The First Electronic Frontier
track 4

Because the liberal principles of Jeffersonian Democracy exist outside real history, Barlow and other Californian ideologues cannot recognise the temporal dynamics of really existing capitalism. Although new frontiers may be opened up by enterprising individuals, the original pioneers are quickly replaced by more collective forms of organisation, such as joint-stock companies. For instance, the free-spirited cowboys of the Wild West soon ended up as employees of agri-businesses financed by the industrialised East. A similar process occured in the first electronic frontier in American history: radio broadcasting. Back in the early 20s, radio was initially developed by an enthusiastic minority of amateurs and entrepreneurs. With few restrictions over broadcasting, almost anyone could either set up their own station or rent airtime on somebody else's. Yet, once cheap radio receivers became widely available, the airwaves were rapidly taken over by the corporate networks provided by NBC and CBS. This process of monopolisation was consolidated by the Federal government through the 1927 Radio Act which restricted broadcasting to the holders of licences granted by a state-appointed regulatory body. Not surprisingly, conservative politicians seized the opportunity to silence political and cultural radicals, especially from the Left. However, this imposition of censorship encountered little popular disapproval. On the contrary, most voters supported the Radio Act because the licencing system ensured that the popular programmes of the national networks could be heard clearly without interference from other stations. The democratisation of the availability of radio broadcasting had ironically removed most opportunities for participation within the new media.

The key question now is whether the new electronic frontier of cyberspace is condemned to follow the same path of development. Contrary to Barlow's assertion that cyberspace is not a "public construction project", the principal obstacle to the expansion of the Net in the USA is the problem of who pays for the building of the fibre-optic grid. Given that they refuse to provide state investment, the Democrats and Republicans have had to use the new Telecommunications Reform Act to create a regulatory framework friendly to the large corporations which possess the capital needed for the construction of the infobahn. Above all, both parties have given their blessing to the growing number of mergers between companies operating within the converging sectors of the media, computing and telecommunications. Because it has lost its competitive edge in its traditional Fordist industries, the American economy now relies heavily on companies at the centre of the process of digital convergence, such as the Hollywood studios, Microsoft and AT&T. Far from encouraging a Jeffersonian Democracy composed of small businesses, the Telecommunications Reform Act has cleared the way for the emergence of American "national champions" which have sufficent size both to build the infobahn at home and to compete successfully abroad against their European and Asian rivals.

For many on the Left, these multi-media corporations are the greatest threat to free speech on the Net. As happened in radio - and later television - broadcasting, the desire to attract a mass audience can be a far more effective method of inhibiting political radicalism and cultural experimentation than any half-baked censorship provisions tacked onto the end of a Telecommunications Reform Act. The Neo-Luddite pessimists have their worst fears confirmed when corporate leaders openly proclaim their aim to transform the Net into "interactive television". In this scenario, the new forms of sociability existing within contemporary cyberspace would be replaced by the passive consumption of pop entertainment and biased information provided by multi-media corporations. Despite their disingenuous protests against the anti-pornography provisions in the new Act, these corporations cannot be too sad to see the introduction of regulations which would turn the Net into a safe - and therefore profitable - form of family fun.

In this vision of the future, Jeffersonian Democracy is simply neo-liberal propaganda designed to win support for the privatisation of cyberspace from the members of the "virtual class". By promiscuously mixing New Left and New Right together, the Californian Ideology attracts those individuals who hope that they're smart - or lucky - enough to seize the opportunities presented by the rapid changes in the technological basis of social production. But, while they're being sold the dream of making it big as cyber-entrepreneurs, most digital artisans are, in reality, denied the employment security previously enjoyed by workers in Fordist industries. Far from being self-sufficent pioneers on the electronic frontier, many end up living hand-to-mouth from one short-term corporate contract to another. Similarly, the privatisation of cyberspace also threatens community uses of cyberspace. As more commercial money is spent on providing online services, it becomes increasingly difficult for amateurs to create Web sites of sufficent quality to attract large number of users. Yet, as happened in 20s radio broadcasting, many people will happily accept corporate control over cyberspace if they are provided with well-produced online services. According to the Neo-Luddites, the democratisation of the availability of the Net is removing most opportunities for meaningful participation within cyberspace.

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