Hypermedia freedom by richard barbrook

Cyberspace is Social

The current controversy in the USA over the Telecommunications Reform Act has cruelly exposed the limitations of the Californian Ideology. Barlow may dream of escaping into the hyper-reality of cyberspace, but he is simply trying to avoid facing the political and economic contradictions of really existing capitalism. Far from producing an electronic frontier composed of many small businesses, the commercialisation of cyberspace is creating the conditions for the concentration of capital on a global scale. Given the huge costs of building a national broadband network, only very large corporations can mobilise enough investment to carry out this infrastructure project. Within this emerging oligopoly, innovative entrepreneurs will still achieve public prominance as either leaders of big businesses or as sub-contractors of the multi-media corporations. But their individual success will only be made possible through the huge collective effort to build the infobahn. The dynamics of digital convergence within really existing capitalism are pushing towards the ever increasing socialisation of production and communications, not the realisation of eighteenth century fantasies of individual self-sufficency.

It is therefore rather one-sided for the EFF to direct its criticisms solely against the anti-pornography regulations contained within the new Telecommunications Reform Act. Freedom of expression on the Net is not only threatened by the state, but also by the market. As shown by the history of radio broadcasting in the USA, these two forms of censorship have often been imposed in parallel. Both politicians and corporations have a common interest in ensuring that middle America is not disturbed by any radical political and cultural ideas emanating from new forms of mass communications. Therefore, any meaningful campaign for cyber-rights has to fight for freedom of expression against both state and market forms of censorship. The development of the Net offers a way of overcoming the political and economic restrictions on free speech within the existing media. Everyone could have the opportunity not only to receive information and entertainment, but also to transmit their own productions. The problem is how this potentiality will be realised.

A campaign for hypermedia freedom can only be successful if it recognises the inherent contradictions within this fundamental right of citizens. The political rights of each individual are circumscribed by the rights of other citizens. For instance, in order to protect children, the state has a duty to restrict the freedom of speech of paedophiles on the Net. Because ethnic minorities have the right to live in peace, the democratic republic should try to prevent fascists from organising online. But, apart from these minimal restrictions, citizens do have the right to say what they like to each other. A democratic state certainly has no mandate to impose a narrow religious morality on all its citizens regardless of their own beliefs.

Similarly, a campaign for cyber-rights must also recognise the economic contradictions within hypermedia freedom. Because they use amateur labour, community hypermedia projects can happily exist within the hi-tech gift economy. But, if digital artisans are to be paid for their work, some form of commodity exchange will have to be created within the Net. However, the dominance of the free market will inhibit the free circulation of ideas. Therefore campaigns for cyber-rights have to engage with the economic contradictions of hypermedia freedom. Above all, they cannot take absolutist positions over the shape of the digital economy. On the contrary, the development of cyberspace has so far been carried out through a hybrid of public, private and community initiatives. All sectors have played an important role in the construction of the infobahn. But, in the new Telecommunications Reform Act, Americans now face the problem of the wrong type of government action, rather than too much state intervention. While it seems all too eager to impose moral censorship on Net users, the Federal government has simultaneously shirked its duty to ensure that all citizens can have access to online services. While the corporations may possess the resources to build the broadband network, the state should use its powers to prevent any section of society being excluded from cyberspace for lack of resources.

Contrary to the predictions of the pessimists, it is possible to win the struggle against both the political and economic censorship of cyberspace. Although the state can - and should - prosecute the small minority of paedophiles and fascists, the resources needed to spy on everyone's email and Web sites will make the imposition of moral puritanism very difficult to enforce. Even with sophisticated censorship programs, the sheer volume of Net traffic should eventually overwhelm even a well-funded surveillance body. While it might just about be possible to regulate the output of thousands of radio and television stations, the sheer cost of vetting many millions of users logging onto a global network of online services would be prohibitive. The social nature of hypermedia is the best defence of the individual's right of freedom of expression.

Similarly, the corporation's ambition to buy up the whole of cyberspace will also be checked by the social basis of the process of convergence. For instance, the recent trials of interactive television have been commercial failures. As Andy Cameron points out in Dissimulations, the corporate cheerleaders are trapped within a category mistake: they're trying to impose the form of earlier media onto the new hypermedia. Above all, interactivity can't be restricted to clicking through a series of menu options. Most people want to meet other people within cyberspace. Unlike the existing electronic media, the Net is not centred on the one-way flow of communications from a limited number of transmitters. On the contrary, hypermedia is a two-way form of communications where everybody is both a receiver and a transmitter. The multi-media corporations will undoubtedly play a leading role in building the infrastructure of the infobahn and selling information commodities over the Net, but they will find it impossible to monopolise the social potential of cyberspace.

Over recent years, the advocates of the Californian Ideology have been claiming that eighteenth century liberal individualism would be miraculously reborn through the process of digital convergence. Yet, now online services are becoming available to the mass of the population, the collective nature of the new information society is becoming increasingly obvious. Within politics, electronic democracy will be at the centre of the relationship between representatives and their voters. Within all sectors of the economy, the infobahn will soon become the basic infrastructure for collaborative work across time and space. Crucially, this socialisation of politics and economics will be the best protection for individual freedom within cyberspace. Far from having to escape into a neo-liberal hyper-reality, people can utilise the new digital technologies to enhance their lives both inside and outside cyberspace. The electronic agora is yet to be built.

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