[It strikes me that I should be blogging my lectures more often (my own self-assignment), so here goes. Here, I talk a bit about the nexus of politics, the internet, and journalism.]
Before there was news on the internet, there was news about the internet. When did journalists start to care about the Internet? During the first decade or two, it was virtually invisible. The precursors of what we now call the internet might have been mentioned in specialized publications, but not in the mainstream news. In the 1980s and 90s, reporters began to talk in earnest about the Internet as both the wave of the future, and the home of some very strange people. As the World Wide Web boom of the 1990s introduced the internet to a wider range of people, it started to become clear that this was going to be a mass phenomenon. The response was extraordinary hyperbole:
Right now, however, a real revolution is quietly taking place. … add a modem so the computer can talk to other computers, and a network so that there are other computers to talk to, and the home computer becomes a powerful communications medium combining the best features of mail, telephone and fax. – Independent, 1990
Operating as a whole, the network opens a new world of possibilities to parents, teachers and students. – Houston Chronicle, 1991
Future historians of culture will surely regard 1993 as the Year of E-mail. Nothing has so radically changed the way that millions of ordinary people can communicate with one another since the telephone first entered the home. – Los Angeles Times, 1993
Each day, scores of new businesses, ranging from garage-based start-ups to multinational giants, are setting up shop on the global Internet computer network by creating a “home page” in the vast, interconnected electronic publishing medium known as the World Wide Web. – New York Times, 1994
Existing in multiple dimensions at once hardly fazes the 48-year-old former Summer of Love hippie, draft protester, cattle rancher, environmentalist, Grateful Dead lyricist and Republican county chairman who has become the Information Revolution’s chief agent provocateur. A self-described cognitive dissident, Barlow is as engaging for his contradictory persona and unlikely past as for his gift of gab. Like cyberspace itself, he defies conventional description. – Seattle Times, 1995
At the same time that the mass media was praising the new medium, they were also damning it. The Manichaean coverage of the internet recapitulated earlier encounters with new communication technologies. Indeed, the homology between coverage, understanding, and relation to the internet and the telegraph is the topic of an interesting volume: The Victorian Internet. New communication technologies have always been imbued with some mystic power. It’s not that surprising really. The ability to communicate and make changes at a distance has always had magical and religious import. As a wider group of people became more familiar with each of these technologies, and those who did not go “online” at least knew others who did, it seemed a lot less magical, a lot less likely to change society for the better, and a lot less diabolical.
This did not, however, help in the early stages of the internet, when it was seen as as a den of iniquity, and its denizens were alternatively terrorists, pornographers, or both. The most infamous of these was a Time magazine article that reported on a propagandistic study on the prevalence of internet pornography. (The cover photo, by the way, was composed by an artist who would later regain notoriety for darkening OJ’s complexion on another cover.) Despite wide criticism of the flawed study, the US congress was spurred on by this cover to pass some of the first legislation directly aimed at the internet: the Communications Decency Act.
The CDA was eventually struck down as unconstitutional, but it served as an illustrative example of how regulating a new medium can go wrong. Some took the CDA, and its eventual reversal, as an indication that the internet, as a technology, was implicitly marked as Noli Me Tangere; that, to borrow the phrase for John Gilmore, “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The process of creating and fighting the CDA became an important defining moment of Net culture, and in the end, created a broader understanding of what the internet was about.
Nonetheless, it is still common to run across exaggerations of the impact, positive and negative, that the internet can have on society. A member of parliament in the UK, Syd Rapson, was quoted last year as saying “Using an area of the Internet the size of Ireland, pedophiles can make your keyboard release toxic vapors that can make you more suggestible.” It’s not at all clear whether or not he meant for this to be metaphorical, but it is a bizarre statement. When faced with a new form of technology, especially communication technologies, policy-makers have often decided to make policy first and ask questions later. Unfortunately, ill-informed policy often simply does not work.
With the telegraph, the news media quickly became the primary user. This has occurred much more slowly in the case of the internet. In the next entry, I will talk a bit about how journalists have come to use the internet, but much of the news about new forms of discourse online, even now, are written by journalists with very little hands-on practical experience with technology. Of course, space journalists need not become astronauts in order to report on shuttle missions. Nonetheless, the process of drawing out the most interesting or unusual aspects of a new technology often seem to end up overemphasizing both the good and bad elements of the internet, and miss the central thrust of the new technology.