Tinkers, Tailors, Sellers, Spies

The case for cautious optimism about the Internet.


The Internet is not the first innovation to provoke both fear and ecstasy. Rarely, however, have commentators moved with such ease from one posture to the other. Not since Stalin has a god so frequently failed.

Consider the case of Douglas Rushkoff, the much-cited author of Cyberia and Coercion. In 1994 he opined that, "as computer-networking technology gets into the hands of more cyberians, historical power centers are challenged….The hypnotic spell of years of television and its intense public relations is broken." These days he's somewhat less enthusiastic. "I don't use the web," he told the conspiracy zine Steamshovel Press earlier this year. "I don't like what's there. I know that almost every website you go to is working to push you towards the buy button somewhere. …It's like walking through the mall."

In other words, Rushkoff has shifted from an overstated stance to a blind one. The Web I surf is filled with public diaries, private jokes, amateur movies, home-mixed music, eccentric zines, contentious forums, and other independent efforts. In territories like these, buy buttons are scarce. I quote Rushkoff not because his views are cogent, but because they're common: Where he goes, others are sure to follow. Or rather, given the man's talent for trend chasing: Where he goes, others are sure to have arrived.

Rushkoff's turn as a digital Whittaker Chambers may be genuine, but if so he's a rarity. Scratch a born-again Net skeptic, and chances are you'll find someone who never was that enthusiastic about the online world. More likely, his conversion is a convenient pose, adding the right touch of resigned realism to whatever it is he would have said about the Internet anyway.

For example: "Five years ago, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the emerging World Wide Web," the prominent media critic Norman Solomon wrote in his syndicated column last January. "Talk about the 'information superhighway' evoked images of freewheeling, wide-ranging exploration. The phrase suggested that the Web was primarily a resource for learning and communication. Today, according to the prevalent spin, the Web is best understood as a way to make and spend money." This, he explained, is part of the "steady commercialization of cyberspace." And not just commercialization, but consolidation: "Almost all of the Web's largest-volume sites are now owned by huge conglomerates. Even search-engine results are increasingly skewed, with priority placements greased by behind-the-scenes fees."

So half a decade ago, Solomon must have been agog at the Net's potential, right? Not quite. "It's pleasant to believe that the Internet will provide a free flow of information and opinion," he wrote in 1996. "The rhetoric makes plenty of egalitarian claims—but the emerging reality is something else." And what was that emerging reality? "From radio to television to modem, each new gizmo has arrived with inspiring potential—undermined by extreme disparities in people's access to economic resources and political clout. Now, billionaire Bill Gates and his collaborators are smiling as they pour big investments into the Internet and tie those projects to other mass-media endeavors."

So Solomon never was a Net booster, despite the impression his more recent column gives. Sharp readers could have picked this up from the column itself, with its odd notion that information superhighway was some sort of populist slogan. The highway metaphor was popular in corporate and government circles, but the cyberpunks of the day resented it fiercely. It was a sign, we were told, that the freewheeling days of the Net were over: What once was an organic, grassroots medium was now to be as monotonous as the Interstate.

This complaint, in fact, is one of the most consistent rhetorical themes in the history of the Net. Digital jackboots, statist or corporate, have always been lurking around the corner; the good times have always been almost over. So, for instance, when AOL and CompuServe took off, the cry went up that the days of online freedom were ending; we would soon be purely passive consumers, trapped in tightly controlled corporate environments. Yet AOL and CompuServe did not supplant the larger Net. They found that they had to provide access to it, and in some ways emulate it, or else lose their customers.

In 1995, when the U.S. privatized its portion of the Net backbone, lawyer-pundit Andrew Shapiro warned in The Nation that cyberspace might consequently lose its "vibrant public spaces," the online equivalents of parks and town squares, where "bothersome, in-your-face expression flourishes and is heard." To stave off that prospect, Shapiro called for "Congress and state and local governments to establish forums in cyberspace dedicated explicitly to public discourse." Mixing crises, he added: "More and more, travelers in cyberspace are using commercial on-line services such as America Online and CompuServe, which…have their own codes of decency and monitors who enforce them. Even those who prefer the more anarchic Usenet discussion groups are subject to regulation by self-appointed system operators and moderators." Thus, "We're either paying to publish in mass-circulation periodicals where editors are free to censor us or we're writing pamphlets no one knows about because there's no public space in which to distribute them."

Needless to say, the retreat of the public sector did not erode the public sphere, as anyone who subscribes to an e-mail list can report. Nor have digital pamphleteers been unable to distribute their work to wide audiences. But Shapiro's poor prognostication has not prompted him to revise his views. Indeed, in his bland tome The Control Revolution—a recent paean to "balancing" online options, with the balancing to be done not by individual users but by intellectuals like Shapiro—he trots out the same worries, attached to a different villain: "total filtering," a "new level of personal control over experience" that we might "mishandle" to "our own personal disadvantage." Thus: "What may be most distressing about total filtering, then, is the way it could solidify a trend toward the elimination of spaces where citizens can confront and engage one another." If AOL isn't destroying our public spaces, why, we'll just destroy them ourselves.

