You will never hear me utter the phrase, “I couldn’t agree more,” because nothing is entirely agreeable. The title to this book seems disagreeable for many, especially at first. Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, does not read as some absurdly unsupported rant. Indeed, nothing can be more agreeable than the facts, which is what this book purports to present. Indeed, it is engaging and enlightening, if not enraging and disillusioning. Concerning not just the evolution of Internet technology and policy throughout the digital age, but also capitalism throughout its course. This study, twenty-years in the making, published by The New Press, is a perfectly good place to start if you are an American entrepreneur working to launch a start-up or if you’re an Occupy protester. These facts help bring your strategy to focus.
Digital Disconnect focuses on American capitalism and the evolution of Internet laws through the economic lens. Thankfully, enough time is devoted to international comparison that a global perspective is well represented here.
My personal story concerns the premise with striking coincidence. In April, I was running errands and had planned to drop by KBOO Community Radio, to see familiar faces, because it was membership drive season and I wanted to renew. Listening to the airwaves while driving en route, the topic of Internet media and journalism was being considered, and it was throwing curveballs at all my assumptions: that the boundless liquidity of the Internet was spring boarding a new era of transparency and democratic media. Robert McChesney was on the air discussing his new book, which challenges my assumption in Chapter 1.
Copies were being provided as membership gifts. So I took my gift. Two weeks later it arrived in the mail. I read it in full in my spare time.
This was serendipitous. I had been dreaming of a new technology capable of democratizing all media forms through a simple Internet distribution mechanism—one that would require more bandwidth than is commonly available, but might work in a few years. It turns out several of my assumptions and progressive business model concepts are supported by McChesney’s conclusions. Maybe I am on the right track. But much more frightening was assumption versus real economic-political realities—the book began smashing my initial optimism. Though my business model may be revolutionary, democratic, and egalitarian, there are significant pressures against that: Capitalism.
McChesney pins me early in his premise as a “Celebrant”, characterized by a blind faith in the ecosystem of the World Wide Web, assuming the logic of it will simply follow the most egalitarian roots. Indeed, Steve Jobs was a hacker, a dreamer, Google committed to “no evil” and all the early developers believed in its power to elevate democracy while major communication industries largely ignored it. Despite those observations about the true potential of it, there must be equal parts economic savvy. Most Celebrants aren’t so savvy. Capitalism follows a contradictory logic, motivated foremost by profit, it follows that the marketplace wants to hedge out competition, not democratize access or spread the wealth. And ultimately, those visionaries ended up breaking bad as it were, damaging the Earth and enslaving people to produce these products, because profit demands it and treats any result other than money as an externality.
The Author does not apologize for Capitalism nor reject its important function in the heritage of American ingenuity, but he urges folks to consider what their priority is: democracy or profit? Because there is no evidence that these are happening side by side, especially when you consider the global playing field.
Unless the free market can enhance the growth of entrepreneurship, the great equalizing potential of the world wide web will actually be squashed by the vicious quest for profit in a new, global market, spawning a whole new level of monopoly, never seen or imagined by Adam Smith or our Founding Fathers. Put it this way; we’re not on Park Place anymore and certainly there is no Go To Jail.
The opposing view is that the Information Superhighway is treated like an interstate highway; American taxpayers pay for it’s upkeep, but it is maintained without profit as a public good. Trucks of information versus bicycles of information; the road doesn’t change. But numerous tricks have been played to limit bandwidth and access to it, to create scarcity and fix pricing. Amazingly, Americans have a slow Internet compared to industrialized Europeans, and in some rural areas, almost nothing. It’s comparable to charging varying tolls and varying rates to cross-different sections of highway—you can have a dirt road or a smooth freshly paved interstate depending on how much money you have—trucks or bicycles. Clearly, access to information is privy under capitalism, and so would our interstate system be, were roads not a federal non-profit program.
For a lot of developers and start-ups, entrepreneurship has been reduced to what was once called “selling out”. Basically, you develop something empowering, attract millions of users, and plug away at it until Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft finds your competition strong enough to acknowledge first, then they simply buy you out—maybe offer you a job. The powers that buy you out are enormous, with global marketshare. They all tend to pay dramatically less in taxes than old-fashioned industrial corporations, as Apple recently testified.
If you look close, it is alarming that in the last five years of heavy economic recession, the major telecommunication corporations, media outlets and producers have consolidated in to an oligopolistic powerhouse very much in collusion with political bodies. It’s not just lobbyists; it’s the inertia of perpetual terror post-9/11. These darker aspects make up the dystopian view of a controlled, censored Internet, ultimately looking like 1984. “The Skeptics” make up this group. Despite their observations about the true relationship between heavyweight corporate, military, and political interests, it’s not the Orwellian world yet—unless you’re in North Korea–so this book aims to unite the Skeptics with the Celebrants, by facing the hard facts.
McChesney premises everything by stating that our contemporary digital revolution is “arguably the most extraordinary and important development of the last half century.” Like the printing press, digital technology is embarking us upon a completely new society. Each renaissance in history tends to bring economic booms and lasting improvements in the quality of life and liberty. The gap in contemporary digital technology is precisely where the old forms of media and communication are closing. That gap could be tremendously creative and economically motivating, but new global monopoly means dramatically tightening up those gaps–especially with a legislative branch that decisively blurred itself from the same economic motivations that our Founding Fathers historically placed apart from office. And tracing the last 150 years back shows a very different world, one that changed gradually with the rise of new laws in favor of big business.
The Author chooses a call-to-action tone to handle the discomfort that comes with learning about the facts behind my synopsis. As usual, it turns off the reader that just cannot accept what is becoming commonplace alarm: that our system is failing us, not just in our current recession, but that it’s really gasping and going out destructively because its life cycle is naturally coming to a close. But if one can simply look at Capitalism, neither defending its every aspect nor rejecting its many flaws, reading this book will open your mind to alternatives.
Digital Disconnect is the result of extensive experience and continued research from an authentic, independent voice, and one of the most readable academic texts I have encountered—appropriate for graduate studies or community college. It is a feather in the cap of one heavily published author and professor. Robert McChesney is not interested in casting blame or ringing any false alarms. He follows Capitalism as a logical system, as well as the Internet as a logical system, following the relevant details of the system to discover fatal flaws therein. Anyone responsible for maintaining a system should have a process for discovery. Society shares this common system, so everyone is responsible.
Despite McChesney’s careful deliberation over the problems, he leaves a lot of questions. It reiterates a sense of uncertainty and fervor in the air, not unlike the start-up boom that showed so much promise after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which this book pivots around. On one hand, there is a society with greater access to information than ever—which is empowerment in the truest sense—and on the other, a society increasingly desensitized and nullified through advertising and absurd entertainment while true journalism succumbs to the whims of both technological changes and economic austerity. It is not 1996.
But now with the infinitely growing resource that is Internet, “the choice we face is whether to expand democracy or let it continue to shrivel: Expanding it requires confronting really existing capitalism head-on.” In terms of entrepreneurship and technology development, if you’re in the game or just an engaged observer, now is a great time to stop, look, and listen. This book does that for you.