument of bandwidth "scarcity" has become obsolete. Everything can be made digital, and it can be sent through a variety of channels--not just the limited, precious airwaves any longer. We live in a new world.
Today, we see a new explosion of human interest in autonomous and collaborative methods of expression. The Internet, the world's largest communications network that individuals in developed nations can gain relatively painless access to, has approximately 20 million users. Billions of words and millions of messages traverse it everyday. Seasoned and novice writers are pouring gargantuan amounts of verse, verbiage and information onto the Net. Who knows? Perhaps some of the greatest novels of the future are being written, edited, read and reviewed on the Net as you read this. Maybe these works will be dedicated to bound, paper tomes for distribution to the unconnected masses someday (the masses who currently have neither the access nor patience to endure the eyestrain of current display screen technologies). But the interesting thing is that they will have been published *first* in Cyberspace, and *then* made manifest in the material world of ink on paper.
Meanwhile, video cameras are now a standard consumer item in most developed nations, and while costs go down, quality continues to go up. Limited amounts of low-quality, yet real-time video have already traversed their way across the Internet. It is only a matter of time before video, film, animation and moving images in general will be readily available on the "Infobahn."
The government, as they have stated publicly again and again, will not be building the National Information Infrastructure (or NII) themselves. Since private enterprise *will* be building it, and the government wants to remain a player in the proceedings, they have to have some enforceable means of control.
So, the Feds have rolled out the Clipper chip again. The Bush administration couldn't make this turkey fly, but by golly, the NSA, FBI and the policy wonks of the Clinton Administration are sure going to try. The Clipper chip has been slammed in editorials by almost all the major print news-media, including: _Business Week_, _The New York Times_, _Forbes_, _U.S. News and World Report_, _Time_, and _WIRED_. Polls show a majority of Americans are against Clipper:
"In a Time/CNN poll of 1,000 Americans conducted last week by Yankelovich Partners, two-thirds said it was more important to protect the privacy of phone calls than to preserve the ability of police to conduct wiretaps. When informed about the Clipper Chip, 80% said they opposed it." (Elmer-Dewitt, 1994)
The Feds have also expressed an intention to put this compromised chip, or a cousin to it, called Tessera (which according to a Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) newsletter was a chit that slaves had to carry during the Roman empire) into a wide variety of consumer electronics:
"The Defense Department reportedly plans to employ the Clipper technology in a device known as a 'Tessera Card' in not only phones, but in personal computers, fax machines, set-top boxes for interactive television, and in the PBX switches of local phone companies. We checked the dictionary and found the results to be kind of frightening:
"Tesserea n. Lat. (pl. tessereae). Literally, 'four-cornered.' Used to refer to four-legged tables, chairs, stools, etc. Also, a single piece of mosaic tile; a single piece of a mosaic. _Pol_: An identity chit or marker. Tessereae were forced on conquered peoples and domestic slaves by their Roman occupiers or owners. Slaves or Gauls who refused to accept a tesserea were branded or maimed as a form of identification." (_CPSR_, 1994)
When one really considers the scope of these efforts, it becomes apparent that rather than the stated reasons for government-controlled encryption technology, their hidden agenda is to monitor compromised encryption algorithms in order to keep a leash on the number of voices of dissent in society. And it's not even a case of simple suppression of wild-eyed, quasi-seditious cranks calling for the overthrow of the U.S. Government, because they and their modus operandi are easily understood by the authorities, but rather, the truly iconoclastic voices that walk the margins of contemporary thought regarding "values," "lifestyles," "demographics," and "psychographics." Authors and artists who question the most basic and banal underpinnings of our societal and economic constructs. The day-to-day Western mindset or "operating system" that keeps all the machines running smoothly (or not-so-smoothly) behind the curtain. Visionaries who look for ways to disintermediate hierarchies and channels of distribution and control from information. Call them "strange attractors," free-agents of autonomedia, memetic mavericks, or meta-navigators of alternate (dare we say "better"?) societal operating systems. Providing an ontological detour around the traditional polemic, their arguments frighten "authority" more than any conventional weapon.
STATUS QUO TREY GENERIS
All media is either created and/or controlled by one of three entities: Individuals, Corporations, and Governments.
INDIVIDUAL MEDIA MAKERS
We now enjoy more options for autonomous media expression via electronic telecommunication vehicles than ever before. However, it remains but a fraction of the audience reach that the corporations have. How this will expand is not known. The liberties enjoyed today may not exist tomorrow. Some of the current generation of individual media makers include: public access television, the Internet, BBS's, 'Zines, phone trees, independent newspapers, independent video distribution, flyers, and alternative cinema.
