all agreed that there is too much information
on the World Wide Web, which, as the Web grows,
makes it increasingly difficult for the average
person to find what he or she is looking for. As
V. Lenin asked, "What is to be done?"
couple of years ago, newspapers and magazines were
touting "push" technologies as a solution to this
problem. Sign up for the service, tell us what your
interests are, and we will send only the information
you want directly to your desktop. Of course, some
advertising will have to be attached, but the service
has to be funded somehow, right?
as they say, stayed away in droves, and, a year
after its big introduction, push was all but dead
in the water. One obvious reason is the contradiction
between offering people easy access to information
they want, but attaching it to advertising they
don't necessarily want. (How could nobody in the
industry see that one?!) Another reason offered
for the death of push technologies is that the culture
of the Web is such that people are used to going
out and getting information ("pulling" it to them);
having information sent to them at somebody else's
convenience felt too much like television.
life and death of push would probably be no more
than a blip on the public consciousness (like Beta
VCRs) if it weren't for the fact that it points
out a fundamental disconnection between the corporations
which are developing new digital technologies and
the people who actually use them. This disconnection
is symptomatic of an inherent contradiction in the
techno-utopian vision of the future.
know the techno-utopian vision. On one hand, access
to digital information technologies will democratize...well,
pretty much everything. It's great for individual
citizens. On the other hand, it is driven by hyper-capitalism;
many of the most vocal techno-utopians are free
market libertarians. Techno-utopianism - it's been
in all of the papers (mostly in the business section).
It's got its own popular house organ (Wired
magazine, which, not surprisingly, was a major pusher
of push). Hell, even Time has written about
it, which, as the saying goes, means it's at least
10 years out of date.
the failure of push technologies suggests, the interests
of the major corporations (seven transnational entertainment
conglomerates, if Herman and McChesney's The
Global Media is to be believed) are not congruent
with that of individual computer users. Sometimes,
the needs of the corporations will coincide with
the needs of individuals; at other times, though,
the needs of these two distinct groups will conflict.
contradiction has been obscured by a myopic vision
of what individual computer users want from digital
communications networks. The major corporations
consider individuals solely as consumers of information.
In this scenario, whatever improvements they can
make in delivering precisely targeted information
will benefit consumers as well as the corporations'
bottom line. Voila: everybody wins.
I argue in my Ph.D. dissertation, however, the main
advantage of the Web is not that it distributes
information more efficiently (if the complaints
are to be believed, it doesn't), but that it gives
individuals access to a medium which allows them
to distribute their own information. Think about
this for a moment. Still cameras have been in individual
hands since the 1960s. Video cameras have been available
on a widespread basis since the 1980s. Anybody can
pick up a pen and write on a piece of paper. Why
aren't we all publicly acknowledged artists? Because
the channels of distribution are limited and closely
guarded by a relatively small number of gatekeepers.
least, that was the situation until the World Wide
Web gave individuals a medium with huge bandwidth
which allowed them to bypass traditional distribution
is the true democratizing potential of the Web:
individual citizens communicating with each other.
The traditional outlets are scared that this will
undermine their very profitable domination of the
media. They should be. When everybody from David
Bowie and Public Enemy to Joe's Garage Band put
their music on the Web; when everybody from Spike
Lee to various independent filmmakers put video
on the Web; when anybody and everybody seems to
be putting their text-based stories on the Web,
the importance of music, film and publishing companies
appears to be seriously threatened. Thus, the contradiction
in the techno-utopian rhetoric between individual
empowerment and free markets should become clear.
technology was a relatively benign first move in
this conflict, since it didn't preclude Web users
from putting up their own pages. Other technologies
being developed are less so. The set-top boxes of
WebTV, for instance, may enhance some television
viewing experiences with limited interactivity,
but at the cost of limiting the amount of the Web
available and making it impossible for users to
create and upload Web pages. Asymmetrical distribution
systems such as used by digital cable and satellite
(high bandwidth into the home, low bandwidth out)
are clearly intended to keep users as information
consumers rather than consumer/producers.
example of push offers the hope that, when large
numbers of people recognize that a new technology
is not in their best interests, they will reject
it. In the next few years, a dizzying array of new
technologies will be introduced into the marketplace.
They will be sold under the banner of user convenience,
which is sometimes true, but more often is an insidious
mask hiding corporate interests. When, in the future,
you encounter a new technology, ask yourself: "Does
this allow me to do what I want to more easily,
or am I giving up some of my autonomy (that is,
ability to determine how one lives one's life) for
somebody else's benefit?"
honestly and choose accordingly.
© 2000 Ira Nayman All Rights Reserved
Nayman is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Program
in Communications at McGill University. He is also
the author of a dozen screenplays and many original
television series. He hopes to be teaching next
September, and to have some of his work produced.
All serious offers will be considered.