The Information Superhighway: Paving Over the Public
Interview with Herbert Schiller
From the March, 1994 issue of Z Magazine*
OPEN PAMPHLET: Professor Schiller, right now the major media are promoting, advertising, and exciting people with talk of an "information superhighway" The corporateowned media are doing their best to dazzle us with all the new consumer opportunities we'll have in an interactive 500 channel future which will enable us to shop from our bedrooms. You, on the other hand, are among a small group of scholars who scathingly criticize this portrait of things. Instead of a "global village" you foresee a global mall owned and controlled by corporations who are largely unaccountable to the nationstates in which they operate. Will you elaborate on this for us?
A: SCHILLER: I would have no objection to a genuine expansion of communication channels in this country or globally, if I had even the slightest reason to believe that those channels would be used in a social direction and address the staggering amount of unmet needs that people have in the United States and around the world. There are untold educational needs, health needs, and general cultural needs of a wide variety. There are untold recreational needs of a very different character. So, I don't have any problem with the introduction of more channels for communication. But I get very uneasy as I follow the discussions of control and the beginnings of the implementation of policy in what is called the electronic superhighway.
Nothing of what I am going to say is any secret. Most information about this is available to the public. There's a great deal of boastful commentary and promotional hype, and a lot of it clearly reveals what the underlying plans and intentions are for this highway. In fact, the best source of information is in the documents expressing Clinton and Gore's views called the National Information Infrastructure (NII) Agenda For Action.
Behind all the hype shaping the electronic highway are corporate interests. These huge companies are doing the most natural thing in the world to them; following their own corporate interest. They're following their balance sheet requirements. They want to find markets that will give them very lucrative rates of return. This is how the corporate economy operates. They take their own set of aims, doctor them up, and present them as the aims of the entire society. But if we think about it, our interests are very different from these corporate interests. As the NII policy is being formed and implemented, the interests of the general public are being marginalized. It is not for the public's sake, but for the interest of this much smaller group of influential companies that all of this discussion, all of these programs, and all of this policymaking are moving ahead.
Q: Your article in the Nation (July 12, 1993) suggests that commercial expansion is resulting in the extinction of the public sphere. Can you comment more on this?
A: Yes. A clear example of this can be seen in the case of public libraries. The public library has been one of the most democratic institutions in American history. When you read biographical statements of this country's most distinguished writers, many times you'll find them describing what a tremendous debt, or what gratitude they owe to the public libraries. It was a place they entered without any real barriers, picked up a book, and read. The public library has been one of the most progressive institutions in American history. Yes, it's got deficiencies. No one's saying it's a perfect institution. But, by and large, in comparison, it's been a much more democratic institution than others. And one of the cardinal principles of the public library system is that information is to be available for everyone, and it's to be available without cost. Free. Funding comes from the community. Therefore, the principle of unlimited and free public access has been the cornerstone of this democratic institution. And what's happening now? As with so many other things in this society, information is being turned into a good for sale. A good that's made available on the basis of payment, a commodity. Of course, information has always been part of commodities. Books and newspapers were always sold. But a really massive change has been under way due to the technologies that can transfer and reorganize bits of data and information, and now an area that never had the attention of private enterprise is being regarded as source of massive profit.
An information industry has been developing since 1968. Companies involved in the industry say they are doing very valuable things. It's true that they are creating certain information services that were never available before. One wouldn't argue with that. But they're doing it on a commercial basis, which means that information which once was or could have been available free, now is available for a charge. If you have any experience hooking your computer in with databases, you know that you have to pay.
Q: As with Lexis or the Internet
A: The Internet isn't too costly compared with Lexis, which is a very expensive service. Highpowered corporate law firms have so much money that these services represent no large expense. If you're in such a firm you can connect with the information at no personal cost, but if you are outside the firm, as an ordinary individual, and you want to access the material in Lexis or Nexis, you will pay a very heavy charge.
The amounts of information available are increasingly refined and sophisticated. For example, a person can search out how judges voted on a given court case, and how many cases represent a particular point of view. All of this information is available "on line," but it's available commercially, and the costs can be substantial.
Information is just one area where you see this happening, and, of course, the informationarea commercializing the fastest is government, which has previously made its information available for free. More and more of the government's data is being funneled into private, commercial vendors who repackage it and then sell it for profit to whoever can pay for it at the prices that are commercially established. Putting basic items or basic kinds of goods into a commercial format automatically creates divisions in your society, because not everybody has the same ability to pay. And this is what's going on. The entire education system is experiencing this trend, from the public schools to the universities. One of the greatest representatives of the commercial trend is the Whittle Corporation.
Mr. Whittle, as you know, broadcasts his Channel One program into approximately 1,000 high schools, delivering the commercial message right into the classroom. It's the ultimate example of what I'm talking about, where a public arena gets transformed into a commercial pit. And what Whittle is doing to the classroom is being done to people in every sector of society. Anywhere you go in society, anywhere, your senses are invaded and intruded upon.
