Print this page

Author: Undercurrent Online Journal

UNDERCURRENT INTERVIEW: the contradictions of media freedom

Eric Heroux You hold that the new media made possible by the Internet heralds a new day that might well overcome the “contradictions of media freedom.” One of these contradictions is that while the political rights of free public speech arrived, the means of disseminating free speech rested in the of very few who could afford a press. But today, new media potentially allow for everyone to speak to everyone at some point. And even the rudimentary beginnings of this process seem promising, or as you remind us, “…the success of the Internet system was based on the spontaneous collaboration of its participants on a global scale. ” Nevertheless, the Internet is rapidly becoming commercialized and privatized. And states are already regulating content over the Internet– China, Germany, USA, etc. The oft-repeated promise of democratization remains a mere potential. In a world where only one third of the people have ever owned a telephone, a modem seems rather improbable. Or…?

Richard Barbrook I think that you are confusing the two elements of the contradiction of media freedom: participation and democratisation. This is why I think that it is important to analyse the history of media freedom. We’re then able to look at the deep roots of many contemporary debates.

For example, many of our contemporary debates over the future of the Net were also carried out over radio broadcasting in ’20s and ’30s America. In the early days of the ‘wireless’, radio enthusiasts could experiment with the potentiality of the new media without much interference from the state or the large corporations. Given the ease of obtaining a broadcasting licence or buying airtime, almost anyone could appear on the radio if they really wanted to. But radio broadcasting could only act as a participatory media because it had a limited number of users. It was the democratisation of radio broadcasting which ended the brief experiment in participation. The new users were interested in radio as a source of entertainment and information rather than as a way of expressing themselves. For instance, mutual interference between unregulated stations caused interference for many listeners, especially in the big cities. The passing of the restrictive 1927 Radio Act was a politically popular piece of regulation because it allowed most radio users – who were owners of cheap listening devices – to obtain good quality signals of programmes with the star performers produced by the networks. Of course, this restrictive piece of legislation also opened the way for the dominance of the airwaves by large corporations and the censorship of political/cultural opinions, especially by left-wing radicals. But we should not forget that it was the democratisation of radio broadcasting which provided the social basis for the transformation of the new media from active involvement into passive consumption.

The question now facing the Net is how far hypermedia will repeat this contradictory history. Will democratisation of its availability lead to the end of participation? When the market was small, the corporations weren’t much interested in providing Net services. When only few techies and academics were using on- line services, there was little demand for political regulation. As in the ’20s, there are some senses in which we should welcome the increasing involvement of the corporations and the state within cyberspace — it shows that the Net is becoming a popular phenomenon. Whether private or nationalised, large companies will be needed to make hypermedia widely available. If on-line services are to become ubiquitous, some form of basic content regulation will be needed. The point is whether this involvement is incompatible with the community involvement treasured by many of the pioneers of the Net. Despite appreciating the vigilance against corporate monopolies and state censorship, I think that the prophets of doom are treating the contradictions of media freedom as part of an ‘eternal present’ rather than a historical process. The emergence of hypermedia is the latest expression of the modern aspiration to transcend the contradiction between participation and democracy within media freedom. It is no accident that a fibre-optic grid has greater technological potentiality for two-way communications on a mass scale than the airwaves. It is the crystallisation of an emergent social practice which goes beyond the limitations of Fordism.

E.H. You proposed that, “The emergence of hypermedia is the latest expresson of the modern aspiration to transcend the contradition between participation and democracy within media freedom.” Do our aspirations or social practices tend to precede and even lead to technologies that mirror them? Some would see it the other way around, e.g., Jacques Ellul and the critics of technocracy. For them, the problem is how technologies influence social practices.

R.B. Technology is not the subject of history. As Sartre pointed out, technology is a crystallised praxis. It expresses the social relations and the social knowledge of a given historical era. For sure, machines have a material-technical basis which will limit its capabilities. This can be seen in the Net– downloading large images can be a frustrating experience because of the low bandwidth of the domestic telephone system. But the reasons why certain paths of innovation are followed and others ignored do not lie in some inherent logic within technology. McLuhan was wrong! On the contrary, states, companies and communities devote time and effort to researching and developing technologies which are useful for their own purposes. For instance, the Net was created by the state for military communications, was improved by amateurs as a form of horizontal communications and is now being further advanced by corporations who want to make money from “interactive tv”. Each section of the mixed economy hasn’t just created its own particular form of content, but also shaped the technological basis of hypermedia. As they used to say in the ’70s, science is social relations.

E.H. Raymond Williams wrote a book about television back in the 1970s in which he insisted that it was up to how we deploy technics such as TV, up to the specific social practice or cultural form, to determine the effects of media technology on democracy. A medium can be either monopolized by the commodity form or democratized by smaller “alternative” uses….