Still out of reach of most individual media creators is the delivery and distribution power of broadcast television. Video "for the masses/by the masses" has not arrived yet. And like it or not, television is still unquestionably the most powerful tool for shaping public opinion and popular consensus in the industrialized world.
MULTINATIONAL CORPORATE MEDIA INDUSTRIES
Big business sees huge profit markets in the Infobahn. They hate excessive regulation, and like to know "who" their competition is, and would really like to control the methods of creation, production, distribution and profit collection of programming. They could well view the future of interactive television as an extension of the models they're familiar with, such as: pay-per-view, video "lifestyle" infotainment, product Infomercials, and tabloid or "reality-based" TV, filled with what _San Francisco Chronicle_ columnist Jon Carroll refers to as "near-life experiences."
The Media Industries include: delivery merchants (or "hose providers"), broadcast television (the "big Four"--ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX), MSO cable operators (TCI, Viacom, etc.), RBOC's (Pacific Bell, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, etc.), long-distance telcos (Sprint, AT&T, MCI, etc.), and to a lesser extent generic online conferencing systems: CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, etc., and the "infotainment" software providers: Time/Warner, Sony/Columbia, Matshushita/MCA, Viacom/Paramount/Blockbuster, QVC/Bell South, Disney, and many others.
GOVERNMENTAL MEDIA GATEKEEPERS
Media gatekeepers have relied on "bandwidth scarcity" to control, or at least keep a long leash on, popular expression via the powerful consensus-shaping tools of broadcast and electronic telecommunications.
The advent of broadband communications networks have exploded the rationale of scarcity. To reassert their "leash," encryption has become the new modus operandi, a potentially chilling federal freon-blast of executive privilege to protect the State and the Union from wild-eyed Hezbolah, Shiites and seventeen-year old hackers with digitized videotape of the next Rodney King or Dolores Huerta police beating.
The government has a keen interest in shaping public opinion, as we witnessed during the Iran/Contra hearings, the conveniently forgotten S&L crisis, and the Persian Gulf war. Happy consumers are also obedient vidiots whose daily consumption must include a steady intake of the six basic television food-groups: sex, violence, religion, politics, sports, and shopping. That's it. Most everything one sees on the tube can be reduced down to carrying the message of one or another of these groups. They are the fuel of television as we know it and will certainly be promoted as the name-brand gas-stations on the impending Infobahn.
LITTLE BROTHER WANTS MORE
The precedents for government spying on dissident and non-conformist groups in this country are numerous and a matter of public record. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) makes for a clear paper-trail of evidence. Clipper will make this even easier. That's why the covert agencies of the Clinton administration are playing such a wicked game of hardball with this subject. The late Ithiel de Sola Pool quotes Alexis de Tocqueville as saying:
"It would seem, that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days...it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them." (Pool, 1983)
When one considers the potential level of surveillance at the disposal of covert federal agencies in this county, via the implantation of security-compromised encryption chips in nearly every telecommunications device in the home or office--it certainly does feel as if our civil rights are either in the process of being, or are planned to be, degraded.
KEEP ON SHOPPING
Messages of religious fanaticism, gratuitous violence, and sex really do not matter to the censors/regulators of the government, as long as the programming encourages passivity and sells products, and as long as the message bearers pay their taxes. Consumer interest in purchasing must be kept high to stimulate the economy. Voices that dissent from the messages of complacent consumption as the ideal lifestyle are not given marketshare and are effectively attenuated. We can see evidence of this in the fact that anti-consumerist television spots created by the Vancouver, British Columbia magazine _Adbusters_ have been refused airtime on several stations in the US and Canada. (_Adbusters_, 1993)
Alan Kay (a distinguished Apple Fellow at Apple Computer) had this to say before Vice-President Gore's InfoHighway Summit at UCLA in January:
"Like the printing press, the new computer media will bring forth its own very special ways to think about complexities we have not been able to deal with up to now--especially for complex chaotic systems such as the AIDS epidemic and the ecological balance of our planet. But much care has to be taken with design and education in order for the change to be positive. We don't have natural defenses against fat, sugar, salt, alcohol, alkaloids or media. Every technology really needs to be shipped with a special manual--not how to use it, but why, when, and for what. Another way to think of road-kill on the information highway will be the billions who will forget there are off-ramps to destinations other than Hollywood, Las Vegas, the local bingo parlor...or shiny beads from a shopping network. Not couch potatoes, but mouse potatoes! It's not the wonderful things they could do with new media, it's what they will be convinced they should do. This is a new tragedy in the making. No democracy can survive that is less than 10% literate in the driving forces of society. Television should be the last mass communications medium to be naively designed and put into the world without a Surgeon General's warning!" (Kay, 1994)
Fortunately, it is true that no one can control what people think or choose to consume, but within the limited menu of formulaic electronic media images that surround us--images that are manipulated and propagated throughout the world by corporations and tacitly condoned by governments--there is a rigid mental itinerary of things for people to think about and choose from. A commodified package of the right pop stars, the right soft drinks, the right products and the right accouterments of status for happiness everlasting.
