See No Evil

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 January 2001

Media is a consensus. It’s one of the ways we establish what’s going on in the world around us. That’s why it’s so important that the mediaspace remain open and free of censorship. We should all have a say in what it is we think is happening, and a chance to contribute to the conversation. The Internet provided us with just such an opportunity – particularly because it was free of the kinds of legal and business pressures that restrict more mainstream and broadcast media.

Demonstrative, martyr-making arrests of hackers and college-age Napster users notwithstanding, the greatest enemies to free expression on the Internet are not paranoid law enforcement, a greedy recording industry, or even an elitist ICANN board, but us. The emergence of new, interactive mediaspace offers us an opportunity to redefine the very language of power. Sadly, our readiness to accept the tools we are given in the form they are given as well as the rules they come with, reduces our role to passive consumption, and threatens to end the digital revolution before it has even begun.

The ability to dictate what we think about is controlled, to some extent, by the people who decide on the content of our media – which headlines will be printed, which groups will win recording contracts, and which stories will appear on the evening news. The ability to dictate how we think is controlled by the people who produce the tools of media – the browsers, file-sharing programs, and networks through which all this content is disseminated and, with any luck, discussed.

For a long time, the content and context of our media served to maintain the status quo. Interactive media – from computers to camcorders – posed a threat to both. They gave us the ability to fill newsgroups, web pages, and even cable television channels with our own stories, images, and ideas. A gossip columnist like Matt Drudge was now in a position to force Newsweek’s hand during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and thousands of young programmers were free to imagine new ways for people to communicate with one another – and then create them. It seemed as if no one could control anything, anymore.

Those of us who were worried about censorship focused on government as the main threat to progress. We successfully thwarted their early efforts at limiting the spread of “objectionable” content, and declared the Internet beyond the province of any government agency. The problem with suppressing the role of government, however, is that it gives business free reign. It’s like using antibiotics to combat bacteria; when the bacteria is killed, fungus grows unabated.

As a result, the Internet became a privatized zone, and altogether more insidious forms of censorship emerged.

The first, stoked by fear of hackers, spam, and Internet porn, was the mass migration towards the Internet’s safe havens. Many people still believe that using America Online or another corporate-branded ISP as their access provider protects them from email viruses. These users succeed merely in shielding themselves from the kinds of content that unseen corporate censors feel is dangerous. Like people who buy the edited versions of their favorite music CD’s at WalMart, they’ll never know what they’re missing. And all this, of course, is completely legal.

Likewise, the slow conversion of a public telecommunications infrastructure into a privately controlled direct marketing platform turns it into a territory where the only meaningful currency is cash. Ideas spread based on their ability to generate revenue, more than interest or thought. The ultimate broadcasting tool is the business plan, and while certain media pranksters – like and – are learning to create performance art pieces that exploit this principle, the bottom line on the Internet is the bottom line.

This is why most forms of online activism concern issues of market. The Napster phenomenon is a consumer revolt. While it may eventually influence the way artists and record companies sign their contracts in the future, since when is our role as a public voice to negotiate on behalf of Britney Spears? In the best light, Napster users are fighting for their right to distribute data that one of them has paid for. It’s a business angle, and the more it’s fought for, the more like businesspeople its advocates become.

So much for the content of new media providing new ways of understanding the world. We’re fighting over distribution of the top 40.

On an even more fundamental level, the tools we use to navigate and even create the landscape of new media make many assumptions for us, of which we are increasingly unaware. The Internet’s functional standards are set by companies like Microsoft, through processes that are anything but transparent. Participating in the Internet through a web browser is like experiencing the outdoors through a screen door. Our choices are filtered, and our participation is limited to typing in our credit card numbers and clicking “buy.”

Artists indirectly censor themselves by using programs like Adobe Photoshop to create graphics, Dreamweaver to design web pages, or Macromedia Director to make interactive environments. Most university courses, understandably, teach students how to use such software (often made by their own donors) rather than how to recognize its underlying agendas. Students graduate with a fine understanding of the media landscape, but haven’t a clue that it was assembled quite arbitrarily.

Lest we forget, the Internet was a mediaspace before it was a marketplace. Now that monetary values are assigned to our online activities, there’s much less room for alternative value systems to be entertained.

These days, we get very few reminders that computers are modeling systems, and that the market-driven Internet itself is just one of the models they can create. The efforts that do break through our complacency are usually destructive hacks on corporate web sites, or viruses that make our email programs go crazy. We unilaterally condemn such attacks because they cost real people real money. They threaten what we think of as the very lifeblood of the Internet.

But the people who launch these attacks are demonstrating, however maliciously, that the code is not yet set in stone, and that model itself is still up for grabs. It’s the only way we can still hear that message. I’m not sure whether this speaks worse of them, or of us.