• Thu. Dec 7th, 2023

The Internet: Tool for Social Change or Stagnation?

Jun 4, 1997 #internet, #social change

by Anthony R. Thompson, athomps@adf.org

In the late 1960s, the government embarked on an experiment to create a network of computers which would have the capability of surviving nuclear attacks, a network that was designed from the very beginning to operate in the most unreliable conditions . Originally conceived as a means for long-distance use of the nation’s most powerful supercomputers, the network’s primary use quickly emerged as an electronic post office for its researchers, and mailing lists on such topics as science fiction were not long in appearing (Sterling 1993). Today, the outgrowth of that network, the Internet, is a booming economic and social phenomenon. Commercial use of the Internet was sanctioned by the government only in 1991, yet in mid-1996 World Wide Web related revenues totaled $130 million (White House, Office of the Press Secretary 1996 “Background…”, Irving 1996). Furthermore, the Internet is currently estimated to have between 9 million and 26.4 million users and appears to be doubling in size yearly (Zuelow & Silver 1997, Krause 1997).

Jerry Mander, co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization, has stated that, “The computer revolution is an odd kind of revolution, because every corner of society, including those that normally disagree fiercely with each other on most issues, is in agreement on this one: They all think it’s good” (1997). These corners of societies range from the most wealthy multi-national corporations to the smallest local activist groups. However, despite this tremendous growth and interest, many question whether the Internet will be as revolutionary as big businesses claim, whether “what we are getting is not individual empowerment but a new empowerment for multinational corporations and banks” (Mander 1997). It has been noted that “every step in modern media history—telephone, photograph, motion picture, radio, television, satellite—stirred similar euphoric predictions. All were expected to usher in an age of enlightenment” (Surman 1994). Such an age of enlightenment has not occurred, and many wonder if the “euphoric predictions” concerning the Internet are not just ways in which society is re-tracing its steps in failing to utilize new technologies in liberating and democratic ways.

This paper seeks to answer the question of whether the Internet currently has the capability to act as a tool for social change, enabling social activists to communicate, plan, and carry out a variety of reforms. Further, it asks questions concerning the future of the Internet and social activism therein, looking at projected activities of government and private sector agencies, as well as likely technological developments, to explore the potential for social change via the Internet in years to come. First, a fuller history of the Internet will be covered, specifically with relevance to its present and possible future conditions. This will be followed with analogies that may be held up to the Internet in useful comparison, and then somewhat more precise definitions of the “social change” to be explored in particular. Finally, having discerned some minimal basic requirements for such social change, the actual current and future ability of the Internet to meet those requirements will be discussed, and recommendations will be made towards meeting those requirements more effectively and efficiently.

From the very beginning, the Internet was founded on a concept of anarchy. Or, more correctly, it was founded on the concept of decentralized control. This was due to the fact that the original network from which the Internet spawned, ARPANET, was a U.S. military project designed to survive a nuclear attack. Any centrally-controlled network would be inherently vulnerable to an attack on its core and thus easily rendered inoperable by one well-aimed missile. Messages from one network node intended for another were broken up into small, discrete “packets” which would bounce from one node to another, roughly getting closer to their destination on each bounce. While less efficient than direct connections, this distributed-control method of message transport allowed huge portions of the network to go suddenly inoperable and yet have communication among the remaining nodes be maintained easily. It also allowed any computer to connect to the network, provided it could speak the relevant (simple) communications protocols (Sterling 1993).

Bruce Sterling, noted net.personality, writes that, “Since the software called TCP/IP [the relevant communications protocol suite] was public-domain, and the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody wanted to stop them from joining this branching complex of networks, which came to be known as the ‘Internet’… ARPANET itself formally expired in 1989, a happy victim of its own overwhelming success” (1993).

The history of the Internet is relevant for the question of its potential for social activism because it is important to realize that for the vast majority of its history, the Internet was neither owned by businesses nor pervaded by the consumerism they tend to promote. Quite the opposite in fact; until 1991 the Internet was explicitly non-commercial, and was pervaded instead by a spirit of freedom and sharing between fellow academics and researchers. Since then, however, millions of corporate dollars have been spent on development of individual sites and networks, and there are currently more than ten times as many corporate domains (host names) on the Internet as non-corporate domains (Krause 1997).

There are several useful analogies one may draw between the Internet and other technologies and media. However, cable television is one of the most useful, both because of its recent proliferation and the nature of the predictions made during its inception. Mark Surman, in “From VTR to Cyberspace: Jefferson, Gramsci & the Electronic Commons”, writes extensively concerning the relationship between the initial promises of public access television and the clamor surrounding the Internet (1994). While there are a few notable exceptions, “[m]any American access channels… tend to be dominated by conservative groups and ego-trippers, with little representation from the real margins of society,” and it can also be argued that, “[t]he content on TV isn’t the programs; they are just the bait. The real content is the commercials. TV had to become a wasteland of drivel, violence, sexploitation, sensationalism, and advertising because its purpose was not to educate or inform, but rather to sell product” (Surman 1994, Johnson 1995). One of the questions this paper will explore is how likely it is that the Internet will follow the same evolution.