The complete commercialization of space and information is proceeding rapidly. A fundamental quality of American life is being changed under our noses. Ironically, each one of these changes is being hailed as a marvelous benefit to the population. It's an unbelievable trick. Things that are fundamentally changing for the worse, the limiting of access to information and the commercialization of public space, are being presented as wonderful benefits in the offing. It's a sickening congame.
Q: In a scenario where large blocks of information are owned by corporations entire classes of people will be excluded. The emerging information superhighway will further alienate society in so far as it'll be a payonly access.
A: Part of the Clinton administration's job in building the information superhighway involves auctioning off longterm leases to frequencies on the radio spectrum. This is a tremendous change. And it is happening almost without comment or debate. Now what does this mean? It means they're taking a portion of public property, the radio spectrum, justifiably considered a natural resource, just like a timber stand, or a waterfall.
Q: Like a national park.
A: Exactly. All of these things are public property, national resources. Radio was originally intended as a people's resource. And, as such, it has been very badly abused and mismanaged, there's no question about it. The people who have received licenses to broadcast have failed in their commitment to the public mandate. Radio broadcasters have screwed the public and used the radio spectrum for their own personal profit while they were under mandate to serve the public's interest.
Q: The 1934 Federal Communications Act required that broadcast stations operate "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity."
A: This Act protected the use of public property, the radio spectrum. Up until the present time, public property was considered, in a sense, inviolate. Now, the government is under enormous pressure from a massive onslaught of corporate users, who are no longer satisfied with getting shortterm leases. ABC, CBS, and all the other big networks have huge sections of the spectrum licensed to them, not given to them. They have their leases automatically renewed without having to conform to "the public interest, convenience, and necessity" in any substantive way. Now the government is actually auctioning off licenses to the highest bidder. How do they present this to the people? They say, this is a wonderful opportunity to raise billions of dollars and bring an end to mismanagement of the spectrum. They tell the general public that $10 billion will be raised. Most people are impressed. The Administration sells off something that most of us have little knowledge of. Where is it? What is it? It's very intangible. The public loses access to a natural resource, and the government gets $10 billion while saying that everybody will be benefiting. That's the kind of baloney that's being passed on to people these days.
Q: I remember the article in the New York Times (Sept. 24 1993) that pitched the auctioning of the radiowaves as proconsumer in so far as Jane and Joe Consumer will be able to use cellular phone services at a fraction of the present cost. That's how we're sucked into it. Thinking that we'll again lower charges for something like cellular phone usage while actually losing a piece of a Yosemite or Yellowstone, you know, a national resource.
A: I think this is the most costly single example of conversion of public resources into private resources, one which we will have to pay for endlessly. The money the public will have to pay to access the radio spectrum after it's leased off will far exceed the money the government garners from selling the leases. If it were otherwise, these companies wouldn't purchase the leases to begin with. More importantly, we will no longer be able to decide for ourselves not as individuals, but as a community, a national public how this resource should be used.
Maybe we don't want to give the radio spectrum out to the cellular phone industry. We have to ask, Who's going to use these services? And for what purposes?
Once you hand this over to corporate control you alienate it from the public arena, you lose your democratic rights over its disposition. It's a profound decision we are facing as a society. What's so upsetting is that it occasions no discussion.
Q: Why the sudden imperative to auction these longterm leases?
A: The argument of those who are happy with this new policy is that the spectrum, up to this point, has not been used efficiently.
What if, as a society, we had a very different set of criteria for what is and isn't efficient and what is and isn't profitable? How could you ever calculate the value of utilizing the spectrum for the community's benefit? It's priceless.
A vast chunk of the channels are still held by the military, the Department of Defense. They use it for all kinds of purposes: navigational, satellites, spying, etc. I think the military still controls half of the spectrum. If you want to look where the spectrum is not being handled efficiently take a look there.
Q: You have written that you see the tangible ownership of this new social network in communications, corporate mergers, and the development of the "information highway" as ushering in the death of the public sector.
A: Yes, unless one chooses to build the information highway on the existing model of the Internet. The Internet was started with military funds from the Department of Defense, but those were public funds. And the military, obviously, had its own interest in establishing an electronic network. Clearly, a lot of ourresearch in the last 50 years has been militarily funded and targeted. Then the National Science Foundation (NSF) got into the act, and they put up some funding. The amounts of money provided by the NSF were not very great, but it was enough to start an experimental network used primarily by university researchers. People in academia began hooking into networks all around the country, and exchanged research findings, questions and data. As time went on, the network attracted more and more users. If you were in a university, either as a faculty member, or even as a student, you could hop on and use the system without cost, so it functioned more or less as a truly democratic system, more like a library than a mall. You can communicate with whomever you want by way of electronic mail, EMail. But now the Internet is in the process of being slowly converted into a more commercial system.
Q: How is the process of privatizing the Internet taking place?
A: I can't give you all the specifics, but, for example, as of 1994, the NSF will withdraw the $12 million that it annually grants to the Internet. The money has to come from somewhere. That's where the corporations rush in and the commercialization begins. Quite likely, Internet's going to meet the same fate that radio broadcasting met back in the 1920s and 1930s.
Q: To play devil's advocate for a moment, corporations like Chris Whittle's and Dun & Bradstreet might ask why corporate and public interests cannot exist side by side? They could argue that they are providing substantially new information services. What do you see as the contradiction there?
