7 January 2018 — investigatingimperialism
At the end of the 1970s, when I first started using and investigating digital media, it quickly became apparent to me, that what became the World Wide Web, was very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it afforded independent journalists and investigators, a vehicle for reaching a public outside the control of corporate/state media and whose only parallel lay back in the 17th century, with the invention of the printing press and moveable type, broadsheets and later the so-called Penny Dreadfuls. Sold on street corners and in coffee houses, and produced in literally hundreds of small printing shops, they challenged the status quo in ways previously impossible. Often banned and their writers/publishers thrown in jail under the then new sedition laws, they heralded the arrival of modern capitalism.
On the other hand, it was obvious to me, even in those early days, that what was to become the World Wide Web, had the potential to become a information monopoly by virtue of the immense power of the media and publishing corporations to dominate and control access and content, unless it became a de facto publicly-owned utility. The current battle over ‘net neutrality’ exemplifies this struggle over ‘ownership’.
My own forays into the world of online publishing, began in 1979 when I joined Compuserve, the first of what was later to be called social media, and as with virtually all revolutions in production under capitalism, its invention was a complete accident. A byproduct of the parent company, H&R Block, tax consultants who had offices across the US and giant mainframe computers located in Columbus, Ohio, where the taxes were computed.
The (expensive) mainframes stood idle outside office hours and one of Block’s employees had the brilliant idea of utilising them to build Compuserve, along with the nationwide network of AT&T’s ‘long lines’ (broadband to you and me these days), used to collect and send, tax data.
“[CompuServe] was known for its online chat system, message forums covering a variety of topics, extensive software libraries for most computer platforms, and a series of popular online games, notably MegaWars III and Island of Kesmai. It also was known for its introduction of the GIF format for pictures, and as a GIF exchange mechanism. – Wikipedia
CIS, as it was known, lasted until 1991 when it was sold and transformed into AOL, but the die was cast and at the end of the 1980s, along came the World Wide Web, operating essentially in the same way as Compuserve in that it used a nationwide network of leased lines set up by universities to share data for the US war machine, the Internet, created by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This from Wikipedia:
Originally known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the agency was created in February 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957. Since its inception, the agency’s mission is ensuring that the United States avoids further technological surprise. By collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners, DARPA formulates and executes research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science, often beyond immediate U.S. military requirements. – Wikipedia
Then along came Tim Berners-Lee:
[Berners-Lee] is an English engineer and computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He is currently a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford. He made a proposal for an information management system in March 1989, and he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the internet in mid-November the same year. – Wikipedia
But before the appearance of the WWW, there were Bulletin Board Systems or BBSes that worked in a similar way to the WWW but with one crucial difference, they were distributed and hence virtually impossible to control. I ran my first BBS on an Apple ][ with, would you believe, 248 kilobytes of disk storage and 128 kilobytes of computer memory, later switching to a Macintosh computer in 1984 which had even less memory until hard disks came along.
I called it New York Online (that’s where I was at the time) and it utilised a software system called Fidonet. I used it to publish independent news and analysis to the planet and it ran from about 1983-1992 (I hate the term ‘alternative’). And in fact it led to my involvement not only with liberation movements in Southern Africa but also Central America and finally, led to my explorations of the computer and capitalism.
But it was the arrival of the Macintosh computer that got me really interested in the relationship between computers and capitalism. So much so that I wrote ‘The Macintosh Computer – Archetypal Capitalist Machine?‘ In 1987 and republished many times since (without my knowledge) in both and electronic and print formats and since regarded as a seminal essay on the computer’s role under capitalism.
Well since those heady days, a lot of digital water has flowed under the virtual bridge. The Internet and the WWW are now not only ubiquitous but absolutely essential to the working of any society with a telecom network of some kind, be it wired or wireless.
But I think in the light of the attacks now taking place on the free movement of information and the subsequent attempts to control it, it’s worth remembering how the corporate media in the early days viewed the rise of independent, electronic journalism.
At first it was dismissed as the work of bumbling amateurs and with intense derision. I remember attending a ‘lecture’ on the subject where a ‘journalist’ from Fox News compared the work of ‘alternative’ journalists to that of an amateur performing brain surgery. Leave it to the ‘professionals’ we were told!
But as the role of independent journalism gained traction and started to actually challenge the role of corporate/state media, the tone changed to one not only of derision but downright hostility. That we, as independent journalists had no right to call ourselves journalists.
Then along came ‘social media’ (the phrase was an invention of a PR company), Facebook et al. Suddenly the state and the corporates changed their tune. All of a sudden ‘citizen’ journalism became the next big thing, as long of course as it didn’t challenge the mainstream orthodoxy. BBC ‘News’ was suddenly full of grainy, wobbly, unattributed footage from the various and sundry wars the Imperialists had going around the planet, all of it masquerading as independent and objective. In reality, it was a well organised propaganda assault on our sensibilities.
In the meantime, mainstream journalists were ’embedded’ with their military masters, starting with the illegal invasion of Grenada by the Reagan administration and brought to fruition in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. Independent journalists were denied access or protection. Indeed, assassinated by US firepower in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and no doubt elsewhere.
But the World Wide Web is very difficult to control without overt, and very public, central, i.e. state control. But control had to be reasserted. It was a dilemma for the elite. How to do it without blowing away the illusion of a free and democratic media?
Enter the corporate ‘social media’ (if ever there was a contradiction in terms, it’s this).
Facebook, Twitter and the other giants of ‘social media’ prove my initial point about how, given enough clout and enough money when integrated covertly into the state machine, control can be reasserted but a justifiable reason is required. Enter ‘fake news’.
What really irks me is that the left, independent journalists and activists are quite happy to participate in this gigantic confidence trick. But by the time we wake up to the reality, it’s too late. Control has been reasserted. Google, the main monopoliser of the free flow of information on the Web has developed the tools needed to censor and block so-called fake news, with its algorithms. And it’s done it with the active participation of the so-called security services.
So the World Wide Web, instead of being the means of freeing us from the corporate/state thought control machine, became our enslaver under guise of ‘protecting us’ from fake news put about by those evil Russkies. And all the while, we amuse ourselves on Facebook and all the other diversions from our increasingly intolerable reality.
The Panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are incentivized to act as though they are being watched at all times. – Wikipedia
Worse still, the corporate behemoths while spying on us for the state, monetise our diversions and in the process exert even more control over us by building intimate profiles of us. Profiles that include almost every aspect of what were formerly our privates lives. Our sexual predilections, our spending habits, our friends, even tracking us as we move about our daily lives. This is the proverbial Panopticon writ large! A Panopticon that Bentham could have only dreamed about creating.
Oh the irony of it! Even as we attempt to ‘spread the word’ on the evils of capitalism and imperialism, we facillitate the construction of our own imprisonment!