Dec 4, 2012

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The Information Superhighway: False Dawn of a New Democracy?

The Information  Superhighway: False Dawn of a New Democracy?

by David M. Russell





Presented at Australia and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) Conference, Perth 1995






It is generally accepted that first world societies have entered a new era of lifestyles and work practices. It is part of a phenomenon known as The Information Revolution.


The portents are that our way of life in Australia, and similar societies, will be transformed on a scale not experienced since the Industrial Revolution and perhaps beyond even that. The means by which this is all happening in the much-vaunted Information Superhighway.


Marvellous benefits are forecast to flow from the new era. It is suggested that people will enjoy new freedoms and privileges through their capacity to access vast amounts of information, be it for entertainment, work or other purposes. But are we being deluded by rose-coloured lenses?


This paper contends that the new information age may not be emancipatory for all. In fact, there may be a massive disenfranchising effect, perhaps for a majority of the world’s population. From a critical political economy perspective, the electronic superhighway may be a hegemonic coup de grace.


And what can save us if there is a dark side to the Information Revolution? Well, public policy can provide some protection for those who are technologically and the financially deprived but it is failing to do so adequately. My own view is that public policy will fail to provide a safety net to prevent the entrenched power elites from reinforcing their economic and political advantage over the less well-to-do.


Just how the future will unfold is in the realms of conjecture, but perhaps the only adequate safeguard for the protection of human rights is informed and vigorous debate at all levels of the community.



Why bother with the Superhighway?



The Information Revolution carries with it the seed of a new era of participative democracy. Yet this renaissance democracy may be stillborn. Instead, we may have an extended ideological and material hegemony which reimposes a rigid class system and nurtures the demise of universal suffrage.


The broad theoretical framework which has guided my thoughts on this topic is critical political economy especially as espoused by Golding and Murdock. Their assertion is that ‘public communications systems are part of the “cultural industries”‘ and, as such, ‘play a pivotal role in organising the images and discourses through which people make sense of the world’ (1991: 15).


There is clearly a glittering prize to be had, in hegemonic terms, of manipulating the public communications systems. I can’t help but sense Orwell’s “1984” scenarios lurking in the shadows!


Just what is this Superhighway?



For people like us the term Information Superhighway has become part of the lingua franca. But for the bulk of the population it remains a mystery. The entertainment capabilities of the superhighway are continually propounded and this seems to have distracted the public mind away from the potential political and social ramifications.


The longer this distorted view of the superhighway remains in place, the easier it is for liberal-pluralist/capitalist dogma to pervade and, ultimately, shape the direction of debate about information infrastructure and its inherent hegemonic potential.


If the superhighway is going to transform the world, what controls can be placed on it? Should government guide every element or should we allow the marketplace to operate unfettered? If we seek some solace in a degree of government control, then we need to examine the capacity of regulators to handle the pace. Can they do it?



Can regulators handle the pace?



US Vice-President, Al Gore, urges development of superhighway infrastructure with least possible delay while acknowledging the critical need for public policy to keep pace with change. He’s right. But look at the shambles we have in public policy here in Australia.


Some forty years after pay-TV commenced in the United States we barely have it operational here and we cannot even establish a common system: satellite, microwave or cable.


Trevor Barr has been critical of our regulators for a long time. He scathingly assess their capacity in the following terms:


Technology and communications policy in Australia has been characterised for decades by an appalling neglect of social philosophy. Governments have lacked an integrated frame of reference for decision making in the communications and wider technological fields . . . (1985: 223).

There is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that government policy affecting the prime components of the superhighway – media and telecommunications – are  regularly, if not concertedly, dominated by cynical and self-serving political interests with scant regard to broader philosophical issues.


There is ample evidence of an exclusionist style of public policy-making in Australia which restricts real influence to a coterie of elitists. Barr again . . .


A prime paradox of public policy is that major policy decisions are made in forums which are essentially private and closed, and within institutions able to wrap themselves in secrecy. In the fields of technology and communications, there is no permanently established mechanism whereby a wider cross section of the public can effectively offer an input into the policy decision-making process and later effectively analyse the outcomes (1985: 223-224).


Let’s take an example: the Broadband Services Expert Group. It was given an exciting charter: “to inquire into issues related to the delivery of broadband services to homes, schools and business”. But this enquiry was nobbled by government by being required to determine how this can be achieved ‘within existing telecommunications policy’ (CIRCIT, 6, (1): 8).


As Don Greenlees reported in The Weekend Australian of 22 October, 1994:


In Prime Minister Keating’s words, he was simply stating the obvious: the technological revolution sweeping the media is moving too fast for the policy-makers to keep pace. Even relatively new laws could suddenly be obsolete as state-of-the-art technologies tumble over the top of regulatory barriers (1994 (c): 30).


And this is the same Prime Minister who nobbles BSEG by constraining it to work within existing policy!



Is the Superhighway a capitalist conspiracy?



There is a presumption that because we operate under a liberal-democratic system of government in Australia, the community is generally able to exert influence over policy-making processes. Reality suggests otherwise.


Sure, people can exert their democratic right at election time by casting their ballot. But when the major parties offer stances on several dozen key issues, can an individual vote be taken as endorsement of the whole raft of policy initiatives? Let’s face it, people vote for the hip-pocket issues. And they tend to be apathetic.


Lindblom argues that participative democracy is not necessarily the means to achieve the best possible policies. He argues that the consensus-seeking so highly valued in pluralist liberal democracies can act to compromise an outstanding policy and produce one of lesser integrity with which most interested groups can agree.


The fact is that policy formulation is an elistist occupation, whatever the field of endeavour.



Will economic considerations rule?