R.B. When I was a radio pirate, I would have agreed with this analysis. Each frequency granted to a commercial operator was one denied to a community radio station. However I think that this analysis is very difficult to apply to hypermedia. I don’t think that we’re faced with an either/or choice anymore. On the contrary, corporate involvement in building the Net could actually enhance community uses of the new information technologies. For instance, although broadband networks will be built mainly to sell home entertainment, they can also be used for distributing d.i.y. culture and information on a much wider scale. As long as two-way communications are possible over the network, hypermedia cannot be monopolised by the commodity form. Given that many software producers– such as music companies and book publishers– are dependent on commercialising artistic forms originating in popular culture, I don’t think that this would be even in their narrow commercial interests either!

E.H. Back when radio was a radically new promise of mass communications, Bertolt Brecht used to insist that “Society cannot share a common communications system so long as it is split into warring factions.” To the degree that societies remain divided along the lines of race and class, will even the new media be something we really share?

R.B. But what is “a common communications system”? Is it the entire population grouped around their television sets watching the same programme? – or the electronic marketplace with a myriad of interlocking companies – or the electronic agora composed of many diverse communities?

It could be argued that this Brecht quote has potentially totalitarian implications. In radical Jacobin theories, social contradictions could be overcome through ideological uniformity imposed from above. Rather we should ask how far media freedom – including for hypermedia– can overcome the class differences within contemporary capitalism? In many ways, both the Right and the Left overestimate the power of the media to shape society. This is probably because the “opinion formers” spend so much of their lives trying to appear on the media! For instance, both black and white people in the USA share the same phone network– “a common communications system” — yet they don’t use it to ask each other out socially very much…

E.H. This is quite right. Communication as genuine dialogue across divided sectors of society is a bit illusory and unattained so far. The Italian thinker, Gianni Vattimo, in “The Transparent Society” argues that contemporary media will never contribute to a transparent communication and unified understanding among different tribes– but almost the obverse. That is, the society of “generalized communication” has produced an increasing pluralization of groups and identities. Media do not lead to a rational unalienated intersubjectivity among people, as Habermas wishes. Instead we see the proliferation of new and disorienting possiblilities, new myths, hybrid tribes, multiple dialects and subcultures. Vattimo sees us as oscillating between belonging and disorientation. He finds this a promising development, something potentially positive.

R.B. Again I would want to challenge the either/or basis of this question. Although the nation state retains its importance, there is a simultaneous process of globalisation and localisation shaping people’s lives. These parallel processes have positive and negative features. For instance, ethnicity can be both a source of self-identity and of racism. The national movement in Slovenia was emancipatory while in Serbia it created a new form of fascism. I think that we need to use dialectical forms of analysis rather than one-sided approaches. By this I do not mean the left Hegelian dialectics which simply sees the Negative opposed to the Positive, i.e. the sort of approach pioneered by Bakunin in “The Reaction in Germany” which has been at the centre of most radical left thought ever since. Rather I would like to see an analysis of the fuzzy and contradictory nature of our advanced modern society. The Net itself is an interesting example of how the supposedly separate areas of state, private and community activities are both in competition with each other and dependent upon each other at the same time.

E.H. And much of the new communication freedom seems to have unleashed an unseemly crowd of miseducated gossips. Guy Debord was rather pessimistic on this point, as opposed to McLuhan’s glad prophecies of a global village. Debord wrote that “The Sage of Toronto . . . spent several decades marveling at the numerous freedoms created by a “global village” instantly and effortlessly accessible to all. Villages, unlike towns, have always been ruled by conformism, isolation, petty surveillance, boredom and repetitive malicious gossip about the same families. Which is a precise enough description of the global spectacle’s present vulgarity.” One wonders what Debord would say about most newsgroups!

R.B. McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” can seem very apt in the present stage of the Net because it still only has an elite group of users. The social controls of a village are possible because everyone knows everyone else. Ironically, the Canadian guru was reexporting the Jeffersonian dream of creating technological pastoralism in the USA! In contrast with this fantasy about farmers, Debord dreams instead of the digital city — workers united through horizontal communications within an electronic agora. The question therefore has to be posed about whether it is possible to have mass democracy without representation in both politics and the media?

