Last week WIRED reported that movie rental and streaming site Netflix accounts for 22% of U.S. broadband traffic, taking the top spot from peer-to-peer file sharing site Bit Torrent. CNN.com republished the article under the headline “Most content online is now paid for, thanks to Netflix.” The headline indicates the paradigm shift here, the real reason this story is newsworthy and my main for taking interest in it: the continued shift in Internet usage from communication to commerce.
In his essay “Digital Seductions” (published in the anthology You are still being lied to edited by Russ Kick), Norman Solomon writes:
“The Web has been extensively integrated into the commercial twenty-first-century Zeitgeist – reflecting, hyping, and boosting a consumer culture – to the point that the notion of the Internet as an “information superhighway” now sounds antiquated.”
Solomon’s essay also charts the “rampant commercialization” of the World Wide Web by analyzing news articles about the Web from 1995 to 1999, showing how reportage on the Internet shifted from focusing on the medium as a knowledge source and communication tool to emphasizing the commercial potential (References to the “information superhighway” decreased from 4,562 stories in 1995 to 842 in 1999. Mentions of “e-commerce” increased from 915 stories to 20,641 during the same period.).
Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff contributed an essay to the same volume titled “The Information Arms Race”. Rushkoff recounts the feelings of nearly Utopian optimism shared by members of the emerging cyberculture regarding the potentials of the Internet, feelings he evinced himself in the books Cyberia and Media Virus! Evoking the rapturous mysticism of McLuhan’s religious vision of the electronic unification of consciousness, Rushkoff writes:
“To some, it was as if the human race was hardwiring its members together into a single, global brain. People talked about the Internet as if it were the realization of the Gaia Hypothesis – the notion that all living things are part of the same, big organism. Many believed that the fledgling communications infrastructure would allow for the beginning of global communication and cooperation on a scale unimagined before.”
In the subsequent paragraphs Rushkoff laments the squandering of this initial vision for communication as the revolutionary potential of the Internet materialized as more of the same. The “great trick,” Rushkoff writes, in corrupting the Internet into a controllable mass medium, was to replace communication with information. Differing from common conceptions of the Internet, Rushkoff argues that the read-only nature of the Internet renders it incapable of fostering true communication.
“We don’t socialize with anyone when we visit a Website; we read text and look at pictures. This is not interactivity. It is an “interactive-style” activity. There’s nothing participatory about it.
Instead of forging a whole new world, the Web gives us a new window on the same old world. The Web is a repository for information. It is dead. While you and I are as free to publish our works on the Web as Coke is to publish its advertising or The Gap is to sell its jeans, we have given up something much more precious once we surrender the immediacy of a living communications exchange. Only by killing its communicative function could the Web’s developers turn in the Internet into a shopping mall.
The current direction of Internet technology promises a further calcification of its interactive abilities. Amped-up processing speed and modem baud rates do nothing for communication. They do, however, allow for the development of an increasingly TV-like Internet.“
Rushkoff drives the point home by revealing the engineering of the Internet into more TV to be the endgame of the media establishment.
“The ultimate objective of today’s communication industry is to provide us with broadcast-quality television images on our computers. The only space left for interactivity will be our freedom to watch a particular movie “on demand” or, better, to use the computer mouse to click on an object or article of clothing we might like to buy.”
Finally, Rushkoff warns against being fooled into believing that we have won the Information Arms Race just because we have the right to select data with a computer mouse instead of a TV remote. He has also said that the corporate control of the Internet in the U.S. will not resemble a top-down Chinese style of control, but that American consumers will simply surrender their agency in exchange for entertainment.