Critically evaluate the view that the Internet facilitates not local cultures but cultural domination by transnational corporations
Research Paper (undergraduate) 2003 47 Pages
The early internet, whose invention Feather (2000: 2) compares to the revolution the exploitation of the power of steam brought about, was developed in the US in an university and military context and mainly financed by ARPA, the US Department of Defence Research Agency (Hesmondhalgh, 2002: 212). In the 1970s in the US thought was given to the need to back up computing systems in case of nuclear attack which resulted in yoking the machines together, which then formed part of what we today call the internet. Its development from there has been viewed as being in the hands of its users:
Originally, the Internet was a post-apocalypse command grid. And look at it now. No one really planned it this way. Its users made the Internet that way, because they had the courage to use the network to support their own values, to bend the technology to their own purposes. To serve their own liberty. (Sterling, 1993 in Winston, 1998: 331)
In Flichy’s view, ‘the characteristics of the internet are related, to a large extent, to the fact that this technology was designed for and by the academic community’ (1999: 36). Therefore, the fundamental principles of the internet were ‘free circulation of information, belief in the productiveness of confrontation and interaction, autonomy, and individual responsibility’ (ibid. 36). What is more, because the academic and countercultural computing cultures were made up of intellectuals, these cultures were able to produce accounts of themselves. Rheingold, perhaps the staunchest advocate of the capacity of the internet to (re)establish community and foster local cultures, writing in the early days of the internet, states that,
People in virtual communities do just about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind […] To the millions who have been drawn into it, the richness and vitality of computer-linked cultures is attractive, even addictive […] Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on [computer mediated] public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace […] these new media attract colonies of enthusiasts because computer mediated communication (CMC) enables people to do things with each other in new ways, and to do altogether new kinds of things – just as telegraphs, telephones, and televisions did. (Rheingold, 1994: 3, 5-6)
In the following pages we will be looking at how the internet has altered existing social relations of production and consumption as it has been acknowledged that the internet offers the opportunity ‘to challenge the authority of the producer, democratise production capability, and empower consumers’ (Mackay, 1997: 293). Many people, thus, have expressed the hope that the Internet can be a public space free of interference, both from government control and commercialism:
For those rugged, libertarian individuals who dare to venture there, the realm of cyberspace will reactivate the lost magic of a mythological past. For Timothy Leary, […] cyberpunks are the strong stubborn individuals who have inherited the mantle of the early explorers, mavericks, ronin and freethinkers everywhere. (Stallabrass, 1995: 18)
However, more cautionary voices remind that ‘many of the claims made for the internet today are replicating debates which occurred at the time of the arrival of both electricity and the telephone: the technology then and now is invoked as a way of talking about an idealized vision of the future’ (Mackay, 1997: 293). There are many obstacles to a fully connected ‘global village’ in which each local culture has its equal share or at least the opportunity for fair representation. The issue of access significantly restricts communication via computer networks, and the use of digital media in general. The barriers of access to equipment, education and skills and often the language, which we will look at in greater detail, make up the digital divide, that is the gap between people who have the ability to access digital media, and people who do not. Those inequalities as well as the appeal of the internet to a cosmopolitan elite pose the threat of ‘reinforcement of the culturally dominant social networks’, as Castells (1996: 363) puts it.
It must also be acknowledged here that the internet since its early days has expanded and altered to a great extent. As corporations and governments have realised that ‘there is a real power derived from [the] possession of commodified information’ (Feather, 2000: 3) use and control of the internet for commercial and political means and gains has ‘enormously expanded’, as Hesmondhalgh (2002: 214) stresses. He warns that ‘the internet has been hailed as the most democratic communication technology in history, but its exciting and progressive uses are in danger of being submerged by commercialism’ (ibid. 229).
Some, as Castells (1996), might argue that the internet is a technology of freedom, and that openness is embedded in its design. What becomes clear during the course of this paper, however, and what commentators, accusing Castells of technological determinism, have stressed (e.g. Axford, 2000; Garnham, 1998; McGuigan, 2001), is that far from being intrinsic to the technology, the ‘idea’ of openness is merely one of several competing ideas which might define the internet. Recent constraints of internet consumption and production are evidence that a less open network is not merely possible, but central to the more recent imaginings of government and corporate actors.
