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Richard Barbrook
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The Revival of the Media Utopias
part 17

In the late-1980s, the collapse of the credit boom sent the world economy back into recession. Despite integrating their economies within the world market, governments across the world were now faced with the threat of continual economic stagnation and permanently high rates of unemployment. As core workers realised that the days of easy credit were over, the economic crisis slowly led to political instability. With a few exceptions, ruling parties within the advanced industrialised countries were decisively defeated in elections. However, trapped within an increasingly integrated world economy, the new administrations encountered great difficulties in abandoning neo- liberal economic policies. Yet, without new solutions, popular disillusionment with the main political parties would increase further and the voting patterns of the electorate would become even more volatile. Harking back to the early-1970s, some leading politicians decided to revive the media utopias of the futurologists. For example, they held up the success of Internet system as proof of the long awaited convergence of computers, telecommunications and the electronic media. After the election of Clinton, the American government increasingly used the construction of 'information superhighways' not only as an excuse for state intervention within the economy, but also as a potential technological fix for the country's intractable social problems. Once again, leading politicians were claiming that the solution to the crisis of Fordism was the construction of an interactive fibre-optic network which would create two-way communications among its users.

Encouraged by government support, the major telephone and cable television companies embarked on a series of mergers and alliances to mobilise the capital needed for this infrastructural project. In parallel, the media corporations combined film studios, record companies, video games developers, television stations and newspapers within one organisation to provide a full range of services for the emerging 'information superhighway'. As other countries developed their own interactive networks, the media multinationals hoped to take advantage of economies of scale on a global scale. By eroding cultural differences between nations, they dreamt of an international electronic marketplace where all forms of information would be traded under their control. Not surprisingly, these corporations saw the installation of secure encryption systems and enforceable copyright laws as the key to the further development of the network. Once electronic commodity exchange was fully established, they hoped that the final vestiges of the public service model could be removed from a globalised electronic media system outside the control of any national regulatory body. Far from increasing political diversity, this international media oligopoly threatened to turn all news and current affairs programmes into infotainment.

Ironically this further development of the media exacerbated the crisis of representation across the developed world. As shown by the sudden success of fringe parties, there was a desperation for some magical solution to the political and economic impasse. Echoing the New Left, some politicians called for the creation of direct democracy over the network. Bypassing the discredited politicians, voters would be able to make their own political decisions in 'electronic town halls'. The revival of this utopian vision demonstrated that the new networks didn't have to be solely used for the sale of information commodities by the media corporations. Whether adopted by underground magazines, community radio stations, access cable television channels or electronic bulletin boards, the self-management model provided the only clear alternative to the dominance of the world information economy by an oligarchy of a few corporations. While conventional capitalist companies were limited by the constraints of price formation and copyright controls, musicians and other artists had already demonstrated how the new digital technologies were breaking down the rigid divisions between the production and consumption of information. In addition, Minitel in France and the Internet in the USA showed how a simple e-mail system could be turned into a participatory medium by its users. Although initially limited to text, these networks allowed individuals to carry out both point-to-point communications and the mass distribution of information. In a developed interactive system, every user was not only a receiver, but also a transmitter. By combining different systems, a single global network could be created from the different servers and contributors. Although reliant on subsidies from the American defence budget and universities, the success of the Internet system was based on the spontaneous collaboration of its participants on a global scale. Dubbed cyberspace, this fusion of networks could centralise the production and distribution of media on a scale surpassing the ambitions of the most predatory multinationals. Alongside the international electronic marketplace, a global electronic agora is waiting to be born as well.

 
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