An alternative metaphor worthy of consideration is that of print publishing. Gary Wolf, Executive Producer of Hot Wired (Web site of the famous Wired magazine), has written that, “there is no evidence that Internet media will resemble network television rather than, say, book publishing” (1997). While web sites currently do utilize a variety of advertising schemes, Wolf claims that the rapid pace of change and openness of the Internet allow many alternatives to compete with this mechanism of powering the web, which may serve some comfort to those who view advertising as a reflection of commercial interests responsible for the corruption of television from a two-way interactive technology to one of one-way consumerism. If one views the Internet as simply another publishing medium, one in which the quality of one’s content roughly determines how viewed and valued it will be, then the Internet’s future and potential as an activist medium appears brighter indeed. The question, of course, is which metaphor applies most accurately today and which will in the future.

One last valuable tidbit to keep in mind when considering the Internet is that as a technology it is—despite the many proclamations of businesses, organizations, and individuals—not fundamentally different from previous technological advances made in the 20th century. The Internet is certainly faster and more efficient than typed letters or filmed videos, but at the most basic level it is more of a quantitative difference from those other technologies rather than a qualitative one. Practically, this simply reiterates the message that it is highly useful to examine the ways in which previous technological advances in communication were assimilated into society.

In order to explore the current and future potential of the Internet as a tool for social change, it might be well to provide at least an operational definition of the term as well as a few examples. Admittedly, “social change” is a somewhat broad phrase, but some of its defining characteristics would include changes made to portions of society impacting those portions’ attitudes and possibly actions also. On a more concrete level, social change is often reflected in or even defined by changes made in governmental public policy. Thus, while one application of the “information revolution” may be “telemedicine” which saves many lives, this in and of itself would not constitute social change because it would not necessarily fundamentally change any attitudes, actions or public policies (Gonzalez & Hamra 1995). Similarly, neither would a nationwide increase in typing skills, in itself. However, if this typing skill increase were part of a larger social program to increase the ability of minority and disadvantaged groups to share and publish their experiences and ideas, it would certainly involve a change of attitudes and even possibly public policy—and hence this typing skill increase would actually be a component of a larger mechanism for social change. Social activism would be defined as attempts to bring about this kind of social change.

One might ask what the practical effects of such a definition of social change are for the question being explored. At least two are immediately evident. The first is that the Internet must actually contain elements that may be utilized in the process of social activism, and the second is that the Internet itself be accessible to a sufficient portion of society to allow social activism to occur in an egalitarian fashion.

Concerning the first question, the utility of the Internet for social activism, the essential qualities that necessarily must be present are those of open, uncensored, and two-way communication. The Internet currently allows communication that has those qualities. It is relatively open because in many cases it is trivial to create new communications forums if one’s needs are not met by existing ones; this includes creating USENET newsgroups, setting up semi-permanent IRC channels, and creating Web pages. The objection could be made that these options, like the Internet itself, are only available to those with sufficient socio-economic status to participate, but that issue will be dealt with shortly in the section on equitable access.

The Internet is also currently relatively uncensored; there are few if any regulations concerning what kinds of content one may share with others therein. A notable exception is the private America Online network, which is notorious for censoring its users’ electronic mail and real-time discussions in promotion of a “family atmosphere”. This is an important exception because if it is legal for America Online to engage in this censorship, it may be equally legal for other internet service providers to do so, or for future builders and maintainers of the physical backbones of the Information Superhighway to do so.

Finally, the Internet is currently a two-way communication medium, meaning that users may publish and produce information, and share it with virtually anyone online, as they wish. This may be contrasted with television, where the vast majority of usage is one-way; most people only watch television and do not avail themselves of local public access television opportunities. Unfortunately, it appears that many corporations prefer a vision of the Internet’s future in which it is a medium of one-way information “pushes” to consumers, limiting interactiveness to uploading credit card numbers and purchase orders (Surman 1994). As those corporations fund more and more Internet development, they will likely exert every bit of influence they possess to continue the hegemony of one-way consumerism into this new medium (Surman 1994). Mark Crispin Miller, in an article in The Nation, warns that, “The same gigantic players that control the elder media are planning shortly to absorb the Internet, which could be transformed from a thriving common wilderness into an immeasurable de facto cyberpark for corporate interests…” (cited in Krause 1997).