At the Microsoft-sponsored Intermedia trade-show in San Jose, California on March 3rd of this year, Robert Kavner, executive vice president and CEO, multimedia products and services at AT&T, was quoted as saying that:
"...he [Kavner] believes the industry [meaning the Infobahn] will be driven by two human needs: a sense of community (it's 'in our genetic code') and the need to be stimulated, refreshed, changed by content. He said home shopping answers both these needs." (_Cowles Media Business Daily_, March 1994)
Now, one can infer several things after hearing something like that. That's right, shopping is in our DNA and we've just been in denial that we were, as they say, "Born to Shop." From the Womb to the Tomb, I'll be an interactive hunter-gatherer--just show me to the merchandise on the screen, give me a remote control and I'll stay true to my animal instincts of passive perception and aggressive consumption. Transcendence? Isn't that a new cologne I can buy on the Calvin Klein Channel?
Or, you can look at it as what were up against--an arrogance so deeply entrenched in the mindset of the multinationals that there's really no hope for the planet. Consumerism is no longer mindless, it's just human nature!
Well personally, I have no problem with buying things for my survival and pleasure under the current cash-based civilization called Capitalism. I'm not some naive anti-business or anti-commerce anarchist. I know how the game is played in this society. I am not homeless, but I know what not having money is like. I am not wealthy, but I can appreciate what wealth can do if used wisely. BUT LISTEN TO ME, Mr. AT&T--I do not LIVE to SHOP. It does not build my community of friends and associates to know we all use the same home shopping channel! Even if I used your future network to buy something, it wouldn't be the consummate daily social-event your interactive wet-dream has portrayed it to be. I've really valued the situations in my life where I could trade goods with someone, as opposed to buying. Bob Kavner of AT&T? I've got a word for ya--"Potlatch"--look into it.
I have nothing against businesses using information networks to sell products. But business is not all about an automated act of sellers selling and buyers buying. It's about information and knowledge transfer. It's not the "zipless fuck" of a clean, QVC 1-800-number call, credit-card transaction and overnight delivery. It's about people having real choices from a myriad of different suppliers and retailers. If you have to buy something, it's about having an inventory to look at and compare from, visiting different vendors and asking them questions, and finding the right tool for the job at the right price.
ENTREPRENEURS ON THE INFOBAHN
Statistics point to a return to home/cottage industries via the Net. The recent Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles was a terrible natural disaster, but it was also a watershed event in the history of people getting out of their cars and telecommuting. A new era of entrepreneurial businesses being operated out of the home started in the early '80's with the advent of the fax machine and increased competition between overnight courier services.
Authors Don Peppers and Martha Rogers have written an excellent book that may change the nature of advertising, merchandising, and retailing forever. It's called _One to One Future_. The following excerpt from their book provides some evidence for this shift:
"New college graduates will not be able to find a place from themselves in the bureaucracies [of corporate America] at all. Only small companies create jobs today. And the smaller they are, the more job growth is possible. All these unemployed and yet-to-be-employed knowledge workers are fueling a renaissance of entrepreneurial home businesses. There are already over 20 million income-producing business being run out of homes in this country. By 1995, one household in every four will include some kind of income-producing business." (Peppers & Rogers, 1993)
The natural evolution in this area points to a sharp rise in the number of SOHO's (the acronym for "Small Office/Home Office") that will start to plug into the high-bandwidth Infobahn in the same way that they did with email (which, in addition to faxes and overnight couriers, has given these types of businesses a major boost). This should give tremendous ammunition to the argument for legal encryption for the private sector. Small, digitally-enabled home offices in suburban and rural communities will certainly lobby for secure, private encryption software to protect their transactions from government, especially the IRS. Can you imagine the outcry if the IRS was caught snooping on the digital business transactions of some Midwestern granny's quilting shop on the Infobahn? We might ask, "Where on the Infobahn will be the equivalent of the little companies that populate the classified pages of the _New Yorker_?" Let us hope that the on-ramps for maverick entrepreneurs in distant SOHO's will be many and that they will be secure places to do business.