Then again, the ‘culture of ‘real virtuality’’(Castells, 2000: 13) that the internet represents is ‘in fact a fundamental dimension of reality, providing the symbols and icons from which we think and thus exist’ (ibid. 13), which is why the internet has also a significant impact on local cultures around the globe. Consequently, in the following we are going to examine what possibilities of consumption and production the internet offers local cultures as a platform to construct their own ideas of culture or history in the light of transnational corporations seizing and commodifying ever-greater parts of the web.
The internet and local cultures
The internet offers the potential for local cultures and individuals to ‘fashion themselves’, as Poster (1997: 211) puts it. The internet has the technical capabilities of a democratisation of subject constitution as the process of production of cultural artefacts has been put in the hands of all participants: ‘it radically decentralises the positions of speech, publishing, film-making, radio and television broadcasting, in short the apparatuses of cultural production’ (ibid. 211). A fascinating development in this area is the use of the internet by ordinary citizens to report breaking news as it happens: reports from China during the Tianenmen square massacre; reports from ordinary observers of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York; and reports from the ground during the war in Bosnia demonstrate ‘the power of the individual to contribute to the body of facts behind political issues’[i] (Thornton, 2002). Other sites such as Slashdot.org, are almost entirely created by its registered users, including new stories, comments on stories, reviews, and more. These can form real communities around shared interests and have the potential to be used as a basis for political and social activity.
Furthermore, information exchange on the internet is not regulated by any one central organisation or set of ideas, unlike more traditional media outlets, where content is regulated by an elaborate combination of industry forces and professional norms and procedures. This might provide local and indigenous cultures, like the Kurds, for example, which are restricted to form real communities by state-laws with a forum where they can meet and discuss their situation as well as with an emblematic platform and the potential for greater recognition on a global scale.
Linsroth (2002: 205), for example, exploring the interplay between global and local determinants through the Basque conflict in Spain, argues that varying mediums of communication such as the internet as much as material culture are significant conduits carrying political images and objects which have ‘value potential’ to transform society. Maxwell, therefore, asserts that while the Basques may not yet have an internationally recognised territorial homeland, they are ‘an electronic nation’ (1996: 327).
In addition, in examining exchanges in an internet newsgroup, which is focused on issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples, Iseke-Barnes (2002: 171), remarks that ‘the examination of these exchanges highlights cyberspace as sites where resistance to colonial misunderstandings and discourses about Aboriginal peoples is possible’. However, she also cautions that there are risks that with the ‘increasing commercialisation of the Internet dominant discourses might prevail’ (ibid.).
Another opportunity the internet offers local communities is the possibility of quick and cheap organisation of vast protest movements, which can be used to express concerns relating certain issues of national and global policy making. Ayres (1999), for example, sees that the internet is making it possible for grass-roots street protests to thrive, catching established political establishments off guard. An example is the organisation of peace marches against war in Iraq in London and elsewhere in the UK in 2003, which were mainly planned via email and websites[ii], ‘while sites such as Urban75 and YearZero.org not only give an alternative spin on the mass media but provide access to fully formed communities’ (Gibson, 2003a) (please see appendix 1 for a comprehensive list of anti-war websites). ‘Because it can reach more people, more rapidly and less expensively than other forms of communication’, van Slambrouck (1999) notes, ‘the Internet is revolutionizing the way activists organize campaigns’[iii].
On writing about the use of the Internet by Croatian and Kosovar Albanian communities around the world and the role of new media in the construction of national identity, Kaldor-Robinson, observes that ‘new media, particularly the Internet, […] have transformed the way diasphoric communities relate to their ‘homelands’’ (2002: 177). He notes that these new media make possible a dramatic increase in information flows both to and from the homeland, which in turn helps to increase the fluidity of identity construction and conceptions of collective identity, among diasporas and to a lesser extent among those remaining in the homeland. This argument gains in support by looking at the result of a survey carried out by Aldisardottir that examined the use of the web by local newspapers and its readers in Iceland, which found that ‘web-media is a preferred way for expatriates to keep in touch with their own culture’ (2000: 245), ‘revealing the power of web-media to become extended local tools, i.e. a news source for expatriates’ (ibid. 246). Global media can rarely offer more than a ‘thin’ content since the content has to be spread out to cover the entire globe (Hongladarom, 1999, 2001), and has to be complemented with the ‘thick’ local content where we find what Carey calls (1989: 18-23) the ‘ritual view’ of communicating – interactions among the locals themselves that constitute their lives and cultures (Hongladarom, 2002: 247).
