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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Duncan Blackie

Information tollroad


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Internet is set to transform our working lives, opening up all sorts of possibilities for communication and information. But, asks Duncan Blackie, who will control it – and who will profit?

‘One of the most powerful revolutions in the entire history of humankind’ is unfolding around us, according to unlikely revolutionary, US vice-president Al Gore.

The information superhighway, it is claimed, is set to transform our world – from education to the very organisation of work. From now on, what counts is what comes down a wire. Some have even claimed the step into ‘Cyberspace’ (using computers to you and me) will surmount racism and sexism as users become physically anonymous.

The Internet, as it is both technically and popularly known, is upon us – a worldwide system of computer connections which (in theory at least) allows any computer user access to any information held on any other computer.

Seen at the simplest level, the Internet is no more than a worldwide collection of communication links. The physical components of this system are things we have grown accustomed to having around us – computers and telephone lines.

What makes the Internet more exciting – and meaningful – isthe near spontaneous organisation of this network that has taken place so far at thousands of informal levels. Without the prompting of government or big business, groups of people around the world have set up such things as information banks and ‘bulletin boards’which allow the like minded to swap facts and fancies.

There certainly are potential benefits in this development which are already being realised by large numbers of people. And, at leas tin theory, great vistas of knowledge might become available to those who would not otherwise have access to it. There is no reason why the entire contents of the British Library should not be accessible through the simplest of computers. Even if you haven’t got a machine yourself, your mobile library could have a screen that acts as a window onto a whole world of learning.

This is the background to the huge out pouring of enthusiasm for the Internet. Political theories are now being woven around the idea of ‘networking’. In these, espoused by the ex-Communist Party spin-off Demos, ‘free’ access to all possible information spells an end to the tyranny of capitalism. Collectivised labour is now allegedly doomed, as everyone will find it more convenient to sit at home and concentrate on work whilst simultaneously changing nappies.

These theories are seriously flawed. The idea of the democratising influence of information assumes that inequality and hardship are maintained by ignorance. It is true that access to information is a vital component of any struggle for liberation – but it is not the key. Our rulers stay in place and have control over our lives,precisely because they own and control the means of producing wealth. The chief barriers to the working class taking over such control are the linked factors of organisation and confidence.

Of course, the use of the Internet could provide some technical means of organisation – in the same way as leaflets and meetings do. However, it is only through action that the working class can really gain experience and the confidence to win more.

The second fallacy is to overstate the extent to which the new technology can change the pattern of working life. Similar claims have been made about virtually every advance in computer technology. In the early 1980s we were told that robots would marginalise workers.

It is true that in the short term and on a local scale, new technology can lead to massive job losses as companies use it to improve productivity. With the Internet, there is also the added threat of dispersing workers to carry out their tasks at home rather than in offices.

But capitalists cannot escape the bind of workers being their sole source of profit. Workers have still to be exploited in order to keep the system afloat. So far the revolution in information technology has taken many skilled workers from drawing boards to screens, at massive cost and with no overall improvement in profitability. Other workers now punch high-tech tills in McDonalds instead of using fish and chip cash boxes.

And, while it is true that there has been an increase in homeworking – mainly of better paid technical and managerial staff with a career commitment to their company – the migration from office to home has been very small.

In theory whole swathes of workers could do at least most of their work from home. In practice every large employer knows it is only the careful structure of foremen, surveillance and office discipline which squeezes productive effort from workers.

Scepticism about the Internet, however, has so far been mainly the preserve of reactionaries. Right-wingers have complained that here is a medium not yet properly censored, and therefore not fit for public consumption. The real issue, though, as with all great technological innovations, is who will ultimately be allowed to benefit from it.

The Internet has one of its origins in the solution of a simple problem. In 1970 a system was built to link computers at the various different island sites of the University of Hawaii. It was in academic circles that routine exchange of the information through computers first developed and flourished. The US military became interested in the concept at the same time.

The proliferation of computers and the eventual adoption of a common method of communication (TCP/IP) spurred the growth of the network. As yet there is no actual owner of the Internet. It is still a semi formal collection of 25,000 different networks around the world.

In the United States Bill Clinton set up the Information Infrastructure Task Force to get to grips with how to benefit big business. Massive corporations such as Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp or the telephone giant AT&T were waiting to corner markets – if only subscription charges, copyright laws and access rights could be ensured.

Phone companies were allowed to levy their customers for the cost of laying the new cable needed for the Internet expansion. Football fans now have to pay cable or satellite companies for the privilege of watching what they could previously have seen free. Now big business is racing to turn the promise of the Internet on its head:information will cost.

According to the Financial Times:

’The Internet itself is being inundated with businesses signing themselves on ... more than half of 3,400 networks registered for the Internet were private businesses, compared to ... 4 percent educational centres.’

The Encyclopaedia Britannica is a test case. Think of the biggest, most expensive book ever, and this is it. No hymn of praise to the superhighway was complete without the vision of this work sliding down an optical cable. Well now a pilot scheme is going to let US students have a peek: payment by article.

Capitalism is therefore making a commodity out of electronic knowledge in the same way that big publishers, copyright law and bookshops have long made a commodity of printed knowledge.

This process is far from complete, and there are many millions of genuine Internet users who will continue to defy market dictates by continuing the tradition of free exchange of information.

However, in the same way that big business has put its tentacles around and concentrated the ownership of deregulated television and radio through sheer economic might, it is now setting up the tollbooths on the information superhighway.

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