I, on the other hand, have revised my views—for I too was once a Net skeptic. In the early '90s, I thought cybertopia was an attractive prospect but a dubious one: While Rushkoff, George Gilder, John Perry Barlow, and others were predicting limitless possibility, I, like Solomon, recalled the similar promises that had initially been attached to radio and to cable TV, and how easily they had been swept aside once the media giants figured out ways the government could regulate the new industry in their favor.

Now I've evolved into an optimist. Each year seems to bring more warnings that cyberspace is selling out, that the disorderly, decentralized, eccentric Net is falling under consolidated corporate control. And each year brings more evidence that, despite the naysayers, the online world is more of a free-for-all than ever before. There are, of course, genuine threats to this happy anarchy, from the feds' wary regulation of private encryption to copyright law's encroachments over speech once protected by the fair use doctrine. But there is a substantial difference between a threat and a defeat. And some alleged threats—like the e-commerce that frightens Rushkoff—aren't actually that threatening at all.

The planet is indeed filled with corporations who'd love to "control" the Internet. That is, there are lots of e-businesses out there that would like to dominate their industry, would like that industry to have a strong online presence, and would like their customers to swallow their prepackaged content rather than navigate the Net on their own. Thus far, most such companies have either failed or been forced to revise their business models, revamping themselves to deal in tools for active customers as well as packages for passive ones. (The best example of this, of course, is AOL.)

Furthermore, Net users have been more than willing to create such tools on their own, before any established company starts providing them—even if that means breaking or bending the law. Witness Napster and its many imitators, which provide online means of exchanging music and other media products without regard for the packaging and the distribution channels set up by the culture industry. (Already, the declinists are scrambling to take these programs into account. "Napster is truly a creature of its electronic moment," one wrote in Inside.com last June. "It may be the last pure Net play—the last time a small bunch of bright, fuzzily idealistic young people was able to blindside an entire industry with a clever new idea.")

There are many species of born-again cyberpessimism, from a puritanical distaste for any sort of e-commerce to a simple predisposition toward gloom. Some of the oldest digerati may also be distressed that cyberspace no longer seems to revolve around them—that many people would rather send e-mail to their grandchildren or download Garth Brooks songs than whisper darkly about smart drugs, spies, and temporary autonomous zones. As anarchy spreads, it starts to lose its romantic edge.

And then there's the mistake made by Solomon and me: the assumption that history was bound to repeat itself. In Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times, historian Robert McChesney falls into this trap, mistaking cyberspace for radio and the end of the century for the end of the 1920s. "In the 1990s a new argument has emerged," he writes, "the effect of which is to suggest that we have no reason to be concerned about concentrated corporate control and hypercommercialization of media. This is the notion that the Internet, or, more broadly, digital communication networks, will set us free. This is hardly an unprecedented argument; every major new electronic media technology this century, from film, AM radio, shortwave radio, and facsimile broadcasting to FM radio, terrestrial television broadcasting, cable TV, and satellite broadcasting, has spawned similar utopian notions."

Not, mind you, that McChesney thinks the Internet is identical to its predecessors. It is, he concedes, "a quite remarkable and complex phenomenon that cannot be categorized by any previous medium's experience." Nonetheless, "The current communication revolution…corresponds most closely to the situation in the 1920s," when there "was little sense of how radio could be made a profitable enterprise and much discussion of how liberating and democratic it could be."

It's no surprise that McChesney would use the early history of broadcasting to decipher the early history of the Net. There are a lot of parallels, and besides, McChesney just happens to have written several articles, his Ph.D. thesis, and his first book (1993's Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy) on the political economy of radio in the '20s and early '30s. But those parallels—and, perhaps, some ideological blinders—have kept McChesney from seeing some important ways the two timelines diverge.

The history of radio begins with the tinkers, some of them extraordinarily young, who made a hobby of building and using transmitters, trading tips and modifying each other's designs. The early amateur radio enthusiasts negotiated complicated covenants to divvy up the airwaves and formed self-regulating bodies to enforce the rules. Some also played hacker-style pranks on commercial and military radiomen, and even the nonpranksters often displayed a healthy disrespect for their purported betters. (Once, Susan Douglas reports in 1987's Inventing American Broadcasting, a naval operator in Boston told a ham operator to "butt out." The amateur replied, "Say, you Navy people think you own the ether. Who ever heard of the Navy anyway? Beat it, you, beat it.")

