Hard Questions for Hard Times

Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms. Those words, the celebratory motto of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, expressed a revealing truth that by today's standards is shocking in its honesty.
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Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms. Those words, the celebratory motto of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, expressed a revealing truth that by today's standards is shocking in its honesty.

In 2002, few speak of human conformity as part of the transaction that we, as a society, make with technology. Rather, the modern pitch suggests that new technology offers us greater choice and "personal empowerment." It allows us to do more in less time and gives us greater personal freedom, the spiel goes.

In our culture, new technology comes from a single source - the corporation. The one and only reason a corporation introduces a new technology is to make a profit. The marketing goal of the corporation is to persuade us to not only buy, but to "conform" to the underlying technology of the product. Once we accept and embrace a new technology as part of our life, the corporation hopes to reap the reward of immense wealth.

NEW TOYS!

For Americans, the transaction with new technology has always come easily. New toys of the digital age are presented as the hip, sexy, glamorous accoutrements of an upscale lifestyle. We find justification to buy in. Most of us just accept it, use it and have fun by going with the flow.

That's exactly the proposition being offered to the public with the latest "paradigm shift" in technology. This time, however, the sales pitch is not for a new product per se, but for an idea that will shape the technical infrastructure for new electronic information products in the future.

In essence, it all boils down to the amount of "freedom" we give media corporations. The American public is being asked to accept the idea that, when it comes to controlling information technology, private enterprise should rule. Global media corporations, left alone by the government to implement technologies as they see fit, will do the fair and right thing for their customers, the proponents argue.

The fancy word for this policy sea change is deregulation. In plain language, it means that if the government imposes fewer rules on business, companies will function more efficiently and the marketplace will self-correct any abuses that might result.

From this mindset, the following policy changes are now being seriously proposed:

• That broadband access to the Internet in the United States will be increased by removing restrictions on telephone companies that forces them to open their networks to competitors.

• That America's television and radio broadcast stations will better serve the public interest under fewer corporate owners. The licensees would continue to get their spectrum at no cost, even though the airwaves are owned by the public, and the original spectrum loan was based on the broadcasters' "promise" to operate their stations in the public's interest.

• That a single media company can own, control and consolidate newspaper, terrestrial television, radio, cable, Internet and other information outlets in one local community.

• That a single company can own and control the only direct-to-home satellite television service operating in the United States.

The public is being told these changes represent the reform of obsolete rules and regulations. Outside of a few consumer watchdog groups, average citizens seem to know little or care about how these initiatives would affect their media. The issue has been a no-show on TV news, the main source of information for most Americans.

DIVERSITY? WHO NEEDS IT!

As with all new technology, these proposed rule changes are being introduced in the best light. Emphasis is focused on the benefits. The negative effects, such as the probability of higher Internet access fees and pay television costs, are mostly absent in the debate. Only after these policies have taken hold will the public begin to fully understand the tradeoffs made in embracing them.

There's one thing in this media consolidation race that's certain. The cumulative effect of these proposed ownership rules will result in far less diversity in American media. Consolidation means "Top 10" programming, designed to draw the largest possible audiences. Narrow or non-mainstream voices will disappear even more from primary media outlets, whether it be entertainment or news programming. The history of consolidation shows this, whether it be book stores, fast food or broadcasting.

The ability of average citizens to question and evaluate how we use technology is an essential survival skill in the digital age. Yet, most of us watch silently as the likes of FCC Chairman Michael Powell and others work to dismantle the checks and balances that have governed electronic communications since its birth.

Unfortunately, industry is hard at work applying, while we the people seem to be assuming our typical role of conforming.