The Interactive Home Shopping hysteria certainly appears to have been recognized as hype in the minds of the nation's teenagers. In a recent survey that was actually conducted over the television-based _Interactive Network_, teens in four cities--San Francisco, Sacramento, Chicago and Los Angeles--were asked what new or future communications breakthrough was most important to them: "27% said online global communications, while an equal number said video teleconferencing. Other choices: distance learning (22%), interactive TV (13%), movies-on-demand (9%), and home shopping (0%)." (_Cowles Media Business Daily_, March 1994)
You can draw your own conclusions, but I'm sure the results were disheartening to the those conducting the test. So, the kids like email! Surprise, surprise--what do you know, a lot of adults do too. These kids are the "planned consumers" of the panoply of interactive merchandising that everyone's banking on. The generation that will be the "installed user-base" when interactive television finally arrives. What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps shopping, in and of itself, just isn't that *cool*. If you think about it, why do bored suburban kids go to the mall anyway? To buy products they can't afford and don't really need? NO! They go there to hang-out with their friends. And now you can do that online. Only now it's global and you can talk to people who don't care what you look like or dress like or what kind of minivan you drove to the mall in. In extremely small towns where everyone knows everyone, email and online conferencing systems could be viewed as a godsend by young adults. Kids also believe that global online community is going to happen and it's going to affect them. In response to the question: "Will the Information Highway directly affect the way you work and play or is it just a trendy buzzword?," 65% said it will directly affect them, 21% said it will affect "certain people, not me," and 10% said it will not affect them for five to 10 years." (_Cowles Media Business Daily_, March 1994)
A FORK IN THE BITSTREAM
All media have become software in a digital world. What will it be like when one can easily send sizable amounts of any kind of software, be it text, audio, video, or plain-old application code, to almost anyone, anywhere in the world? Perhaps we'd be better off speculating if it will even happen. Universal service to the Infobahn--or as it's also known: "Video Dial-Tone"--could change everything.
A single television network in a central location (i.e.: a CNN, or an ABC) sends off its programming to millions around the world via satellite. That's a "broadcast." It is the embodiment of "one-to-many" communications.
Tens of thousands video entrepreneurs and video hackers create their own programming and send it over the Infobahn to tens of thousands of other interactive viewers. What works today for mass emailings could work tomorrow for video mail, delivering it in video mailboxes the world over. That's a "multicast." It is the essence of "many-to-many" communications.
What happens when this power is unleashed on the world? If the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics can reach tens of millions with a pleasant, entertaining, but essentially empty diversion, what happens when thought-provoking new programming, created outside of the Hollywood/New York mindset, reaches a larger audience? Can a qualitatively superior work, given a massive boost of distribution by the information networks of the future, have a greater effect on a culture than a quantitatively massive yet hollow media spectacle? It depends on if people are listening, but I say yes.
Here are three scenarios for the directions that independent video multicasting may take in the years to come:
1. It's early-1996. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt hands down a ruling that real-time and asynchronous video "multicasting" over the Internet or computer bulletin boards is illegal and must be licensed in the same way television and radio stations are. With new funding and new blood, enforcement is swift and a few celebrated cases (most likely child porno and pirate media channels--the public agrees: "It must be STOPPED!!") make national headlines, sending a chill across every desktop video "culture jammer" in the country. Fees are set at the same exorbitant rate as current radio and TV station licenses. The window closes and home shopping. pay-per-view and Infomercials reign. As the panicked US Marine said in the movie _Aliens_: "Game over, man."
2. It's mid-1997, and the FCC under the Dole administration makes a vain attempt to stem the tide of super PGP-encrypted DIY video multicasters everywhere, then relents under budgetary constraints. Like homesteaders in the squats of Manhattan, they own the place and simply become part of the landscape and marketplace. However, the economies-of-scale place the independents far behind the Time/Warners, Viacom/Paramounts and Sony/Columbias in gathering content and distribution. America is used to paying $47.50 for their coaxial/fiber optic drug per month and has a hard time locating these upstart video hackers on any of the 70 remote control buttons in their tensed-up mitts.