It would be naive to suggest that there is not an economic imperative driving the superhighway. But there is an allied political imperative. Are the private sector forces involved in developing the electronic infrastructure also committed to promulgating a capitalist ethic?


US Vice-President, Al Gore, made an interesting comment last year.


When it comes to telecommunications services, schools are the most impoverished institutions in society. But some communications companies are now talking about voluntarily linking every classroom to the Superhighway (1994: 42).


Now, given the massive size and financial clout of the major US telecommunications conglomerates, one has to wonder why they have allowed schools to remain so impoverished for so long. And, in pondering that issue, one can’t avoid wondering why they would now have a change of heart.


Clearly the ability to reach into every classroom in every school across the United States would provide marketers with a vast target audience. Yet it is perhaps not so much the sheer size of the market which would hold allure for marketers as the age profile and the associated impressionability factor of the audience. Based on the unsophisticated but nevertheless potent marketing maxim of ‘get them young and keep them’, the ability to plant seeds in the minds of such an all-encompassing audience would surely have enormous appeal.


Viewed from a hegemonic perspective, the ability to tap into a captive audience such as schoolchildren represents a glittering prize. In Marx’s oft-quoted maxim: The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.


Rhetoric abounds for the potential of the superhighway to bring far-reaching and beneficial change to society. Professor Vance Gledhill, director of the Institute of Advanced Software Technology, suggests that information technology will create a wave of social change affecting society as much as the agricultural and industrial revolutions (Higgins, 1994: 43).


Prime Minister Keating went even further in his address to the 1994 Australian Labor Party national conference to suggest that the information revolution is ‘the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire’ (Burton, 1994(a): 4).


But, since most of us still can’t program our VCRs, it promises to be a painful transformation!




So, how super will this highway be?



A key concept which has many dedicated adherents is that the information superhighway could pave the way for a new, all-encompassing form of democracy, based on a voting system which enables voters to take part in every key decision which our Parliaments make.


But would greater participation lead to better government? We may increase the quantity of democracy but would we increase the quality of democracy? The easier it is to participate in decision-making processes, the less consequential it is to change one’s mind.


Of course, the point many superhighway evangelists ignore is the issue of access to the highway. Participative democracy is all very well for those who have the franchise. But what of those who, in an analogous sense, cannot drive or cannot afford a car? Is the superhighway always to be an illusory goal for them?



Is there a conspiracy to restrict equity of access?



This issue of equity of access to telephone services is crucial. Yet there is a massive imbalance around the world in the distribution of telecommunications. Evidence suggests that the eight richest countries have 75 per cent of the world’s telephones while the less developed countries (LDCs) have 70 per cent of the world’s population but only 7 per cent of the telephones.


Lest anyone think it is only the LDCs which might be disenfranchised by the information superhighway, even an indisputably first world nation such as Australia holds some startling surprises. Only recently it was revealed – amid considerable apparent consternation to Communications Minister Michael Lee – that almost 400,000 Australian homes do not have access to a telephone (Tellzen, 1994: 16). It is clear that serious consideration has to be given to what form of safety net might be put in place to prevent the creation of a new information-poor underclass.


If we examine the past, we may find that the current accepted standard of democracy (universal adult suffrage) is merely an historical anomaly. As Stuart Hall reminds us:


In the eighteenth century, the great mass of the popular classes had no vote of any kind. The nineteenth century was dominated by struggles of the popular classes to extend the franchise – a process long delayed by a series of ‘last-ditch’ resistances by the powerful. Full adult suffrage was not completed until the twentieth century (1928) – the resistance against female suffrage being one of the last (and most squalid) episodes of the whole struggle (1982: 12).


The electronic superhighway may, in fact, be the means by which society reverts to rule by the rich and powerful (in name as well as deed!).


The power and opportunity afforded to those who can meet the economic criteria for ownership or access to computing technology is an issue of prime importance. It is the inherent potential for reinforcement of hegemonic discourses which needs to be continually scrutinised. As Golding and Murdock assert, where there is unequal command over material resources, there will be consequential inequality in the nature of the symbolic environment. And where inequality prospers, hegemony is likely to flourish.





Without doubt the information superhighway has the potential, almost certain to be realised, to transform our society. Commercial decisions have been taken which will ensure that the infrastructure necessary to make the superhighway a reality is to be implemented across Australia. It remains to be seen just how encompassing will be the reach of this infrastructure and on what timescale most Australians might expect to utilise it. Clearly, for some, the opportunity will never be realised. The burning issue is what proportion of the population will ultimately be able to access it and what disadvantages may be suffered by those who are excluded.


The portents for a diminution of democratic practice are substantial and disturbing. Yet, government blithely welcomes the economic opportunities heralded by superhighway supporters with scant or no regard for the political and social ramifications. The lack of awareness and understanding of the potential consequences of the coming information society by the major political groupings is cause for serious concern. Were it not for the track record of self-interest, lack of vision and ad hocery which characterises media and telecommunications policy in Australia over the past two decades, it would be possible to postulate a conspiracy theory. Incompetence seems a far more plausible reason although the processes of hegemony, driven by a relentless endorsement of economic advancement above and beyond issues of equity and access, seem to be very actively at work.


The ruling elites have little to fear from scrutiny of their actions as the general populace has negligible awareness at this stage of virtually any of the relevant issues. For their part, many if not all elements of the media appear to be making a valid effort to stimulate and reflect debate among the knowledgeable minority. As such, it seems assured that the information superhighway will eventually take its rightful place at the head of the public agenda.


What cannot be assuredly forecast is whether social apathy combined with political and economic inadequacy will permit the stratification of Australian society. Yet, in the absence of any proposed realistic measures to ensure universal access to the superhighway, the disempowerment of many in our society seems a foregone conclusion.




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