One need not spend much time watching or reading the news these days to find discussions regarding the unsustainablility and seeming collapse of traditional economic models of news production and dissemination — every major print, radio or television outlet has, with varying degrees of reflection and superficiality, addressed the subject many times. The premise, one can surmise, of most of these discussions is that we have all been benefited greatly and unambiguously by the models that existed throughout the 20th century in Western countries — government subsidized, commercial and corporate institutions that were able to research, investigate and produce vital news and debate and disseminate it for public consumption largely through advertising revenue.
Tune into the BBC, NPR, or pick up a copy of Wired, and you will find, on the one hand, this era described in golden nostalgic tones, and the figure of the down-trodden, old-school “pen and paper” journalist warning us all against the looming “chaos”, “wild west” and “free-for-all” of a predominantly internet-based news model. On the other hand, you will find the gleeful optimist describing the potential advantages to news and media organizations if they can only catch up to the times and develop ways to profit from the overall greater interest and potential value of such a voracious audience as the billion-strong internet citizenry. You will hear concepts proposed such as the hybrid free/paid service, where a certain amount of content is provided free, but the rest is available only for subscription; or the forced advertising that has already gained traction on commercial sites, whereby the user must first view a video or advertisement before being led to the content they are searching for. At the fringe, you may even encounter “radical new theories” such as the “attention economy” — wherein you, the consumer, are trading your attention for information.
There is a parallel discussion regarding the entire internet economy that involves developing strategies for generating profits for such widely used tools as search engines, wikis and social-networking sites. From the point of view of the developers, share-holders and investors of such services, they are providing a valuable way to access, store and organize a vast po0l of user generated content. For many of these companies, the services they have designed are fulfilling demands which did not previously exist. What is making media corporations and journalists very nervous is the gap in revenue being generated by the new internet-based platforms and the enormous print and television advertising profits of yesteryear. “Where has this money gone?”, they wonder.
What you will not hear in this discussion — what does not occur to commercial media producers — is the idea that media should be publicly generated and distributed. Just as the natural resources of nations are increasingly privatized, so too are information channels. Due to their extremely expensive technical apparatus, television, radio, and even print formats were easily controlled by vested interests. The airwaves, though nominally public, have been leased in perpetuity to those with the largest signals — honor boxes and journalist access only granted to those with the largest presses. The relatively widespread access to production technology of internet-based media is truly problematic for all those who thrive within this hierarchy.
I would like to propose a solution: the death of mass media. This is, I feel, the only solution to the real looming threat: on the pretense of genuine concerns for access to reliable and penetrating news information and analysis, media conglomerates will be allowed to further commercialize and control the information economy. The internet itself has, from its inception, lost this battle — the struggle for universal access and the concept of media sources as public utilities have found little purchase in the “start-up” driven implementation of networks and services. And yet, even if that obstacle is overcome, the models of pay-per-view, subscription, or copyright-protected news content have the very real potential of pricing-out millions of internet users who seek to find and produce information vital to their ability to be active members of democratic political systems.
This can be seen as a pivotal moment in the development of state-supported capitalism, and thus, a crucial battleground for social justice. The current models being explored are exploiting the fact that people who have the quality of life sufficient to use the internet actively are producing enormous, unprecedented amounts of information, which in their model, is potential value. If we choose to ignore and debase this massive source of human knowledge as completely “unreliable” because it lacks the publishers and executives to determine its techniques and methodologies, we are losing sight of any notion of progress in public literacy and eduction. The accuracy, reliability and usefulness of publicly and freely produced news and media on the internet depends upon our commitment to extending access to education and information as a basic human right. If we allow our public information channels to be dominated by fewer and fewer bastions of the commercial media system, our hopes for maintaining a vibrant and emancipatory information ecology are futile. The development of a useful and valuable publicly accessible mediasphere is absent in the mainstream media’s discussion of future news models precisely because the ideas of universal human rights and the struggle for equitable standards of living on which such a development depends are unthinkable in their capitalistic worldview. If the topic of publicly owned media is ever breached, it is demonized through the examples of state-controlled media in repressive “Socialist” and “Communist” regimes.
How can internet-based news somehow be immune to the corrupting potential of power? The latent emancipatory potential in the internet (if, and only if universal access can be successfully pursued) is perhaps found in the unique nature of the hardware/software divide, a technological formulation that can be fitted to almost any political structure — even radical ones. If we can prioritize and demand the universal development of a broadband infrastructure (hardware) as a publicly owned and guaranteed utility, the means of production (software) of digital media content can be multiplied, modified, utilized and developed ad infinitum. In a truly neutral “net”, the inequities of hardware-based industrial print and wireless transmission radio transmission do not exist. It is not, in this respect, a coincidence that the Internet Mapping Project has generated images of the global digital network that resemble organic and neural structures more than a little.