Noam Cohen makes several very good points about the possibilities of social change occurring from the technological revolution of the Internet. Before we on the left embrace the Internet as a cure-all for the woes of modern consumerism and alienation, I think we need to reconsider the connection between technological change and social relations. Media are as much social phenomena as technological ones. Just because sweeping technological changes have occurred, social ones—despite the predictions of Cohen and many others—will not necessarily follow. Take media concentration, for example. Cohen has a point about the “freedom” that the Internet promises from pesky editors and global media conglomerates. But the facts remain: media are concentrated in a few corporate hands, despite the bluster of Internet boosters about “disintermediation.” The “we’ll print anything” sites do not necessarily constitute a more political form of communication, nor do they challenge the power of mainstream media. Power comes from the kind of integrity built upon a reputation for truth-telling, and just because something is in print or on-line does not mean people will be inspired to take action. Plastic, the Drudge Report and the various chain E-mails all suffer from this huge political downside of disintermediation and, ultimately, are no more effective than an individual yelling on a street corner. Take a look at well-meaning—but wrong—chain E-mails to “save NPR,” or oppose the Taliban. Both of the servers to which recipients are urged to reply have long been shut down. Messages urging people to stop “Bill 602P” which would “tax E-mail” are part of a hoax. The scheme to “click here to send a poor person food” or “donate a mammogram today” was set up by a for-profit company that was recently dropped as a donor by the United Nations Development Program because of its deceptive advertising and dubious finances. There has been some genuine facilitation of activism, but these resemble older forms of turning people out to real demonstrations or asking people to write real letters. Cohen points to the Direct Action Nework as being very good at on-line organizing, but many groups that use the Internet (were also very good at contributing) to the organization of major demonstrations through old-fashioned postering and bus logistics before their use of the Web and E-mail. The power of the left is still through organizing, and although there are ways that on-line communication can facilitate that, political power isn’t virtual.
As for the excitement about information yearning to be free, we on the left need to remember that people actually do the work of creating information. Napster, the popular music “sharing” service, isn’t the same as a public library where I can borrow CDs for free; it is more akin to an international bootlegging operation. Sure, musicians should get more money and not have to deal ...
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