Also, a study of Chinese intellectuals in the US has shown that ethnic internet provides people with the possibility to access news, ideas and values of their native culture even when they live in other countries, which ‘promotes acculturation behaviourally while helping to preserve ethnic values and therefore ethnic identity’ (Melkote and Liu, 2000: 502). ‘Contrary to the expectations of many technophobes’, Melkote and Liu state, ‘the effect of this medium is not to homogenise users into some kind of universal electronic identity, but to assist and sustain diversity’ (ibid. 503).
This reconfiguration of notions of proximity combined with a relative lack of centralised control influences the nature of the online discourse in three specific ways. First, because there are no overarching norms of content or requirements for authoring the texts, the identities of authors are often obscured or entirely omitted, thereby shifting the responsibility or prerogative from the author to the reader to interpret the content of each posting. Second, the discourse facilitates discussion through interactivity. Since all readers are potentially authors online, readers are not limited to interpreting the discourse but also play a key role in creating it. Third, and perhaps most importantly, CMC in general has revolutionised the ability of individuals and organisations to build coalitions and networks. Besides, the shift in the role of the author is prompted by the breakdown of opposition between author and reader on the internet, and the responsibilities traditionally restricted to authors are shifted to or at least shared by the readers. According to Mitra and Cohen:
The author is expected to give the reader the potential to transcend the role of a passive reader to [become] an active reauthor of the text as he or she follows and explores the links offered by the primary author […] the author is no longer bound to producing a preferred meaning but only offers a large set of potential meanings. (Mitra and Cohen, 1999: 187)
The redefined role of the author and the attenuated distinction online between author and reader result in assorted content and encourage readers to more fully engage with the material, assessing information by gauging its point of view, seeking independent verification and posting responses, for example. The decentred author and interactivity encourage online users to engage with material more critically and to add their voices to the discourse by posting material. ‘The Internet may be bogged down with brave new forms of branding’, as Klein (2001: 285) notes in her book No Logo, ‘but it is also crawling with sites that offer links to culture jammers in cities across North America and Europe, ad parodies for instant downloading and digital versions of original ads, which can be imported directly onto personal desktops or jammed on site’. As ‘mainstream media profits reflect the interests of the global corporations’ (Cox, 2001: 68) the internet offers media activists the possibility of cyber-jamming[iv], which ‘represents potent symbolic challenge to the sanitised filtered mainstream advertising horizon which would otherwise dominate [public space]’ (ibid. 71). But not only have ‘(h)activists’ challenged corporations on symbolic grounds, they have even engaged in the direct disruption of shopping, notably with a campaign against the online corporation Etoys, which had used legal action to close down art site, etoy[v]. The artists did so with such effectiveness ‘that their action (along with the recession) destroyed the company’ (Stallabrass, 2002: 228).
Groups and individuals have access to one another online and are empowered by the opportunity to establish alliances, to reinforce their beliefs and to share knowledge and information[vi]. Even commercial gain, it has been noted, is possible for indigenous cultures using the internet for their ends. ‘The global expansion of IT has been a blessing for women in the developing world’, Witchalls (2002) states in writing about virtual shops[vii] where women from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Peru, India and elsewhere are selling their handcrafted products online, thereby gaining access to whole new markets and greater financial benefits by selling to consumers directly.
