The Civil Internet


The real problem with the Internet, at least according to some people, is that it's not enough like…public television. To change that, Lawrence K. Grossman, who used to run PBS, and Newton Minow, a former Federal Communications Commission chief, have joined forces with an organization called the Digital Promise Project.

They'd like to create a Digital Opportunity Investment Trust, a.k.a DO IT. Such a trust would disburse $18 billion in public funds -- skimmed from auctions of the publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum -- to support worthy civic uses of the Internet.

As things stand now, Grossman and Minow suggest, digital technologies, including the billions of existing Internet pages, represent a real disappointment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Grossman believes that "the potential exists to use these technologies in ways we can't imagine now."

Grossman even has a preliminary vision of what would be waiting in a worthwhile, publicly funded cyberspace. "You could have a virtual solar system, a 3-D model of a human body or a re-creation of Mark Twain's America," he says.

But if Grossman is going to spend public money, he'd better not evoke such Mark Twain classics as "The Damned Human Race," or his series of letters from Satan to the archangels, or anything Twain wrote about the Bible. That might infuriate moral conservatives. And Grossman had better forget about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too, if he wants to keep the P.C. left off his neck.

In fact, we can imagine the uses of digital technologies according to the Grossman-Minow vision. The nation already has a well-established model for publicly underwritten culture. It is not more daring, adventurous, or creative than the marketplace variety. Instead, bureaucrats spend public money to support cultural projects that are safe and don't offend anybody. That is certainly the model to which PBS itself adheres. It long ago dropped free-form experimental programs in favor of a middlebrow schedule that resembles the old networks circa 1960, when Newton Minow himself dismissed television as a "vast wasteland."