E.H. For me the dimly formulated paradox is that cyberspace is inherently global: it tends to ignore geopolitical boundaries and regulations and power hierarchies (aside from, as I noted before, the outright censorship that is already happening), and yet cyberspace depends upon a very traditional material base– everything from the silicon hardware to the electric energy to the programmed connections can only be maintained by the technically complex organization of labor, knowledge, and resources found in developed countries. For the moment, that material base is equivalent to technocracy, in as much as it cuts across diverse economies and state practices. Cyberspace implies both the new freedom of global communication and the maintenance of technocratic bureaucracies. Cyberspace is a kind of communicational anarchy which depends upon a socio-technical hierarchy of expertise and resource production. We are entering an era in which hierarchy has led to a new kind of freedom, but that freedom is virtual. It is a virtual freedom since it can never choose to dismantle the technocratic base upon which it depends, for that would necessarily lead to the collapse of cyberspace itself. Still it is fascinating to see where this paradox might lead us. But I think that right now one of the tensions created is the contradiction you have pointed out. Do you have an educated guess about what we’ll see in the near future here?

R.B. The development of cyberspace is only the latest and most dramatic manifestation of the evolutionary pressures inherent within modernity. The precondition of capitalism is the relentless drive to surpass all existing preconditions. At the core of this process is the breaking up of traditional local communities by increasing the socialisation of human existence on a global scale. The transition from Fordism to the information society is simply the present stage in this process.

Yet, despite all our technological and social advances, the majority of humanity have only just joined this modernisation process. As Chomsky likes to point out, most people have yet to make a telephone call let alone get wired to the Net. As Lula (leader of the Brazilian Workers’ Party) said, the poor in the Third World haven’t yet reached Fordism let alone anything more futurist. We’re therefore faced by the paradox of being able to realise and not realise the ‘end of history’ at the same time.

If we follow this argument of Hegel and Kojeve, the 1789 revolution declared the formal democratic principles of universal rights for all (male) citizens, including the right of media freedom. Ever since, people have been trying to realise these principles in practice through a variety of means (and include women within them). For instance, it has been claimed that media freedom would be realised in practice through public service broadcasting, the ‘free market’ and community self-organisation. In practice, all these different forms of media freedom have been elitist rather than democratic. Now, with the emergence of the Net, it is possible to see how every citizen could be both a producer as well as a consumer of media. Brecht’s dream of making every receiver into a transmitter is now technically possible.

However, contrary to the optimism of the technological determinists, the advance of science doesn’t automatically benefit everyone. The impact of mechanical spinning machines and the cotton gin was to reinforce slavery in the Old South not to free the slaves. There have to be social and political debates over how and in whose interests any new technologies are deployed within society. But, as I hope that I’ve shown in earlier answers, the arguments over the development of the Net are not necessarily clear-cut. For instance, both the neo-liberal and neo-Luddite positions are wrong because they try to over-simplify complex situations. On the one hand, the neo-liberal belief that cyberspace has to be organised as a free market doesn’t correspond to how really existing capitalism operates. On the other, neo-Luddite opposition to any involvement by private corporations in the building of cyberspace ignores the need for large organisations to coordinate social labour.

The social democratic response to these failed strategies should be to advocate methods by which we can realise the rational within hypermedia. Above all, the key issue is extending access to the new information technologies beyond the confines of the virtual class (aka symbolic analysts, knowledge elite, etc.). This is the problem at the centre of your question. Especially in the USA, the most privileged sections of the workforce have been tempted to shirk their responsibilities to their fellow citizens and to withdraw into their gated suburbs, including those built in cyberspace. As shown by their uncritical admiration for the liberal slave-owners of 1776, the New Right are happy to celebrate the social autism of the virtual class as an expression of individual freedom. Yet, the Left critique often takes the form of a blind hostility towards the new information technologies as if they’re a cause rather than an expression of the apartheid between the information rich and poor.

As social democrats, we need instead to encourage a creative miscegenation between the contradictory components of the mixed economy to accelerate the process of modernisation. For instance, the active involvement of government is necessary in the building of the infobahn, from imposing universal access requirements to subsidising cultural production. Similarly, the large corporations will play a key role in organising the mass production of digital technologies and information services. Above all, we should do everything to foster community and individual participation in producing and distributing information. If a self-reinforcing virtuous circle can be started, the development of cyberspace can become a process of inclusion rather than exclusion. In the long run, the democratic form of cyber-modernisation will even prove to be more efficient in the narrowest economic sense as well as providing wider social, political and cultural benefits. The philosophical ‘end of history’ for media freedom can be realised, but only by overcoming the practical and social difficulties encountered in constructing cyberspace within the contradictory processes of actual history. The electronic agora is yet to be built– and it can only be achieved as a practical task undertaken through collective labour.

E.H. You are currently involved in another form of alternative media. What is your latest project and who is your audience?

R.B. I’m planning to do another book. This will present the arguments in a less academic style, have more about hypermedia and be graphically rich. This is the pop single rather than the serious album!

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.