It has been asserted that by connecting various sympathetic organisations and local cultures around the world, CMC can extend the reach of movements by offering a platform for representation and potential worldwide recognition. According to Appadurai, transnational media such as the internet contribute to grassroots globalisation, or the social networks of local cultures developed to resist a globalisation defined by and in the interest of corporations and nation-states. He writes,
[. . .] a series of social forms has emerged to contest, interrogate and reverse these developments and to create forms of knowledge transfer and social mobilizing that proceed independently of the actions of corporate capital and the nation-state system (and its international affiliates and guarantors). (Appadurai, 2000: 3)
A local cultural movement, which has been widely quoted in literature, especially for its use of new information communication technologies (ICTs), are the Zapatistas in Mexico. On 1 January 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, about 3000 members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took control of the main municipalities in Chiapas, Mexico[viii]. Though the insurgents were few, and the rebellion was readily contained by the massive counter-assault by the Mexican army, the resulting publicity ‘created a political storm that saw unprecedented concessions on the part of the government’ (O’Brien, 1999). Led by their media-savvy spokesman, Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatista movement has managed to elicit widespread sympathy within Mexico and around the world. The EZLN’s use of the internet provided an environment in which national and international actors sympathetic to the Zapatistas could and can be drawn into the conflict, ‘a phenomenon which exerts pressure on the Mexican authorities far beyond that which the EZLN alone could hope to deliver’ (Russell, 2001: 400). To Subcommandante Marcos, the support was both unexpected and welcomed:
There are people that have put us on the Internet, and the zapatismo [the ideology of the Zapatistas] has occupied a space of which nobody had thought. The Mexican political system has gained international prestige in the media thanks to its informational control, its control over the production of news, control over news anchors, and also thanks to its control over journalists through corruption, threats and assassination. This is a country where journalists are assassinated with a certain frequency. The fact that this type of news has sneaked out through a channel that is uncontrollable, efficient and fast is a very tough blow [to the Mexican state]. (Le Bot, 1997: 114)
In the case of the EZLN rebellion, which was ‘keenly aware of the power of words and symbols’ (Klein, 2001), an apparently local struggle linked with global networks of support in order to challenge the power and legitimacy of the modern nation and the global economic forces that pressed in on Chiapas. By using ‘information guerrilla action’ (Mattelart, 2002: 608) the Zapatistas ‘invoke the global in what is seemingly a local struggle’ as Russell contends (2001: 402). Ronfeldt and Arquilla (1998) argue that it was because the EZLN and their supporters used the internet as a means of mobilising networks of civil society activists throughout the world that they became as powerful as they did. In their words, the Zapatista movement ‘provides a seminal case of ‘social netwar’’.
The impact of the flood of online activity surrounding the Mexican Zapatista movement has been heralded by many as proof of the power of the internet to affect real world politics (Castells, 1997; Cleaver, 1998; Robberson, 1995). Curran and Park (2000) refer to the Zapatistas and their supporters’ use of cyberspace to ‘win international sympathy for their cause’ as an example of how ‘peripheral visions’ can reach the centre through new lines of global communication. By conservative estimates, there are now 45,000 Zapatista-related websites, based in 26 countries (Klein, 2001).
As these social forms developed in part through the use of CMC help to offset the traditional power structure, it could be argued, that the internet offers significant potential in the support of the struggle of local cultures in gaining a more democratic and authentic voice and that globalisation is not strictly a matter of transnational domination and uniformity but also a potential source of liberation of local cultures from conventional state and national controls.
The internet and transnational corporations
ICTs have transformed the ways people in the industrialized countries live their lives, even as scholars debate the relative advantages and detriments of linking economics, education and social life to cyberspace. However, as McGiugan reminds us, we should not overlook that ‘the history of communications media is not actually one of newer media completely obliterating older media’ (2001: 209)[ix]. While new technologies generate much uncertainty, the internet and other new media are not so much disruptive technologies ‘as vehicles that allow multimedia firms to reinforce their existing positions and to colonise new mediaspaces with their well-honed ‘brands’’[x] (Winseck, 2002: 802). In the US and Canada, the most visited websites and portals belong to telecommunications companies, broadcasters, newspapers and Hollywood, as Winseck (ibid.) remarks. In short, there is a certain resilience in the ‘old media’ that will not simply yield in the face of new technologies (Brethour, 2001: B1; McChesney, 2000).
Also, it has been noted that the new ICTs ‘can deepen the digital divide between have and have-nots and reproduce colonial power relations’ (Robins, 2002: 238). Transnational telecommunication companies and global lending institutions – and their vested interests in opening and controlling markets – are working to connect the developing countries to the global network and to colonise how the technologies will be used (Bray, 2001). Dutton and Peltu (1996: 5), for example, explain how new technologies are developed and implemented to reinforce existing power structures.