Business soon discovered that the amateurs knew their craft better than many professionals did, and began hiring accordingly. "Do you suppose I could get a commercial operator to operate a radio telephone set?" wrote Robert Gowen, chief engineer for the De Forest Company, in Radio Broadcast magazine. "I found they knew absolutely nothing about it and in every case I had to get a 'ham,' simply because the former was a man who knew only how to press the key and read code while the latter was a technician who had trained himself in the fundamentals of radio and knew how to analyze the circuit and keep it functioning properly in addition to his knowledge of key pressing. Likewise, every man I had in my laboratory was an amateur, not because I was one but purely because they were the only ones obtainable who could tackle the problems placed before them." In World War I, the military made the same discovery.

Business also absorbed another amateur invention: broadcasting. Amateur broadcast stations were outlawed in 1921, just as commercial stations were starting to appear, but that didn't mean radio was completely commercialized. A wave of nonprofit stations emerged, run by churches, theaters, cabarets, colleges, and other civic and artistic institutions. The commercial stations, meanwhile, ran little that we'd recognize today as ads; you can hear more sales pitches on NPR in 2000 than you would have on a business station in 1925. (Which, incidentally, is where McChesney joins the story—the amateurs don't really figure in either of his books.)

It wasn't market forces that killed off the nonprofit stations. It was government regulation, which deliberately favored one kind of radio over the others. Much of McChesney's first book is dedicated to that story. Much of the rest describes what he calls the "broadcast reform movement," a loose collection of activists who wished the government would regulate the airwaves in the "public interest"—even as the feds were using the same slogan to excuse their interventions on behalf of the commercial networks.

In McChesney's view, cyberspace is now at the same point radio had reached when the broadcast reform movement emerged. The fight now is for civic activists to get the hearing that those reformers didn't get, because "the structural basis of the communication system should be decided after the social aims are determined. The key factor is to exercise public participation before an unplanned commercial system becomes entrenched." (The emphasis is his, but I'm happy to reinforce it.) As an example of such public participation, McChesney cites the path Canada followed as U.S. radio took the commercial road: a three-year "period of active debate" including "public hearings in twenty-five cities in all nine provinces."

But I think something much more interesting than that is happening, something that represents a radical break with the radio timeline. Rather than move toward the political debates of the early '30s—either the relatively open forums held in Canada or the relatively closed ones in the U.S.—we've let the tinkers back in. With the Net, "public participation" hasn't meant debates among politicians charged with representing the public. It has meant actual members of the public carving out space for themselves online, and forging tools to protect that autonomy.

Privacy advocates, for example, worry about government and commercial services tracking Web surfers' buying patterns. But cheap yet powerful encryption—a tool the intelligence community has tried, with relatively little success, to suppress—has dealt a blow to the government spies, while programs like Anonymizer allow the privacy-conscious to explore the Web without being tracked by a database company.

The greatest threat to online liberty right now may be the culture industry's push for more restrictive copyrights, restraining our right to use pieces of pre-existing works in new projects of our own. (See "Copy Catfight," March.) The rise of peer-to-peer file sharing—Napster, Gnutella, and the rest—has put the copyright owners back on the defensive.

And remember Norman Solomon's warning that "search-engine results are increasingly skewed, with priority placements greased by behind-the-scenes fees"? Now upstart programs like Gnutella and FreeNet, with their radically different model for online searches, might render all the AltaVistas and HotBots obsolete, replacing their centralized systems with methods that are both more distributed and more thorough.

Nor must you be a programmer to make a difference: Consumers can still vote with their feet—or, more precisely, with the buttons on their mice. A few years ago, venture capital was pouring into "push" technology, services that would shove selected information (and ads) toward customers rather than letting us "pull" it from the Web ourselves. The media hyped this model as the future of the Internet, and the usual fears were expressed that the Open Net of Old would soon die. Customers, however, rejected the idea in droves, and the highest-profile push company, PointCast, died an unlamented death earlier this year. Part of the problem was bad software (PointCast clogged up the data pipelines), and more limited push services persist. But no one expects them to be anything but a voluntary supplement to the Net.

I've already noted the similar story of how AOL and CompuServe learned to provide access to the rest of the Net or risk losing customers. Much the same has happened within the Web: Almost all of the most useful, and therefore most visited, sites provide lots of links to other parts of the Web. Solomon's claim that the "largest-volume sites are now owned by huge conglomerates" is therefore beside the point.

It's beside the point for a more important reason too: The Web's largest-volume sites still receive only a small fraction of the stops surfers make online. Solomon is discussing the Web as though it were television, with a handful of channels dominating the medium and every smaller player striving for a mass audience. In fact, the Web is a collection of overlapping niches, where the most popular destinations include tools for going elsewhere.

