April 02, 2013
A Review of Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect”
by JOSHUA SPERBER
Robert McChesney’s Digital Disconnect (New Press, 2013) is an informed and engaging account of the internet’s history and likely future within the context of corporate-dominated U.S. society. Yet while the book is a useful catalog of the disturbing and sometimes bizarre attributes of today’s internet, its onus on the internet’s relationship to commercialism and advertising – as opposed to labor – as well as its pluralist conception of a “corrupted” state hijacked by corporations precludes a more thorough and critical analysis.
Commercialism on the internet, as in other arenas, has undoubtedly become more intense and intrusive. McChesney traces this evolution by looking at the internet from its military-created National Science Foundation Network days to the early 1990s, when a strong anti-commercial online culture defended a free and open public sphere, to its more recent exponential growth and privatization. To be sure, McChesney shows the eventual oligopolistic corporate dominance of the internet was hardly predetermined (Google currently governs 70 percent of searches, Amazon sells 70-80 percent of books online, and the top 50 out of 773,000 websites, according to Matthew Hindman, account for 41 percent of all internet traffic, with the top seven dominating). Indeed, McChesney recounts how the traditional media monopolies were horrified by the seemingly intractable obstacles to profit posed by the early internet: its unique elimination of barriers to entry (anyone could start a website); the difficulty in forcing users to pay for ubiquitous online content; the apparent impossibility of enforcing copyrights due to the ease of copying and distributing content, and the difficulty in ensuring that users would watch advertisements when they had infinite alternatives.
In short, the internet, for a moment at least, eliminated scarcity, which McChesney notes is a precondition for profit. Faced with this apparently existential threat, and facilitated by Bill Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act which enabled media cross-ownership and thereby paved the way for the reemergence of the old monopolies in a new sphere, media giants like Disney, GE, Time Warner, and Viacom went on a dot.com buying spree. In a coordinated effort to generate scarcity, the major media owners have since sought to establish “walled gardens” like Facebook, in which entry costs (e.g. fees, or personal data in this case) are effectively extorted via the isolation and inconvenience (some jobs require Facebook membership) of exclusion. Seeking “‘enhanced surplus extraction effect’ – that is, the increased ability to fleece those walled within… the giants are vying to be digital company stores in a national or global company town.”
Media conglomerates (and the state) have additionally manufactured scarcity by radically extending copyright coverage. McChesney notes that, libertarian mythologies aside, the market for non-exclusionary or nonrivalrous goods could not function without government intervention (notwithstanding Napster-founder Sean Parker’s memorable observation that the music industry had become a water-seller in a downpour, advising record producers to sell “umbrellas” instead). While the original aim of copyright protection was to encourage production through ensuring incentives, present-day media corporations, McChesney continues, benefit from what are in effect “government monopoly protection licenses” in perpetuity, halting production, competition, and creativity while generating artificially high prices for consumers. Nothing since 1920 has been added to the public domain, as media companies, rather than the artists they claim to protect, are guaranteed “rent” via copyright-cum-monopoly protections decades beyond the life of the artist.
Advertising on the internet also initially presented an obstacle to both websites in need of funding and advertisers seeking ways to sell to users. Whereas three television networks were originally able to exert relative leverage on advertisers with few other options, the internet’s profusion of websites has decisively shifted the advantage to the advertisers, forcing a surfeit of revenue-hungry sites to compete with one another over relatively scarce funding. Within this highly competitive context, websites are working to attract profitable advertising by using cookies to monitor visitors’ site visits and activities, collecting user data that sites sell to advertisers who then target users with highly personalized – and more effective – ads. (read more).
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