1990s >> 1995 >> no-1090-june-1995

Internet: Forum or Marketplace?

Most people, by now. will have heard of the Internet. It is one of those jargon words that have entered popular consciousness. For those unclear as to what it is, the Internet is basically a computer linked by the telephone system to millions of other computers around the world providing an easy and relatively cheap form of global communication. (Provided, of course, that you have a computer in the first place.)


Most people who access the Internet do so through so-called “gateways” which in effect are companies who sell software necessary to log on, along with a subscription to several megabytes of computer storage space, for downloaded information like e-mail letters or news. Some companies like CompuServe aren’t gateways but run their own exclusive network accessible again through a subscription. With a rapidly expanding number of people—30 million at the last estimate—with access to the internet, the attraction of this market, and its potential for commercialisation by gateways and proprietary networks is obvious.


Computer exponents have been promoting the Internet as the most important breakthrough in communications since Gutenberg printed the first bible in the vernacular, and on the surface they are right. Anyone with access to a computer, a modem and the necessary software can send electronic mail (e-mail) or log on to news groups discussing anything from Anarchism to The X-Files.


The benefits of this technology have not been lost on various political groups. Neo-Nazis in America have for years had their own network. Anarchists also see the organisational rewards of the Internet and many wax lyrical about the non-hierarchical, democratic nature of the “net”. But in reality the Internet is just like any other information forum in capitalism.


The Internet operates like a market-place, interest groups all pitch in willy-nilly. Because of the relative newness of the Internet this swirl of babble can be mistaken for an electronic Greek agora, but already even this rose-tinted view is being dispelled as the big corporations move in. The Rupert Murdochs of the world aren’t fooled for one minute by the anarcho-tech’s talk of the Internet being a window into a libertarian future. Literally billions of pounds are being invested into ways of capturing the 30 million-plus people who have access to the internet, these people aren’t contributors to a brave new experiment in global communication. They’re a Market.


As with all development in capitalism access to the technology is unequal and market-driven. Even though the number with access to the Internet is rising rapidly, there are untold millions who will never have access, or at best a restricted one. because their ability as consumers is limited. Even those with purchasing power cannot evade the logic of capitalist market culture. In the next few years the Internet will be superseded, as the technology improves, by combining television and computer into a wider, corporately-controlled medium, in which all the fake, superficial culture of capitalism will be pumped into people’s homes on an even more unrelenting level.


The Internet provides us with another example of the technological dynamism of capitalist development being restricted by its own economic laws. Time and time again technology has been developed with the potential to liberate humanity from want, but instead has been used to maximise profit for a small minority. Just think what benefits the Internet could bring in a socialist society for the global assessment and distribution of needs as well as the spread of information.


Jonathan Meakin