Rave On: Whither the Web?

The world-wide-web has been touted as the best thing since sliced bread-maybe even better. A coalition of politicians, the owners of computer and software companies, and what has come to be known as the "communications industry" (is there a pattern here?), actively champions the connection of every school, library, business and eventually individual to this "exciting new technology."

In the early days (way back in the middle 1980's) the web was a loose and unpredictable accumulation of computer nodes, mostly at the headquarters of computer companies, at scientific and government installations, and at technically enabled educational institutions. It was a treasure-trove of obscure information, mostly populated by serious researchers and computer geeks. There wasn't much popular culture, but there was an incredible amount of technical information. Much of it was useless, except to hard scientists. It was displayed only in text format, and if there were illustrations to be transmitted, they had to be sent in code as text and then interpreted by separate graphics-reading utilities.

It was transmitted at speeds as low as 300bps, but the information was so basic that even at those speeds it downloaded faster than most people can read. The potential, though, was clear. If highly technical (even if useless to most people) information could be accessed instantly by the ream by anyone who learned the rather arcane system then in place, then it stood to reason that all the information in the world could eventually become available to anyone who wanted to take the time to find it.

This was the vision of the anarchistic, free-speech forum that the web was supposed to become. Widely-separated individuals would be able to share information, everyone would have access to the facts, and the truth would out. That was the prediction in some quarters.

Obviously, such a situation could not be allowed to develop. A government that actively withholds thousands of documents - millions of pages - of taxpayer-financed reports on the activities of government from the very people who financed the reports and paid for the activities in the first place - the people "by, for and of" whom the government is supposed to be - has certainly demonstrated that it believes the nation is best served by keeping the governed in the dark - sometimes for decades! The idea of public access to important information must have been a chilling thought indeed.

But while the bureaucrats worried, the ever-prolific springs of capitalist enterprise were creating a solution. What my friend Steve Fowle calls "dis-infotainment," a thrill-a-minute synthesis of distorted factiods presented in a format that gives the audience the sensation of having understood something without the hard work of having to think, was created by advertising agencies in the middle of the century. Working with the same principles so successfully employed by Joseph Goebbels in Germany in the 1930's, advertising psychologists had learned that, in the words of the popular phrase, " if you can't convince them with brilliance, you can always baffle them with bullshit."

Just as the image of the little B's beating the little A's into the bloodstream had created an imaginary "scientific" basis for unprovable nonsense, so dangerous truths could be subverted by colorful, animated, cheerily-scored half-truths and outright lies. This tendency was foreseen by H.G. Welles in his seminal books Animal Farm and 1984which, if inaccurate in certain specific details, still clearly foresaw the methods an emerging ruling-class would use to confuse and paralyze the critical faculties of the masses, making them easy to manipulate.

Those who seek to keep the populace ignorant and malleable today - from corporate advertisers to governments - have become masters of the techniques he described, and they have applied them here. If damaging facts and important discourse can't be proscribed on the web, well then, they can be buried in a churn of entertainment moments, propaganda, white noise and annoying trivia.

In a sense, that is what the current system of public education in the US is all about. It is not about education - helping people to learn - it is about (to paraphrase Jerry Farber ) "giving people enough education so that they can be victimized by advertising, but not enough so that they can make intelligent analytical judgments." It also serves the purposes on the web - teaching children enough about computers so that they can access the web with its current load of dis-infotainment and advertising, but not enough so that they can make a useful tool out of it.

So where is the web going? With the current "debate" (actually a media propaganda campaign) about issues of privacy and security, the stage is being set for the "privatization" of the web - which will largely mean putting the control of the web into hands that are not subject to even the minimal oversight our current system allows. Private corporations (of course the largest will be the most powerful) will dictate standards for connection - eventually driving out small, independent operators in the name of "efficiency," "decency," or any other excuse they can find.

I am not saying that there are no issues of privacy and security (as well as content) on the web. But the government/corporate response frames the debate in a particular way that supports the policies they already want to implement. Centralized control over content; allowing the powerful access to private information, while denying access to the powerless; criminalizing the aggressive search for information; permitting the uncontrolled proliferation of advertising on an ever narrower band-width; promoting the "recreational" (read "dis-infotainment") use of the web; these are all part of the agenda.

The promise of free, uncensored, instantaneous world-wide communication is greatly at risk. In China they are simply criminalizing use of the web per se, except for carefully reviewed use by authorized individuals. In the US, new wars - "The War On Smut," "The War On The Invasion Of Privacy," and probably a whole slew of other imaginary conflicts, will be used to justify government control of the flow of information on the web.

Meanwhile, the other prong of the attack, the clogging of the "Information Superhighway" with excessive traffic, the closer scrutiny and regulation of "off and on ramps," and the increasing obstruction of the scenery by commercial "billboards" and informational "fast food joints" (with content that has the intellectual equivalent of the nutritional value of fries, burgers and milkshakes), will continue unabated.

While we still have some liberty here, we need to fight for the freedom of the web. We need to oppose regulation. We need to study the dangers and excesses and use reasonable means to avoid or confront them, without being stampeded into sacrificing our civil liberties in the name of "security." We need to oppose the transfer of control over the web into private hands, and insist that our government take responsibility for its free and democratic operation as the international forum for the free exchange of ideas and information it can become.

Today, the web is still ours. International public opinion opposes America's plans for increased control and domination. Many web-users feel the same way. If we want it, we have to use it and work for it, to insist that our legislators take a responsible position, to oppose reactionary propaganda, to make web-policy an issue at every political level, from school-boards on up.

In the immortal words of Denis Miller, "But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong."

Am I? Why? What's yours?