Is the Net failing us as a communication tool?

Big business and media conglomerates are misusing the Internet as a one-way broadcast medium, says author Douglas Rushkoff. "The emphasis is on 'content' when the real unique feature of the Internet is communication." He says that's because media and computer companies "haven't yet figured out how to charge for putting people in contact with one another."

Big business and media conglomerates are misusing the Internet as a one-way broadcast medium, says author Douglas Rushkoff. “The emphasis is on ‘content’ when the real unique feature of the Internet is communication.”

The reason for the misreading is that media and computer companies know how to earn money by pumping out a passive commodity called information or content, Rushkoff says. “They haven’t yet figured out how to charge for putting people in contact with one another.”

New York-based Rushkoff was a keynote speaker at Culture Shocks, a conference on the growth and change of culture in the modern technology-influenced world, held earlier this month by Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.

When it was pointed out that people at the conference were paying more than $250 to get together and talk to one another, Rushkoff countered that they were also paying for the chance to hear overseas speakers and see multimedia artworks.

“Most of these people could meet one another anyway.”

Rushkoff has written several books and a fortnightly syndicated newspaper column on the present-day impact of technology on business and society, but he firmly disclaims the role of “futurist”. His presentation in Sydney the previous week was titled “Why futurists suck”.

Commentators who claim to predict the technological future are really aiming to bring about the changes they see as desirable, he says. Their motives and allegiances should be carefully examined.

Futurists assisted the digital network’s turnaround from a medium of discourse to a one-way channel to sell information, Rushkoff says. “After Alvin Tofler came out with his predictions, there was a very deliberate move around 1994 to start calling this the information age. The futurists stopped talking about communication, which was the real benefit, and talked only about the information you were going to be able to get from the Internet.”

This information has become increasingly elaborate — text has given way to photographs, video and virtual reality browser components that allow the Internet user to move through an imaginary landscape.

It is fashionable to talk about this trend as an increase in bandwidth (communications capacity). “But I think in practical terms, all this gee-wizardry is actually decreasing the personal bandwidth,” Rushkoff says.

“With old-style text-based Internet relay chat, I can keep up conversations with a lot of people concurrently — better than I could in a real room with that number of people. Threaded IRC [where the strands of text conversation are automatically organised by topic] works particularly well. But how many people can you talk to through a Web page?

“With CuSeeMe [Internet video-conferencing software], you’re made to look at an image of the single person you’re speaking to. By trying to simulate a real-life meeting, it sacrifices those other advantages of [simultaneous many-to-many] Internet exchange.”

Many news and conference areas on the non-real-time Usenet discussion channels are so swamped with advertising as to be unusable, he says.

“Businesses like Microsoft and Netscape, and Rupert Murdoch’s companies and [US cable TV and communications company] TCI are sponsoring interfaces that make the Internet as mystical as TV was in the 50s. When it was all text you could understand what you were doing: you saw through the interface and talked to the other person. Now you talk to the interface, as though it were the other person.”

For the reasons behind this trend “you’ve got to look again at what serves the dollar”, Rushkoff says.

“Complex software is expensive. It means you have to upgrade your computer every couple of years, and you’re getting less real communication.” Instead, through growing advertising on the Web, “it’s serving the objective of being able to sell the maximum number of things to the maximum number of people in the shortest time.”

Most of the things that made the Internet work were done by universities and the US military, he says. Most of the original software to access the network — email and news-reading programs, the original Mosaic Web browser — were distributed as “shareware”. They could be downloaded from the Net or obtained from a colleague legally at no cost. Most shareware distributors request a small payment if the software is used beyond its trial period.

Rushkoff says he uses the Opera browser, from Norway — simpler, faster and less hungry on computer resources than the Netscape and Microsoft browsers.

Ironically, Opera costs $US35, while the others are free. But that, he points out, is only because Microsoft and Netscape make so much profit on other software products.

A lot of the hyped selling of Internet products and sharemarket listing of the companies that produce them is “effectively a pyramid scheme”, he says.

“It’s designed to make money off other people who think they’re making money off you. The object of the exercise is to get to the IPO [initial public offering of shares]. Then you’re a millionaire, and you can forget about making a good product.”

Irresistibly playing futurist, he says: “As far as Murdoch and Microsoft are concerned, the Internet is just a placeholder for this future thing called interactive TV — which won’t be interactive as we [long-term Internet users] understand the term; it’ll just be TV with [programme selection]menus.”

Coincidentally, at about the same time, Telecom New Zealand confirmed it is investigating a “multicast” technology to send one-way programmes (initially in audio) to customers of its Xtra Internet service.

Optimistically, with television and Web access converging, “all that stuff will move off on to the [TV] tube, and you’ll do it in your living room”, Rushkoff says. Maybe the PC users will then return to something like the old-style conversational Internet community. “But maybe,” he muses, “the Internet was really just a stage in our education — a remedial class for people who’d forgotten how to communicate with one another. Perhaps in the future we’ll just go back to real life.”

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