A: It's a Faustian bargain. You sell your soul for a temporary benefit. Consider Whittle's infiltration of the public school system. What are the implications?
Whittle's formula with Channel One is to package ten minutes of news with two minutes of commercials. Kids in a Channel One school are exposed to this every day, five days a week. What are the implications of this? What are the consequences? Well, first of all, you get a false notion that the kids are really benefiting from the news. There's no reason to believe this whatsoever. What are kids getting out of this? At the very best, they get a superficial familiarity with a couple of names and places. It's just mishmash. Which is bad enough, but what's worse is that the children become commercial targets for the corporations that have the money to advertise on Whittle's program. I don't see the kids getting anything whatsoever. Whittle provides some of the most grotesque examples of present day commercialism.
In addition to Channel One, the Whittle Corporation brings in so called "educational posters" and "educational bulletin boards," and puts them in the classes or the corridors of the schools. The section of the poster that's an advertisement is placed at the kids eyelevel. and the socalled informational component is above the kids heads. It's obviously crude stuff, but it's a good example of what they're thinking about, where their interests are, and how their presence deteriorates the educational environment.
Q: Another broad area to discuss is public resistance to all of this, resistance to the penetration of public space by people like Whittle with Channel One and the Star Broadcasting Network. What kinds of venues do you think are best for people to explore and defend against, Let's say, the selling off of the public airwaves or the "mallification" of our social fabric, and the development of an information highway that's not like a library, but like a department store. What kinds of activist strategies do you recommend in the months and years ahead?
A: Some of the possibilities for resistance will come out of the contradictory situations that these developments produce. They will produce certain kinds of discordances, certain kinds of problems for groups or sectors in the society. I was in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, and nearby in Greenfield, Massachusetts a couple of local communities had organized to keep out Walmart, the giant chain store. Now, ordinarily an outfit like Walmart is able to convince people that when it comes to town everybody will benefit, people will get lower prices and a larger variety. This is far from being a massive national movement, but the Massachusetts community won, and Walmart was forced out. The basis for the organizing was the protection of local interests, and the protection of local autonomy. Community resistance can prevent corporate giants from dominating everyone's space.
Q: If the corporate media trivialize everything that they report, and their only business is to buy and sell public attention to corporate advertisers, how can we ever engage in the public dialogue necessary for policy changes? How can we counter this in real and meaningful ways other than through the change of ownership. It seems like it comes to this. We always feel a frustration with media watchdog groups, noble as their efforts are to correct media biases in race and gender and class, the underlying problem of corporate ownership is never really engaged. Commercial ownership of the media is the source of our problem; it's what we have to challenge, and it's a monolith that few groups are willing to engage.
A: You're right on target with that. I don't think you can tackle the media head-on. We need to go around them. The central question is the structure of media ownership. You're not going to get a discussion of this from the very institutions that are organized in this way. In other words, you won't see CBS, or ABC or NBC actually exploring issues of hegemony and domination.
Q: But at the same time we're so paralyzed at exactly this point. To go around the media monoliths is to leave unchallenged the issue of commercial ownership, and then the only real alternative is for us to challenge with independent media networks.
A: It's an unequal battle. Strengthening an independent media system is something that needs to be pursued, because you know you're not going to get access into the corporate media system. I just don't see it happening at this particular stage. We need to recognize that the whole system is riding very high right at this particular time. Washington doesn't have to look over its shoulder at whether or not there is a significant socialist model to contend with; the Cold War destroyed whatever there was out there. Just look at the unrelenting pressure put on the people of Cuba. Washington doesn't want the slightest possibility of a social alternative to exist. So, when I say they're riding high, I mean that they no longer feel any serious challenge to their expansion. They can always use what happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as their ideological ploy against socialism.
The question is, what can we do in the meantime, until broad movements can take on corporate power as a whole? I can't see being able to get a fair shake in the media. However, it is at least imaginable that political pressure could make our sclerotic representative government pay a little attention to the needs of people who are being ignored. When people are running for office a crucial political question to ask now is: What are your views on the media? In what ways do you plan to open up the media? Are you going to press for the cable company in your community to make ten channels available for public use? What are they going to say? No? Why not? You can do that.
One of the biggest problems is that the entertainment and information media want massive audiences, and they don't want to run into any problems with any social questions. How many movies did they make about the labor movement? After all, America is made up of people who work. Where is the history of these people? Where's the dayinanddayout history of the African American population? Where's the dayinanddayout history of women? Not just one program. Where's the whole history of the people? Where's the whole history of protest movements in America? Can you imagine the kind of dramatic material that could come from American protest movements? The entertainment people are always saying that they don't have enough dramatic material. Who are they kidding?
We can begin by alerting the population on a national level as to what is happening and begin stimulating debate. What are the needs of this country? How will they be met? How are they going to be met with the means proposed? These are the questions we need to ask before society is rewired by a corporaterun information superhighway.
Interview conducted By Greg Ruggiero and Stuart Sahulka
Open Media, PO Box 2726 Westfield, NJ 07091; (908) 789-9608