The future of the Internet is, of course, by no means concrete. However, various trends do appear definite. First, as already mentioned, the private sector already maintains a huge presence on the Internet and this will likely be the case to an even greater degree. One consequence may be a burgeoning of “pay sites” in which information is no longer “free”, but rather is restricted to an elite who can afford it. The only defense against this is and will remain efforts to make such information freely available, but as information archival and retrieval mechanisms soar in price due to demand, the feasibility of this idealistic notion of free information is cast into doubt.

Less ominous than the threat of multinational corporations absorbing the Internet and warping it to the ways of consumerism is a phenomenon many people on the Internet experience already: information overload (Keltner 1995). Information overload may be less ominous, but it is perhaps not any less dangerous to the Internet’s potential as a tool for social activism. The reason is that the reaction against information overload is that typically people seek ways to “filter” all the information they are presented with. The danger inherent in this filtering is the possibility that in so doing, people essentially filter out everything that does not already fit into their particular world views and everything that is not already congruent with their beliefs and attitudes. Considered in this light, information filtering is something of an obstacle to effective counter-culture communication.

Even granting the point that the Internet currently has and will keep the abilities necessary for effective social activism, there is still the difficulty that these abilities are rendered nearly useless unless Internet access is guaranteed for most of the population (Anderson, Bikson, Law, and Mitchell 1995). Currently, “[t]he majority of Internet users continue to be young, male and wealthy. Most studies peg the average age for Internet users at between 30 and 34… Most users are college educated (64 to 93 percent) and the vast majority are in high income brackets: 25 percent make $80,000 or more. The average income is between $40,000 and $63,000 per year. The overwhelming majority of Internet users — about 77 percent — are male” (Zuelow & Silver 1997). Furthermore, “many African-American children lag behind their white counterparts. African-American children are much less likely to use computers in school than are white children: 56 percent of white students but only 39 percent of African-American students use computers in school. African-American students also have less access to computers at home: 36 percent of white students are in families that own computers while only 15 percent of African-American students have access to home computer” (Irving 1996). It certainly appears that “the risk of a widening gap between the information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots'” is a real one (Gonzalez & Hamra 1995).

If all portions of the U.S. population are currently disproportionately represented in “cyberspace”, one might ask what is being done to remedy this inequality. Audrie Krause notes that, “Missing from the [Internet] picture is an understanding of the potentially helpful role that government regulation can play. For example, by enforcing and strengthening anti-trust laws the government can promote fair competition” (1997). The government is also the primary leader in efforts to promote equity of Internet access. In the NII (National Information Infrastructure) Agenda for Action statement, the Clinton Administration states that, “We are committed to working with business, labor, academia, public interest groups, Congress, and state and local government to ensure the development of a national information infrastructure (NII) that enables all Americans to access information and communicate with each other using voice, data, image or video at anytime, anywhere” (NII Office… 1993).
The government is not tackling the NII alone, however. In response to the myth that “[g]overnment is building the information superhighway,” the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA; a branch of the Department of Commerce) states:

“The private sector is building the information superhighway. Leadership actions by the Secretary of Commerce and NTIA are stimulating private sector interest and investment in the Nation’s information infrastructure. Through the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), NTIA is providing matching grant funds to ensure that local communities and non-profit institutions can offer all Americans the benefits of advanced telecommunications technologies. In 1994, the first year of the program, $24.4 million of Federal funds was matched with private sector funds of $43 million, resulting in nearly $70 million worth of investment in our nation’s infrastructure. These funds enabled over 100 communities in 45 states to provide greater access to their citizens” (NTIA 1995).

“[I]n January 1994, Vice President Gore announced the Administration’s commitment to connect every classroom, library, hospital, and clinic in the United States to the NII by the year 2000. The Administration seeks to ensure that public institutions can serve as public access sites so that all Americans, regardless of income, location, or disability, can benefit from the NII” (Gonzalez & Hamra 1995). One particularly noteworthy effort is “NetDay,” in which $200 million in government Technology Literacy Challenge grants is paired with private sector funds and aid to organize community and business volunteers to connect schools in every state to the Internet (Office of the Press Secretary 1997). The Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) mentioned above is in currently in the process of awarding $35.7 million government funds (matched by more than $60 million in non-Federal funds) to 1996 grant applicants, all toward the aim of connecting “underserved Americans” (TIIAP 1996). It would certainly appear, then, that the government and private sector are at least attempting to provide some form of universal Internet access.

International activist Jerry Mander has claimed that there may very well be a “net loss” for activists in the Internet, even if they are able to use it for attempts at social change. The reason, he explains, is that, “Computer technology may be the single most important instrument ever invented for the acceleration of centralized power,” basically meaning that multinational corporations will benefit from the rapid increases in information technology far more than mere social activists ever could, and that the latter may forever be playing a losing game of “catch up” with the former on the Information superhighway (1997).