Access to modern technologies can usually be predicted by the level of structural inequalities, which reinforce and magnify the level of disadvantage in a global marketplace that offers greater choice, but at a price that only the rich can afford (Mudhai, 2001). Any discussion of this issue must, therefore, account for the extraordinarily first-world bias of the internet, especially in terms of access[xi] (please see Table 1 and Figure 1 in appendices). ‘The gap between the information rich and the information poor is increasingly overt’, as Feather (2000: 8) observes. The barriers to the access and use of ICTs in Africa, for example, are many and well documented; among these are the cost of equipment and online access, and the lack of effective training programmes and technical information (please see Robins and Hilliard, 2002). Access by the poor or rural is nearly non-existent on a continent that also has only rudimentary telecommunication systems[xii]. Akst and Jensen (2001) compare the deficit of information and communications with the lack of food and dub it ‘information famine’. As a result, it is predicted that the internet threatens to divide society into two classes: the information elite on the one hand and those not linked to the net on the other (Rosenthal, 1999). These concerns seem to be politically important because the underlying assumption is that information and knowledge translate into social power; inequalities in knowledge thus lead to exclusion from social resources and inequalities in social power (McLeod and Perse, 1994).
[i] Bill Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, a department of Oxford University devoted to researching the social impact of the web, states, that ‘the most obvious thing that the web provides is access to a greater diversity of viewpoints and a more international viewpoint. Although you have to remember that people gravitate towards sites that reflect their own views’, he cautions, ‘there's no doubt that there's the potential to access a wider diversity of opinion’ (quoted in Gibson, 2003a).
[ii] Alistair Alexander (2003), from Stop the War Coalition, writing in The Guardian, states that ‘February 15 […] underlines the extent to which the dynamics of protest politics have been transformed by the internet’. For him , ‘the much hyped age of online politics has finally arrived’.
[iii] Curran outlines ways in which traditional media could contribute to democratic functions, by acting as an agency of representation. He suggests that it should be organised to allow diverse social groups to express their views. The media should help organisations to attract support (for example, by publicising details of forthcoming protests and causes); help them to operate as representative vehicles of the views of their supporters; help them to protest effectively; and outline various alternative arguments and actions (Curran, 1991: 103). In that sense, the internet is certainly preferable to one-way-flow media like newspapers, television and radio.
[iv] Lasn (1999: 132-133) in his book Culture Jam describes some techniques of cyberjamming, such as:
Use the internet to gain immediate access to millions of like-minded souls to consider your proposal, sign your petition and e-mail it back to you.
Link people who visit your site directly to the site of your quarry, where they can find creative ways to lodge a protest.
Immobilize an enemy site by organizing a few dozen cyberjammers simultaneously to request more texts, pictures, animations and multimedia elements than the site can handle.
Create and maintain a site dedicated to uncooling one particular corporation or brand.
He is also convinced that the internet ‘is one of the most potent meme-replicating mediums ever invented. With cyberspace growing at about the rate of an infant and with users always looking to pass on a scoop, good memes reproduce furiously’. As an example he names ‘Buy Nothing Day’, which in 1997 ‘grew from a relatively small counterculture event in the Pacific North-West to one of the biggest outburst of anticonsumer sentiment the world has ever seen. Anyone with a PC and a modem could get to the Media Foundation’s website (www.adbusters.org), download a Buy Nothing Day poster and a T-shirt template, and view QuickTime versions of the Buy Nothing Day TV campaign. And hundreds of thousands did’ (Lasn, 1999: 133).
[v] Artists have inhabited online space alongside corporations that made concerted efforts to force the change from forum to mall. That commercial colonisation has been a rich subject for net artists who have produced many sharp and sophisticated pieces designed to draw the shopper up short. One of the most notorious was etoy’s Digital Hijack which diverted surfers who had typed in keywords such as ‘Madonna’, ‘Porsche’ and ‘Penthouse’ into a search engine, and clicked on etoys’ top-rated site, being greeted by the response: ‘Don’t fucking move. This is a digital hijack’, followed by the loading of an audio file about the plight of imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick, and the hijacking of the Internet by Netscape (Stallabrass, 2002: 226). Mitnick became a cause celebre for the hacking community, and for those wishing to ensure freedom of expression on the net generally. For a site devoted to his support, please see http://www.kevinmitnick.com. For information about the eToys dispute, please see http://www.toywar.com/. See also http://www.RTMark.com.
