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The Dream Machine --- The Imagination of the World Wide Web
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We took a couple of weeks vacation...not because we are tired of writing this column...but because having held our breath like everyone else, waiting to see what would transpire on Y2K Day, when nothing whatsoever happened, we didn't have a thing to write about!
However, the recent announcement that AOL was about to acquire Time-Warner got our creative juices flowing once again.
First of all, the fact that a New Economy firm...AOL...was acquiring an Old Economy entity validated, in one more way, the notion that the world is being fundamentally altered by the existence of the Internet. The fact that AOL is doing the whole deal with a stock swap, makes the acquisition even more wondrous. For, despite the fact that AOL is one of a small percentage of Internet based firms that is actually making a profit, its stock is still mostly "paper" in that its Wall Street valuation far exceeds normal methods of calculating "worth" of corporations.
The traditional media have concentrated on the "fit" of this merger. Offline firms, like Time-Warner, are currently scrambling to erect a Web presence. The is partly just to be seen as "cool," but also reflects the growing awareness that the Internet is definitely the wave of the future. Online firms, like AOL, have awakened to the need for "content" to continue to draw surfers back to their sites again and again. This all adds up, according to CNN...which, by the way, is owned by Time-Warner...to making this merger a marriage made in heaven.
We personally have our doubts. Despite the explosive growth of the Internet, which promises to continue unabated for at least another decade, it is our opinion that nobody...not AOL, not Yahoo!, not Microsoft, not ANYBODY...has cracked the Internet "nut" yet. Each new "sure thing" strategy that has arisen, whether it be banner ads (yawn) or search engine placement (sort of a slow-motion video game), has moved from "latest and greatest" to the dustbin in record time. Nobody "gets it" yet, including, of course, yours truly.
Remember, it took television from the late forties to the sixties to come into its own. And it wasn't the marvelous Network programming that marked its maturation, but the coverage of a "little" war in Southeast Asia. That latter turned TV from an visually annotated version of radio, into a transformer of people's hearts and minds. Radio had gone through a similar metamorphosis in the early part of the twentieth century, culminating in the enormously effective political speechifying over the airwaves of the likes of Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill and F.D.R..
The Net simply hasn't had its epiphany yet. When it does, all the aforementioned "super" Internet firms might become history in just an historical eyeblink. What's going to do it? Wish we knew. However, we predict that it will occur, once again, in the area of world politics. Maybe the Libertarian Party, which has been enjoying great success utilizing the Net of late, will make the breakthrough. Maybe the entertainer politicians...like Jesse and Pat and Donald and, hopefully, Oprah...will be the catalyst. Most likely, though, it will be something nobody has even heard of...yet.
But, suppose we are wrong. Suppose that the new AOL-Time-Warner conglomerate will succeed in its efforts to dominate the Net. Libertarians everywhere ought to be celebrating this possibility, right? Here we have a free market creature...albeit a GIGANTIC representative...betting close to TWO HUNDRED BILLION dollars of its stockholders' money, that somehow...and SOON...this gigantic corporate organism will rule the Internet world. You can confidently wager that other Biggies will soon get into the game as well, betting THEIR stockholders' money on the same horse race. Competition will be intense and we, the purchasing public, will be the winners in the end...a veritable libertarian wet dream!
Or will we?
One little item which is being neglected in the rush toward mega-market paradise is our old friend, freedom of speech. In their zeal to push "free market" control rather than government "interference," U.S. libertarians often forget that one of the core legitimate functions of government is the preservation of fundamental human rights. Yes, governments often do it badly...as in the apparent inability of the U.S. government to treat homosexuality or drug use as "none of its business" while at the same time using a little Cuban child as a political pawn in its sick persecution of a defeated regime...Fidel Castro's tiny island dictatorship.
But, nevertheless, as we have often stated on these pages, if our government, with the first amendment to our constitution as a bright beacon, will not or can not protect our basic right to say any damned thing we wish...who will?
Other governments? Not bloody likely!
Well then, how about a "free enterprise" solution? Won't competition for eyeballs lead AOL-Time-Warner and whatever other giganto-corporations emerge to insure the freedom of expression we libertarians cherish?
Let's examine the record. Radio and television, under the guidance of these same champions of freedom, remain heavily censored and controlled, despite decades of experience. A broadcast personality can still be fired, fined and ostracized for uttering the word "fuck" over the airwaves, despite the fact that almost every child over the age of four in this country both knows what this word means and USES IT...at least when their parents aren't around (See: Bruce looks at the 'F' word.). Controversial political opinions are routinely eighty-sixed from radio and TV programming, while "payola," the placement of both political and commercial messages for pay, continues unabated.
How can this be?
It's quite simple really. Still, it is amazing how many people overlook the fact that the first amendment of our constitution applies ONLY to the GOVERNMENT. Until recently (historically), it didn't even apply to state and local governments, but only to Congress. However, it definitely does NOT apply to individuals and corporations. Furthermore, it is perfectly clear that if this mandate were not enshrined in our constitution, our government would abandon it in a hot second. It is always politically expedient to advocate the muzzling of one's political opponents. After all, it is their ideas...expressed in speech...that are the real "enemy" of resident politicos in a democracy. And the public, lacking the ability to simply "throw the bums out" with force, must instead rely upon reason and argument to do the trick.
Corporations, especially the giants, have even less incentive to allow uncensored speech into their business dealings. So they restrict it. Worse, they boil down their content to appeal to the greatest number, represented by the least common denominator. In a word, "drivel." Once in a blue moon, driven by changes that have already widely occurred in the society they serve, they pander to a minority in hopes of growing to be the "next big thing"...as with "daring" TV like Ally McBeal, or controversial talk show hosts like Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh or shock-jocks like Howard Stern.
It has often been alleged...by us as well as by numerous others...that the Internet will cure all that. It is further stated that the mere existence of people like us will keep the Internet "free," whatever the wishes of the Chinese or Iraqi leadership, much less corporate cowards. But, the agglomeration of gigantic corporate entities gives us pause. AOL has already shown that it will succumb to whatever pressure moves the masses at the moment. You don't like spam? No problemo. AOL will protect you by blocking it. Don't like porn? AOL will gladly oblige you by keeping it out of your computer. Or, at least they will give the appearance of trying.
Meanwhile...the legend goes...the existence of independent entrepreneurs like us will keep the Big Boys from completely suppressing whatever it is we are peddling...blunt, obnoxious political prose or dogs having sex with large breasted women. So far, we see that this has worked and worked wonderfully. Despite attacks against our ISP (for our alleged "indiscriminate" spamming) and patchy blockades around the country by the Black Hole Assholes (see: The Thought Gestapo Is At It Again!), we remain "on the air."
But what happens if AOL-Time-Warner-and-whoever-they-gobble-up-next gets effective control of Internet hosting for the entire world? Then, their current rather feeble (and deceptive) attempts at censorship can really get effective. When they expand into China and the rest of Asia...and they will...there is no doubt in our minds that they will accede to just about any demands the resident countries impose. Hey, it's only good business, right?
So, we are going to make a daring...for libertarians...proposal.
We still don't have a hell of a lot of faith in government. But, we have even less faith that "free enterprise" will actively protect ANYTHING that threatens profit margins, much less speech. So we re-emphasize: one of the most important legitimate functions of government is to protect basic human rights; speech is perhaps THE most basic of those rights; ergo, get OUR government actively involved RIGHT NOW in protecting it on the Internet.
Talk to you later...
...the best independent ISP in the Twin Cities