Who's in Control? Hint: You Aren't

In my epic struggle towards a Ph.D. in mass communications, one of the more intriguing subjects I've had the opportunity to study has been the history of technology.
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"In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production, and in changing their mode of production, they change their way of living--they change all their social relations"--Karl Marx

In my epic struggle towards a Ph.D. in mass communications, one of the more intriguing subjects I've had the opportunity to study has been the history of technology.

And so it's been my unspeakable pleasure to make the acquaintance of one of those highfalutin' academia concepts: technological determinism. In opposition to their social determinist foes (more on them later, but most human readers would say they're the good guys), technological determinists (the bad guys) argue from two basic premises. First, that technology is autonomous, i.e., it develops and operates outside human control; and second, that it actually shapes society, and not vice versa.

TECHNO DRIFT

So even though the ape in "2001: A Space Odyssey" shaped a tool (actually, it just picked it up) for bashing in its enemies' skulls. The tool itself that reshaped the ape's social relations.

There are more claims technological determinists make, many of which we can find evidence for in technology's accelerating pace of development and deployment.

"Technological drift," for example, is the idea that the most significant force of social change is the accumulated unintended consequences of technology. (Just think of how your cell phone has come to dominate your existence, and you might find yourself nodding.)

Charting the course of broadband, it's hard to take a social determinist stance. We certainly want the higher speeds and all the glowing goodies, but with them comes a slew of content and tools that reshape our lives. Trying to figure out how to control all this (how to regain human "agency, " as the profs like to say) is difficult for any individual.

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

What are our allies in this struggle? Why, our institutions, of course. Our political, legal and economic systems, which benefit from all this technology, are potentially powerful enough to counter its most harmful social effects. And they're supposed to be acting in our best interests, shaping the technology so it serves us.

In casting a critical eye on regulatory and corporate forces that shape broadband, can we honestly say we're being well served? The first group has moved further and further down the deregulatory path, with its luminaries arguing that the less government interference the better. Just keep the playing field level, and the market will work miracles.

Over the past six months, Congress has been cranking out bills that would update the 1996 Telecommunications Act to establish one set of rules for all broadband providers. Backing this trend, the Supreme Court in June upheld an FCC attempt to redefine cable as an "information service" rather than a "telecommunications service," meaning cable operators will not have to share their lines with competing ISPs. The FCC followed this decision by classifying DSL similarly.

Semantics aside, the message is clear--if you built it, you own it. Or if we want to phrase it in terms of this argument--if you build it, you get to control it. So what are the two premiere broadband providers doing with all this control?

CHARGING MORE

First, they're charging more. January saw cable rate increases almost across the board, up to six percent for some operators. They mostly blame license fee increases from programmers (ESPN is the primary culprit).

Second, they're seeking ways to invest in new technologies through alliances with media conglomerates. Cable giants Comcast, Time Warner and Cox have inked a joint venture with Sprint Nextel to include wireless in their service offerings, making a "quadruple play" of IP telephony, wireless, video and high-speed data to compete with phone company packages.

Read between the lines and the deal includes mobile video services, a potentially massive revenue stream. (After all, doesn't your cell phone or iPod now have a video screen?)

The same content providers that are forcing operators to jack up rates are also looking at broadband as a path to additional revenues.

Disney's ESPN programming franchise rolled out its broadband content service ESPN360 last year, and it now claims 7.5 million broadband subscribers, while Disney Connection counts 11 million households receiving its broadband children's fare.

IF NOT YOU FOR YOU...

All this new stuff may sound glittery and grand, but it's what these companies are not doing that's so irksome--they're definitely not using the new technology they control to pass greater control on to customers.

With a full IP network, a multichannel video provider has the ability to selectively push programs or channels, or bundles of channels, to customers who request them. This means there's really no excuse for them not to give customers free rein.

The FCC seems to be moving in a social determinist direction on this. It recently issued a report saying that a la carte pricing will lead to lower cable bills, not higher ones as the cable industry claims (though this industry claim is not supported by Cablevision Chairman Charles Dolan, who has argued for more than a decade in favor of a la carte).

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has even taken the lead in arguing a la carte's case, saying the agency increasingly has been swamped with indecency complaints from parents lacking control over channels they don't want--pushing a powerful political button.

Cable and satellite providers have one valid argument--they don't have an a la carte option themselves; if they want to offer ESPN, Disney will force them to take ESPN2, ESPNews, Disney Channel, etc.

But that's all negotiable. If content providers and gatekeepers want to exploit broadband's vast potential, they need to do so with a minimal level of social responsibility.

At least let us decide what's good for us.

Will Workman can be reached care of TV Technology.