Others, including Rachel Baker with her examination of customer surveys, data mining and loyalty cards, have come into dispute with corporations using the copyright laws to suppress freedom of speech. Baker made a site promising web users who registered for a Tesco’s loyalty card points as they surf. Provided they filled in a registration form that asked questions such as ‘Do you often give your personal data to marketers?’ and ‘How much is your personal data worth to marketing agents?’. She soon received a letter from Tesco threatening an injunction and damage claims (For the letter, please see http://www.irational.org/tm/archived/tesco/; for the work, please see http://www.irational.org/tm/archived/tesco/front2.html.)
[vi] Castells places emphasis on the virtues of local communities as ‘defensive reactions against the impositions of global disorder’ (1997: 64). We should, however, not overlook here that the constitution of locally based identity, a feeling of belonging or the sense of being an insider, simultaneously produces, in and for others, a sense of detachment and feelings of difference, and creates outsiders and strangers, if not enemies (Bauman, 1995). An example would be neo-nazi or other racist sites on the internet. Local communities may ‘constitute defensive identities against unpredictable, uncontrollable and unknown global flows, but they may also represent offensive identities against other excluded constituencies’ (Smart, 2000: 62).
[vii] Examples for such e-retailing are the following websites: http://www.southbazar.com/, http://www.alyad.com/e-default.asp, http://www.indiashop.com/, and http://www.elsouk.com/.
[viii] Simply stated, the Zapatistas are fighting for democratic reforms that will end the corrupt politics and unjust economic practices prevailing in Mexico. More generally, they oppose the new global order, which they see as another instance of the colonisation that began over 500 years ago. The Zapatistas and many others expected NAFTA to drive large numbers of workers off the land, contributing to rural misery and a surplus of labour (Chomsky, 1995). They are fighting against the exclusionary consequences of economic modernisation, but they also challenge the inevitability of a new geopolitical order under which capitalism would become universally accepted (Castells, 1997). For further background on the ELZN struggle and their use of the internet to disseminate their message, please see Castell (1997), Cleaver (2003), Collier (1994), and Russell (2001).
[ix] Douglas (1987) detailed how radio broadcasting revolutionised the way that people conceived of communication, and she documented how it built up hope for the extension of public communication and the improvement of democracy. The potential of televised communication had met with similar enthusiasm (Abramson et. al, 1988). Nowadays, both media have transformed and produce commercial, formulaic programming for the most part. Advertising revenue has more impact on programming than democratic ideals. The concentration of ownership and standardisation of programming have been documented by several scholars (e.g. Bagdikian, 1983; Ettema and Whitney, 1994), and growing public cynicism about media coverage undermines the democratising potential of the mass media.
[x] McChesney (2000), for instance, stresses that ‘the Internet as a technology, in short, will not free us from a world where Wall Street and Madison Avenue have control over our journalism and culture’.
He gives six reasons why he thinks that ‘the media giants have blown any prospective competitors out of the Internet waters’:
1. The giant media firms are willing to take losses on the Internet that would be absurd for any other investor to assume. For a Disney or Time Warner or Viacom to lose $200-$300 million annually on the Internet is a drop in the bucket, if it means their core activities worth tens of billions of dollars are protected down the road. As one media executive put it (Advertising Age, 08/06/98), Internet "losses appear to be the key to the future." The media giants have to try to cover all their online bases until they can see how the Internet develops as a commercial medium. For any other investor, who is not protecting media assets worth $50-100 billion, assuming such annual losses would be absurd and irrational. The same money could be spent pursuing some other aspect of the Internet (or economy writ large) and generate much larger returns with less risk.
2. The media giants have digital programming from their other ventures that they can plug into the Web at little extra cost. This, in itself, is a huge advantage over firms that have to create original content from scratch.