3. It's mid-1998 and the Infobahn is a traffic-jam of noise. But in a good way. The world-wide recession is finally over. Thousands of small businesses are now on the Net, and they're generating a phenomenal amount of electronic commerce; quite often doing it more effectively than large corporations. Sociologically, the Net has opened the minds of hundreds of thousands of Americans to the realization that the world does NOT revolve around them. Net-exchange programs create international bonds between previous strangers. Literacy-rates slowly start to inch up in countries with Net access. Video multicasting? The FCC never even tried to stop it, realizing that previous stringent licensing of station owners for broadcast was an unspoken relic of Cold War thinking. Markets for niche programming develop here and there, becoming subject to an evolution of content never imagined. Tastes and trends mutate as younger audiences coalesce in pockets around whatever the "flavor of the month" is. Older audiences watch what they always watched, only now they can see it whenever they want. Not much has changed as far a viewing habits. Only there are many more choices than before.
Which one, if any, of these scenarios will come to pass--I have no idea. But I certainly hope it is something akin to "C"--the last one, because while I am extremely pessimistic that technology can reverse the trends toward corporate and governmental control, I also feel very strongly that it can--and that it is our best shot. Like it or not, we have arrived in an era where you either make your own media reality, or have it done for you.
THE POST-INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION WILL BE MULTICAST
Where are the visionary voices of Cyberspace? Can we work to make it the kind of place that one would be compelled to visit, not a virtual "Mall of the Americas?" Or shall we just sit on our asses and watch it go completely homogenized and "lite," the way of Wonder Bread and Velveeta cheese? Like the observation of an African-American man overheard commenting about the WELL online service a few years back: "The WELL? That's what hip White folks are into these days."
I want to kick-start the "Intellectual Greenbelt" (Liebhold, 1992) of the Infobahn into high gear. I want to visualize a friendly neighborhood, not a ghetto. I want to visualize a campus of learning and exchange of ideas--not a strip-mall of fast-food franchises. pay-per-view video huts, theme parks and convenience stores.
The Cyberspace I want to hang out in has City Lights and Cody's Books in the Bay Area, Europa Books in Austin, and Texas and Powell's books in Portland, Oregon--all online.
The Cyberspace I want to hang out in has the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, EZTV and MOCA in Los Angeles, the Whitney in New York, the Museum of Moving Images in London, the Capp St. Project, Theatre Artaud, Galleria de La Raza, and Artist's Television Access in San Francisco--all online.
The Cyberspace I want to hang out in has music samples you can listen to from artists performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Bang on a Can Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Victoriaville festival in Canada, and New Music America--all online.
Of course, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress and the rest of the major institutions are already, or soon will be, online, but I'm really concerned that the critical and cultural voices of our society have to demand a place in Cyberspace or indeed, they will become Infobahn roadkill. It is up to each of us to demand that the Virtual Global Village that we're going to be living part of our lives in provide some vital necessities for our health and mental well-being. Unlike the continental land-masses of the physical world, there is no limit to the amount of virtual real-estate available in Cyberspace.
Vice-President Gore was in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union. Formed in 1865, the ITU is one of, if not the, oldest international telecommunications policy organizations. There, with the FCC commissioner in-tow, he gave a paper to the assembled international delegates that called for a GLOBAL, not a National, Information Infrastructure. (Gore, 1994) You've got to hand it to them, the Bubbas are thinking BIG. I agree with Vice President Gore that improved global networks will be essential, but I strongly disagree with his capitulation to the dark forces behind the Clipper chip. Cyberspace doesn't need to be colonized, organized, franchised, or haunted by moralistic, quasi-totalitarian thought-police. It does, however, need sane, literate people defending the right of open commerce, civil liberties and free speech.
In closing, what I think we should all be asking our elected officials for--and fighting for--is this: Freedom from government regulation or interference in the areas of First Amendment rights, privacy, and secure, anonymous media, business and financial transactions over the Infobahn.
Will Kreth (c) copyright 1994
_Adbusters_. Vancouver, BC: Canada. Vol. 2, No. 4. 1993.
_Cowles Media Business Daily_. America Online. March 1994.
_CPSR_. "CPSR Alert 3.04." Distributed by Dave Banisar <Banisar@washofc.cpsr.org>. Washington, DC. 1994.
Elmer-Dewitt, Philip. 1994. "Who Should Keep the Keys." _TIME_. April 4.
Gore, Al. Speech to the International Telecommunications Union. Buenos Aires, Argentina, (from a White House email press release, via the EFF). March 21, 1994.
Kay, Alan. "Four Images For The Information Superhighway Summit." January 11, 1994.
Liebhold, Michael. Speech to the Seybold Digital World conference, Beverly Hills, CA. July 1992.
Peppers, Don & Martha Rogers. "The One to One Future." Doubleday/Currency: New York. 1993.
Pool, Ithiel de Sola. "Technologies of Freedom," Belknap/Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 1983.