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"The Nerds Have Won"

Brian Hayes

100 Million Channels and Nothing to Watch

In sentimental moments, the commercialization of the Internet is something I'm inclined to lament, but the bottom-line truth is that I would not willingly return to the age of precommercial innocence. I am too much the beneficiary of all that private investment. It's the culture of buying and selling that has brought a critical mass of people to the Net and has paid for the expansion of bandwidth and the development of new hardware and software. Even if you never order a book from, the infrastructure built to support Net commerce helps bring you access to library catalogues and archives of e-prints. Scholarship, research, education, art and all those other economically marginal activities get a free ride on the Doubleclick highway.

So I do not foresee the imminent death of the Internet from an overdose of marketing. But a secondary effect does worry me. The most characteristic elements of the early Net—mailing lists and news groups—were participatory entertainments, like storytelling around the campfire. Although there were "lurkers" who listened in without contributing, self-expression was encouraged. Anyone could be a producer as well as a consumer of Net content. In principle, the Web also allows such symmetrical, many-to-many interactions, but I'm not sure the tradition can be sustained. To explain my concern, I would point to the fate of another communications technology: radio.

Like computing and networking, radio began as a subject of scientific research (by Maxwell and Hertz) and then entered a phase of intensive engineering (Marconi and others). In the early years of the 20th century it became a playground for hobbyists and tinkerers. Anyone with sufficient interest and the technical know-how could get on the air, both transmitting and receiving. There was no licensing or regulation, apart from the self-imposed protocols agreed to by the community of enthusiasts. Then commercial exploitation began, first in niche markets, such as ship-to-shore communication, and later reaching a broader audience. In the 1920s, radio finally burst upon the daily lives of the general public. With commercial sponsorship and advertising, it became big business. The resulting investment of professional engineering resources produced technological leaps: Within a few years you could buy a ready-made radio receiver much better than anything the hobbyists could have assembled, and at a much lower price. But the amateurs lost control of their playground; they were exiled to a few outlying regions of the spectrum, while the best spots were reserved for commercial broadcasters. In the broadcasting era, radio became a one-way medium: Anyone could listen, but only an elite few got to speak. When television came along, it inherited the same one-to-many architecture.

I am not the first to suggest a parallel between the early history of radio and the recent evolution of computing and the Internet. (Eszter Hargittai has written at length on the subject, and it was also mentioned in the Slashdot discussion of the AOL–Time Warner merger.) A counterargument objects that the analogy is defective and misleading. Radio had to be regulated, the argument goes, only because the electromagnetic spectrum is a scarce resource; on the Internet, in contrast, bandwidth is essentially unlimited. Also, the equipment needed to produce high-quality audio and video is expensive, but anyone with a PC can make a Web page. On the Internet, therefore, we will all be free to create as well as consume.

It's a reassuring thought, but I remain uneasy. I would note that cable and satellite distribution have expanded the bandwidth available to broadcasters, yet television programming is hardly more diverse. And video equipment is now within reach of the serious amateur, but that hasn't made much difference either. You can produce your own television program, and you can probably even get someone to show it (on a "public access" cable channel); what you can seldom do is get anyone to watch it. The large media companies dominate broadcasting not because they have a monopoly on the spectrum or on the means of production but because they control access to the audience. What they have is marketing power.

In the early years, the Internet and the Web were a mass-media vacuum, filled with signals that would never have survived in competition with Time Warner. When I first wrote about the Web for this magazine, in 1994, there were fewer than 10,000 Web servers worldwide, and even amateurish productions attracted notice. I gleefully reported the discovery of Internet-accessible Coke machines and a Web site listing the daily contents of a certain graduate student's brown-bag lunch. Those sites are not likely to be featured selections at Yahoo or Netcenter today. The era of cheap thrills is over. From now on, if you really want the world to know what's in your lunch bag, you're going to have to promote it, preferably with halftime ads during the Superbowl.

Yet I do have hope for the survival of participatory Internet culture, not so much because of the boundless bandwidth of the Net but because a computer is not a television set. The word "programming" is used in both contexts, but with radically different meanings. A computer offers options beyond merely choosing which channel to watch. In front of the tube we may sit passively, but at the computer keyboard we are accustomed to creating, participating, making, fiddling, adjusting, changing, even deleting. If we can preserve that sense of the computer screen as a canvas everyone gets to paint on, then maybe the nerds will win one yet.

© Brian Hayes

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