3. To generate an audience, the media giants can and do promote their websites incessantly on their traditional media holdings, to bring their audiences to their online outlets. By 1998, it was argued that the only way an Internet content provider could generate users was by buying advertising in the media giants' traditional media. Otherwise, an Internet website would get lost among the millions of other web locations. As the editor-in-chief of MSNBC on the Internet put it (Electronic Media, 19/01/98), linking the website to the existing media activity "is the crux of what we are talking about; it will help set us apart in a crowded market." Indeed, much of the TV advertising boom of the past year is attributed to Internet firms spending wildly to draw attention to their web activities. The media giants can do at nominal expense what any other Internet firm would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish.
4. As the possessors of the hottest "brands," the media firms have the leverage to get premier locations from browser software makers, ISPs, search engines and portals. The new Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 offers 250 highlighted channels, and the "plum positions" belong to Disney and Time Warner. Similar arrangements are taking place with Netscape and Pointcast. Indeed, the portals are eager to promote "Hollywoodesque programming" in the competition for users.
5. With their deep pockets, the media giants are aggressive investors in start-up Internet media companies. Some estimates have as much as one-half the venture capital for Internet content start-up companies coming from established media firms (Herman and McChesney, 1997). The Tribune Company, for example, owns stakes in 15 Internet companies, including the portals AOL, Excite and iVillage, which targets women.
Some media giants, like Bertelsmann and Sony, have seemingly bypassed new acquisitions of traditional media to put nearly all their resources into expanding their Internet presence. GE's NBC arguably has taken this strategy the furthest. To cover all the bases, GE has invested over $2 billion in more than 20 Internet companies, in addition to NBC 's own web activities. "It wants to be wherever this thing takes off," an industry analyst said (Electronic Media, 10/08/98). In sum, if some new company shows commercial promise, the media giants will be poised to capitalize upon, not be buried by, it.
6. To the extent that advertising develops on the Web, the media giants are positioned to seize most of these revenues. Online advertising amounted to $900 million in 1997, and some expect it to reach $5 billion by 2000 (Electronic Media, 23/03/98; 06/04/98). The media giants have long and close relationships with the advertising industry, and can and do get major advertisers to sponsor their online ventures as a package deal when the advertisers buy spots on the media giants' traditional media.
[xi] -NUA estimated in August 2001 that just 8.46% of the world's population had access to the Internet (NUA, 2001), ranging from .01% in poor countries like Chad to 63.55% in countries like Sweden.
- the largest part of the world population has no physical access to the new technologies now or the possibility of access in the near future. Even by 2005, four-fifths of the population will not have access to ICTs. (In 2005 it is estimated there will be only 1 billion users out of a world population of 5 billion.) (Netchaeva, 2002: 471).
- The developed world dominates content, with 64% of internet host computers located in the USA and Canada, and another 24% in Europe (Raphael, 2001).
- There were more hosts in New York than in all of Africa (ibid.)
- African governments will continue to have a difficult time trying to achieve social goals – such as universal access to ICTs – in a more and more competitive environment (Nulens and Van Audenhove, 1999).
- Also, literacy rates and education vary widely across the world, and are minimal or non-existent in many places.
- The average Sierra Leonean would have to pay 118% of her or his earnings to pay for a month of internet access (Raphael, 2001).
- However, low penetration is not confined to poorer developing countries. Even in Southern Europe, only 8% of homes have internet access in 1999, according to Eurobarometer figures cited by Murdock (2000: 53).
- In addition, in 1997, the UK Office of National Statistics showed that of the 20% of households with the lowest income only 8% owned home computers, whereas 79% owned telephones. But of the households with the highest 20% of income, 57% had a PC (quoted in Hesmondhalgh, 2002: 215).
- These figures had changed little by 1999. According to Anderson et. al (1999) nearly 60% of households in the highest (professional and managerial) social classes in the UK own computers, but this declines in skilled and semi-skilled households to 25% and 12% respectively.
- These figures are unlikely to change in the near future as technology such as PCs is changing continuously making the technology lower income classes might gain access to seem outmoded and outdated as a new generation of networked devices arrives.
[xii] Golding (1998: 75–6) notes that Africa has just 3 percent of the world’s television sets, 2 percent of the world’s daily newspapers and 6 percent of the world’s radio receivers.
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