The economics of the Web are such that it's very cheap to start a site but tough to make money with it. The medium is therefore biased toward amateur, noncommercial projects. (The most popular online activity—e-mail—is also the most amateur and open.) Apart from The Wall Street Journal and the larger porn operations, the most successful commercial sites are usually low-budget, small-staff operations without much overhead; they are either independently owned (like WorldNetDaily) or owned by larger companies with enough sense to leave their subsidiaries alone (like Suck). Heavily funded corporate sites generally finish last.

McChesney himself notes that "most of the Internet activities of the traditional media firms have been money losers, and some have been outright disasters." If anything, this understates the case: Most heavily capitalized Internet media projects have been disasters, whether or not they have a traditional media firm behind them.

In July, APB News, a useful site devoted to police reporting, laid off its entire staff—140 people—and turned over operations to a small group of volunteers; it probably would have closed its doors entirely if SafetyTips.com hadn't bought it a month later. Salon, perhaps the best-known webzine, continues to lose money and to lay off workers. Pop.com, a multimillion-dollar entertainment site backed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and other major Hollywood figures, collapsed without putting anything online, except a handful of press releases.

The most thunderous crash so far is that of the Digital Entertainment Network, a heavily hyped webcasting operation. Matt Welch, a survivor of DEN's descent, wrote an engaging and witty memoir of his time there for the Online Journalism Review (ojr.usc.edu). After reading his account of that particularly dysfunctional—and well-funded—corporate hierarchy, you won't just understand why it flopped so spectacularly; you'll wonder why the collapse took as long as it did. "Web sites looking to make real money," Welch concludes, "need to A) be Yahoo, B) sell porn, or (best of all) C) start small, and win a following. There's a dirty little secret about content companies: popular, scaled-down sites like Suck, CapitolHillBlue, and TheSmokingGun all make money, as in that stuff left over after all the bills are paid. Meanwhile, heavily staffed, venture-backed heavyweights like Salon, TheStreet.com, and APBnews are bleeding money like hemophiliacs."

McChesney, starting with the same observation, ends at a radically different conclusion. "But none of the media firms have [sic] lost their resolve to be a factor, even to dominate, cyberspace," he writes. "The media firms have a very long time horizon and very deep pockets. …Indeed, by the end of the 1990s the possibility of new Internet content providers emerging to slay the traditional media appears more farfetched than ever before."

The scaled-down sites that Welch mentions don't factor into McChesney's analysis. Neither do nonprofit, volunteer-run alternative outlets like the Independent Media Center, which neither needs nor tries to make money. But they seem to be getting more out of the big media companies' investments in cyberspace than those companies themselves, playing in the ruins of failed corporate experiments. (Indeed, the Independent Media Center—a loose network of 29 audio/video/text production centers around the world—has grown at a pace that most for-profit Internet enterprises can only envy.)

The best proof that independent media thrive online is the series of stories that have emerged on the Net while the major media initially ignored them. The most obvious is Monicagate, broken by The Drudge Report while Newsweek waffled over whether to publish anything about it. If that doesn't impress the leftist McChesney, perhaps this will: The story of purges and possible corruption within the left-wing Pacifica radio network, for years ignored by most of the ink-and-paper press, was extensively covered and debated online, building a base that made 1999's demonstrations, lawsuits, and other revolts at the Pacifica stations possible. Given that McChesney spends a chapter bemoaning the commercialization of public broadcasting, he should be impressed that the foes of that process have found the Net as congenial a home as the foes of the Clinton administration.

Somewhere between the first draft of this essay and the last, Douglas Rushkoff revised his views yet again. "I have become so anti-corporate," he wrote in the London Guardian last August, "that I do not mind exploiting them as much as they think they are exploiting us. They mean to take as much as they can get from us, so what is so terrible about our taking whatever we can from them? In other words: Why not let big business build our internet?" Corporations are sinking millions into the Net, he notes, yet few have figured out business models that work for them. Meanwhile, "at least some portion of the countless investment dollars…is going towards building the infrastructure itself."

In short, "Thanks to the shortsighted, profit-driven motives of mindless corporations, the internet is cheaper to use, more widely available, and spreading faster than ever before….Let's milk every last drop from the corporate cows before they figure out they've been nourishing an infant who means to swallow them whole." And so Internet apocalypse meets Internet utopia, and the two visions turn out to be not so distant after all.

I'll try to steer clear of Rushkoff-style overstatement—I'm not sure we're about to see cows entering the mouths of babes. But if cyber-utopianism can be silly, cyber-optimism is certainly sensible. The Net is an increasingly open territory, impervious to the carefully drafted plans of governments, service providers, well-funded Web sites, record companies, and both radical and establishment critics. As long as that's true, innovation and self-expression will thrive online.