Super Highway to the Same Old Spot?


| May/June 2001 Issue


Five years into the Internet revolution, which promised to overthrow the media establishment, Dissent magazine declares victory for the corporate status quo. AlterNet news service and our own Webmaster Leif Utne say the fight has just begun.
Four years ago, when I began interviewing workers in New York's Internet industry, I was struck by an irony: Even though their employers and clients were some of the largest media and technology conglomerates in the world, these people saw themselves as part of the "freest medium around," taking part in a technological revolution in which "interactivity" would unleash a democratic spirit and crumble ignorance and tyranny. This was before the new economy really took off (and well before the recent crashes) when New York's hip young Internet pioneers were hungry idealists.

Perhaps because nobody made much money back in those days, industry gatherings featured conversations quoting cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Marshall McLuhan rather than stock prices. The air was full of talk about worker-owned startups changing the rules of the economy and the new information era setting us all free.

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Those charmingly quixotic visions of electronic utopia were based on the idea that mouse clicks somehow differ from remote control clicks. Passively receiving information was looked on as so 20th Century, just like television. In the idealized universe of cyberspace, users—not professional media hacks—were going to build the Internet out of their own passions.

This communitarian image of the Internet was so prevalent in the Web's early days that a venture capitalist like Esther Dyson could rave about the "powerful enabling technology fostering the development of communities."

Unfortunately, this free medium turned out to be quite expensive. Perhaps it was true for a while that anybody could just "throw something up" on the Web and people all over the world would read it, but now the Internet seems to be increasing corporate consolidation in the media.

This news may run counter to the euphoria about Internet-organized protests, progressive Web sites, and nonprofit uses of Internet publishing, but it's getting harder to dispute. The merger of old and new media symbolized in the America Online (AOL)–

Time Warner deal seems a better barometer for the future of the Web than activ-ists plotting the Seattle WTO protests online. As Nation columnist and prominent progressive commentator Eric Alterman wrote in IntellectualCapital

.com, a for-profit online bipartisan policy journal: "The great and painful irony of the explosion of new media during the past decade is that while it has falsely appeared to democratize media, it has actually cemented the power of the nine or so conglomerates that control most of the communications world. Given the price of both Internet technology and the ‘content,' these new technologies can be leveraged only through enormous economies of scale."