The innovation of new forms of media always begins promising. Newspapers promised political participation, TV enlightenment by education, and the internet a wholly new realm of freedom beyond the physical existence of mankind. But yet, all these promises have failed the hopes put into them. So far, control always has prevailed over freedom: An obituary on our latest hope.
There can be no doubt: The dream of the internet as a realm of freedom for mankind is dead. It will be up to historians to determine the exact time and place, when and where the idea of internet as an extension of free man ceased to exist. But we can be certain. It is most legitimate to ask, how we can come to this conclusion.
On the 22nd of March, the IT-Portal chip.de reported on plans of Germany’s biggest online provider Deutsche Telekom, to reduce data traffic speed from a certain volume on. One month later, the 22nd of April, speculation became reality. Telekom announced, from the 2nd of May on, only to conclude contracts with fixed limits in data volume. The flat rate, unlimited flow of data for every user, will slowly fade away.
This new policy by Germany’s largest provider will soon see some followers in the market. And most people might think, well I do not use more than 75 gigabyte of traffic per month (depending on the price) anyway. So why bother? What we now see is the peak of a development that has already sealed the pipe dreams of the internet as a better, freer and more equal place. And it did not began with Telekom announcing to cut down speed when a certain data volume is reached. What we are facing is a battle over the control of media, not about their content, but their hardware.
An example: When I was young, copying computer games was a fashion, as sharing movies online is today. Since there was no high speed internet back in the 90s, the CD-writer did the job of sharing, before the internet community “invented” file sharing. At first, producers tried to protect their products by introducing measures of copy protections on CDs. When that not worked, the industry came up with a completely new idea. In 2002 the Valve Corporation, among others, started to develop a platform called Steam, where content users had to register before being able to play a game. Today, most games you buy are tied to a membership on a platform like steam. And no matter how hard you try, the software does not work until you connect with the platform to finish installation process.
Or take Apple. The invention of smart mobile devices as the iPhone has surely changed the world. But when you buy a smart phone, your also buy shackles, that tie you to the producer of the piece of hardware you purchased. Apple is most rigid in just allowing Apple software to be used on Apple products. Back in the 1990s, this kind of concept seemed refreshing to everlasting dominance of Microsoft products. But since then, a lot has happened to the smart, phone using customer.
Sure, illegal copying is as much thievery as shop lifting. But the crucial point is, that the relationship between seller and customer has dramatically changed: for bad. These days you do not buy a piece of hardware any more, to explore the realms of the internet. The customer is no longer the last link in the chain. Instead, he has become just a small fish in an ever longer growing product chain, where buying a piece of hardware is not merely the end, but only the beginning of customer-in-chain-marketing. Instead of exploring new spaces upon the internet, we are only allowed to take guided tours into designed communities, whose whole purpose is to milk the cash cow until the last drop: systems provider!
As every media, the internet too is on the depressing part towards more control and less freedom. When the newspaper came into existence on large scales in the 18th century, states couldn’t help to begin censor them. Television was once seen as a device to further educate an enlighten people. Today, it is mostly stupefying entertainment, except for the interesting documentary 1 am in the morning. Not long ago, the world was hoping for the internet to bring forth days of freedom in countries of brute suppression. But Twitter and Facebook did not help the people in Iran, China and Russia – states that quickly learned how to develop measures of rigid control. And, do not be too enthusiastic about the glorious western civilization. Since people in authoritarian countries know that they are controlled, we, often too easily, fall for the illusion of freedom. Sure, our postings might not (yet) be controlled for political correctness. But our data, for sure, is sold to the highest bid.
Hence, we witness “just” another cycle in the struggle between freedom and control. The press, broadcasting stations and film studios have long been oligopolised by a few powerful corporations. The internet provided, and maybe still does, some hope to give the many a voice to predominate the few – there are surely many glimmers of hope. But since the 20th century has seen the rise of organisation, our hopes should not be too high that individual freedom will prevail. The perfection of organisation has yet to come.
But then again: The internet was the greatest innovation in the history of media. As was TV, radio, newspaper and the book. Even if the dream of the internet as a realm of freedom might be dead, there will be more to come. And it has not to be like that forever.