Also disheartening is that despite the efforts of the government’s NTIA at promoting universal access at public facilities, RAND research professionals found that, “access to and the location of physical devices for e-mail use significantly impede universal access. With only about half of U.S. households containing personal computers by the year 2000, a robust set of alternative devices and locations is needed” (Anderson, Bikson, Law, and Mitchell 1995). One alternative to the limited public access proposals is the set of developing television attachments enabling some form of Internet connection, but some feel that, “TV won’t be computerized, computers will be TV-ized,” meaning essentially that the Internet would be simply an enhanced television, advertisements and one-way consumerism included (Johnson 1995). Perhaps mandatory government requirements that information technology industries donate portions of their revenues to subsidized Internet terminals for “underserved Americans” may be one solution; Mark Surman notes that, “Leaving a space for the public is a matter of course in the development of housing, as it should be in the development of new communications networks” (1994).

It may also be dangerous for one to place too much faith in a government which may be under severe pressures from powerful communications industries (Krause 1997). However, as Surman discusses with public access television, well-organized and institutionalized citizen and activist groups that coordinate with others of like mind to lobby the government forcefully can act as an even stronger force, in which case the government may prevent the occurrence of more pessimistic visions of the future Information highway that are being advanced. In that light, groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Corporate Watch, and the Association for Progressive Communications serve as important rallying points for citizens concerned about the future of not only the Internet but their society as well.

Works Cited

  1. Carlos A. Afonso. “The Internet and Social Strategies”. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/Afonso.html, 1997.
  2. Robert H. Anderson, Tora K. Bikson, Sally Ann Law, Bridger M. Mitchell. “Universal Access to E-Mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications”. http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/sum.html, 1995.
  3. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. “Serving the Community: A Public Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure”. http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/nii_policy, 1993.
  4. Emilio Gonzalez & Michael K. Hamra. “Connecting the Nation: Classrooms, Libraries, and Health Care Organizations in the Information Age”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/connect.html, 1995.
  5. Larry Irving. “Equipping Our Children With the Tools to Compete Successfully in the New Economy”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/speeches/urban081496.htm, 1996.
  6. Jeff Johnson. “The Information Highway from Hell: A Worst-Case Scenario”. http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/nii/hell.html, 1995.
  7. Joshua Karliner. “The Battle for the Future of the Internet: Corporate Cybermall or Global Town Hall?”. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/feature.html, 1997.
  8. Brent Keltner. “Interview Notes From Civic Networks”. http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR650/mr650.appb/appb.html, 1995.
  9. Audrie Krause. “Selling Cyberspace: The Commercialization of the Internet”. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/krause.html, 1997.
  10. Jerry Mander. “The Net Loss of the Computer Revolution”. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/mander.html, 1997.
  11. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Untitled [statistical tables]. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/TABLES.htm, 1996.
  12. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “Myths vs. Reality”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/myths.html, 1995.
  13. NII Office, National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action”. http://sunsite.unc.edu/nii/toc.html, 1993.
  14. Bruce Sterling. “A Short History of the Internet”. http://www.op.net/docs/inet-refs/internet-history.txt, 1993.
  15. Mark Surman. “From VTR to Cyberspace: Jefferson, Gramsci & the Electronic Commons”. http://www.signadou.acu.edu.au/www/readings/The-Electronic-Commons.html, 1994.
  16. Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. “Overview of TIIAP”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/otiahome/tiiap/tiiapone.html, 1996.
  17. U.S. Department Of Commerce. “Falling Through The Net: A Survey of the “Have Nots” in Rural and Urban America”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html, 1995.
  18. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. “Remarks by the President and the Vice President to the People of Knoxville”. http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/101096clinton.htm, 1996.
  19. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. “Background On Clinton-Gore Administration’s Next-Generation Internet Initiative”. http://www.iitf.nist.gov/documents/press/internet.htm, 1996.
  20. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. “Radio Address of the President and the Vice President to the Nation”. http://www.netday96.com/news_usa/radio_speech.html, 1997.
  21. Gary Wolf. “Commercial Internet?”. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/wolf.html, 1997.
  22. Eric G.E. Zuelow & Bob Silver. “Toward a Jetsonesque Horizon”. http://www.thesilvercompany.com/vital7.htm, 1997.
  23. Eric G.E. Zuelow. “A Deep Horizontal Comradeship? Identity in a Jetsonesque World”. http://www.thesilvercompany.com/vital8.htm, 1997.

© 1997
Updated & © January 9th, 1998 by Anthony R. Thompson.

Also by Anthony R. Thompson: Paganism and Censorship on the Net


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