Blog Post

Can The Internet Afford To Be Free?

A recent NY Times article, "One Internet Village, Divided," made methink again about a conversation we had several times this semester in"This Is Your Brain on the Internet," my terrific undergraduate ISIS(Information Science + Information Studies) course. Especiallyinspired by thoughtful interventions by Lindsey, the graduate "teaching apprentice" in the course,we often talked about global issues of equity and access. My persistent question was how can the  utopic rhetoric of a worldwideweb exist side by side with a global economy in which the gap betweenthe obscenely rich and the desperately poor grows wider each year. Clearly the Internet cannot "solve" a world economic crisis. The Internet is not a panacea but a global communications system that carries with it all the disparities of the human and international relations of our highly fallible globe. To say something is worldwide and everywhere is not to say, as we discussed often in class, that its affordances are dispersed any more equitably than other material goods. The utopic rhetoric must be countered by economic realism. Actually carrying out the idealistic refrain "information wants to be free" is not a matter of simple desire or wishful thinking, but requires actual, global, political action. No technology exists aside from the political, economic, national, social, and economic conditions of the humans who use that technology.


The Times article gives that issue yet another spin: in developingcountries, the Web may indeed be more equitable than society itself(not equitable in an absolute sense but relative to other forms of access available). Yet it is this very access across economic disparities that could spell the end of YouTube, Facebook, and other popular "free" sites precisely because, when serving a poor population,  they do not yield advertising revenue. The authors Stone and Helft make the case that, where there is advertising revenue from this use of(costly) bandwidth in poor countries, the whole business model of free social networking sites (already mysterious) is further imperiled. Since YouTube and Facebook and so forth are not altruistic endeavors but businesses, how do wereconcile "information wants to be free" with the inequal distribution of global capital? There are vast economic issues that have not yet been addressed. One wonders when the next Internet bubble will burst and what the global dimensions of that implosion will be.


Here'sthe url for the Times article:




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