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Web convergence traps artists and consumers

Nadine Clements

Anyone interested enough to pass by the Stock Exchange building in Sydney a few months ago would have witnessed the spectacle of the dotcom crash, or “new media adjustment”, as financial pundits would have it. Small-time investors and internet start-up owners stood, some with noses unselfconsciously pressed to the glass, watching their stock devalue minute by minute. Informed by the U.S. NASDAQ (the American financial index for new media stock) the electronic red ticker streamed a sorry story; some stocks nosedived to within a hair’s breadth of their issue price, others simply entered negative figures.

The crash came at an interesting time. In internet years (roughly comparable to dog years in terms of development), the web was colonised by technology corporations a very long time ago. They are responsible for both interpreting the web as a rampantly commercial space (with all that that entails), and developing sophisticated platforms from which to serve what they call “content”, a lazily defined term which means anything from editorial to a nifty, Java-scripted button on a navigation bar. Strategies ranged from providing millions of free email addresses and giving away software to skimming a percentage off the top of credit card purchases. Very few of them made actual money and the market eventually got nervous, hence the crash. Things, as they say, will never be the same again.

The development of the technology, however, continues apace. WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) will be coming to someone with a fairly hefty mobile phone plan near you very soon, delivering components of the web (news headlines, movie session times, sporting updates and of course stock reports) to the thing that just used to go ring ring. Interactive TV has already been introduced, and Pay TV viewers are familiarising themselves with the idea of fusing a website interface with broadcast programs—checking their email while the cricket is playing. All pretty handy.

So what’s an article about a bunch of well-off wankers losing their money during a period of vastly accelerated technological growth and innovation doing in RealTime? Serving as speculation, mainly, about what all of this means for the way in which information we want to find and “content” we might very well create, will be disseminated in the future. These emerging technologies will indeed be handy, but who will be setting the agenda as to how they are used? In a post-crash environment, where the cash won’t be flowing anywhere near as freely as it did before, the web as it spreads to TV and your phone will be economically rationalised. Internet service providers of all kinds now have a vested interest in keeping their subscribers within the walls of the content that they have purchased or aggregated. Some are giving away free access—you don’t pay a cent, but you can’t actually leave the network you’re in to explore the rest of the web. So if you’re forced to bank online because your local branch has closed down, and you can’t afford to pay for an internet connection, welcome to the “walled garden.” Others provide services exclusively to their paying customers; everything from 5 email addresses to animated short films and “superior” news coverage. Stuff the rest of the rabble will never see, unless they upgrade.

Of course it’s all in the name of commercial good sense, but does it have to be inevitable that the medium that started as a tool for Cold War military communication, transmogrified into an academic language (Hyper Text Markup Language or HTML) and still boasts worldwide access to information about subversive and marginalised cultures, will become a segregated medium?

Firstly, to the culture. The internet industry workforce is home to some of the most brilliant technology heads outside of the science world. They are able to solve problems more quickly than it would take to explain them, and remain wisely apolitical within the sphere of the working day; a geeky empire unto themselves. But the industry is still bloated with counter-culture poseurs; under 35 year-olds with Palm Pilots and wardrobes full of utility chic couture, spouting new media pseudo ideology-speak as flimsy as the content they are responsible for publishing on the web. Attend a meeting with these kids and buzz phrases such as “synergy” (a greasy economic fit between 2 businesses) and “robust nature” (the ability for “content” to be pillaged for e-commerce opportunities and syndication models) will zap around the room like so much locally routed data. It is very possible you will witness them encouraging each other to “think outside of the square” (come up with ethically unsound solutions to content problems, such as sell the arts section of a website to a sponsor and skew the editorial in its favour). And if you’re unlucky enough to suggest something which doesn’t have a “fit”—even outside the square—it’s possible you’ll be told to “take it offline.”

It is to these people that many writers and filmmakers will be entrusting their work. These are the people who will privilege sport and mainstream computer games over the arts because the stats tell them to. If you’re lucky enough to find decent arts listings on a commercial website, it’ll be a personal indulgence on the part of the producer who runs it.

Further up the food chain, however, are the heavyweights. The ones glamorised by IBM advertisements. Old tie private schoolboys, ex-lawyers, ex-traditional media and too bright MBA grads who, come lately or by right of birth, subscribe to the old capitalist school of dress and behaviour; they wear suits (jeans are allowed on Fridays, providing they don’t have a meeting with the Telstra guys), make or tastefully ignore sexist jokes and earn a shitload of money for the privilege. Despite the recent dotcom ‘adjustment’ on the NASDAQ, these people still command salaries that start at 140k (even without equity) and just keep on getting higher. A polyglot of marketing executives, business strategists, e-commerce directors, CEOs and managing directors, these are the people who hold the purse strings. They are the people responsible for encouraging the syndication of content (ie that stuff we used to call editorial —the stuff it simply doesn’t make sense to produce in-house) across as many portals (the gateway to the rest of an internet network) as possible, to whom the term “media saturation” is freely interchangeable with “cost-effective.”

These are the people responsible for the hype surrounding convergence, who are currently shaping the “content” landscape on the web, setting the precedent for the licensing of short films from artists at rip-off rates, readily getting rid of web pages that aren’t paying for themselves. These are the people who are excited by the prospect of an internet/interactive TV/broadband (expensive, fast access to the net) environment by which your capacity to surf is limited to the content the corporation owns.

Despite what the Information Technology (a strange misnomer if ever there were one) sections of newspapers would have you believe, convergence is a fair way off becoming a digital reality for most people. But by the time it is, getting the right kind of money from a web company who wants to appear credible by licensing your film, might be nigh impossible. Looking to your interactive TV for inspiring content will feel strangely similar to subscribing to cable TV. Only instead of there being 200 channels of rehashed crap, there will be thousands of sites shoving crass advertorial and e-commerce opportunities down your throat—and the 9 rebranded corporations that used to form Microsoft will have a finger in most of them. We’ll look back with consumerist nostalgia to the time when advertising was actually distinguishable from the television show itself.

Maybe when the Coalition is voted out there will be more government subsidies and new media grants to ensure that interesting sites are built and web events take place. And hopefully, some of those projects will use the medium to critique the medium.

And hopefully most of us won’t be sucked in by a website funded by a bank whose spuriously deconstructive sociopolitical agenda—or is it an advertising campaign?—is to “unlearn.”

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 25

© Nadine Clements; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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