Sunday, January 16, 2011

Internet, RIP: Proprietors Win, Again

The internet as we know it is officially doomed, as of today, and I’m already feeling nostalgic. Funny that a technology could move so fast across the landscape of my life – from a geeks-only fluke to a curiosity, to a useful tool, to a powerful engine of procrastination and finally a central venue for all my communications, research, entertainment and shopping, only to be reduced to the closed down, controlled, censored corporate cash cow it’s about to become, with the Obama administration’s blessing.

Internet, we barely knew ye.

But of course the Proprietors of our Nation couldn’t allow this internet business to go on the way it was heading. What a frightening thought – free, unobstructed communications, with no control and no profit … people just saying whatever they want, whenever they want, leaking documents, downloading YouTube videos that make Proprietor-controlled media outlets look like liars. You knew there’d be repercussions after the “Colbert bombed at the Press Association Dinner” narrative was reduced to one more punchline, a million downloads later.

The bigger headache for the Proprietors, from the start, was how to monetize this new tool and use it to consolidate power. After all, the ‘world-wide web’ seemed inimical to the consolidation of anything, an open-source free-for-all, wild and uncontrollable as the American Frontier itself. But they managed to organize that anarchic sprawl – nothing like guns and small pox, railroad lines and highways, corporate tax breaks and zoning variances, to tame a continent. It took a while, but our coast to coast shopping mall stands as the shining trophy of their triumph. We outlasted the last of the Mohegans; welcome to Mohegan Sun!

The free internet will collapse much more quickly. The Proprietors understood almost from the start that all you really need to control the internet is to control people’s access to it. (Remember stuffy old Al Gore’s warnings about ‘toll booths on the information superhighway’?) That’s the real value of the high speed cable or DSL connection. Dial-up was slow, and anyone could get on-line any time and go anywhere. But Comcast controls our access to the internet now, and that's fine with us we like it, we like the speed and convenience, the bread and the circus, football in HD on a giant flat screen TV or a bucket of chicken from KFC.

So Comcast, or some corporate entity identical to Comcast, will soon determine which web-sites you can visit easily and which ones take forever to load, which services you can use at all ... perhaps even what content you’re allowed to see. China is doing that right now and despite all our disapproving noises, our government is moving in exactly the same direction. Netflix is one of the earliest and most prominent victims. They’re in for the fight of their life right now, and it must be disheartening to know that they can take a law-suit all the way to the Supreme Court only to lose with chilling certainty to a court which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Proprietor oligarchy. This is a group of judges who think corporations are people, though they’re not so sure about actual people, whom they rule against in one cruel and Dickensian decision after another. Am I a crackpot conspiracy theorist to speculate that this is the real reason they decided the 2000 election Bush’s favor? Whether by plan or happy accident, he managed to pack the court with a lifetime’s worth of frightening conservatives who can be guaranteed to rule along Proprietary lines.

Don’t get me wrong: this is nothing new. The ruling elites have struggled to hold onto their power, growing ever more corrupt until toppled be revolution or debauchery or both, allowing another group to rise and self-destruct in the same way, since the caveman with the biggest club figured out he could get the most Mastodon meat. People are predictably awful, power corrupts, history repeats itself.

But something new has arisen in our era, strutting rather than slouching toward its dystopian Second Coming. This Oligarchy has managed to combine the power of mass media with a diabolically subverted education system (Leave No Child Behind) and an unwavering ability to strike the proletarian nerve with ‘values issues’ like abortion and gay marriage. It’s relatively easy to convince an ignorant rabble that government is bad and taxes are worse, that health care is evil and the gilded age for the wealthiest stock manipulators and hedge fund Sun Kings (more despicable than any top-hatted grotesque in a Communist propaganda cartoon) should proceed without a hitch. That billionaires like the Koch brothers are behind this bogus ‘grass roots’ movement should surprise no one. Instead, step back with grudging respect and admire their audacity. How to get poor people who can’t afford a doctor’s visit to cut taxes for millionaires and deny themselves any kind of proper health care, education or secure employment? Use their own prejudices, leverage their fear, manipulate their anger. “Get the government’s dirty hands off my Medicare!” What a perfect delicious, sublime sentiment with which to inoculate a population through the IV drip of a thousand blaring radio and television propaganda shows, a million campaign ads.

The only way to break this Oligarchy would be to outlaw television advertisements in political campaigns. That would sever one of the crucial linkages that bind the system together. If candidates didn’t need the money they spend on television, they could break free from the powerful interests who control that funding. They couldn’t be bought; they wouldn’t be owned: their next election would not be in the hands of deep-pocketed, demanding contributors. But of course that will never happen. It would destroy local TV stations, who depend on that gold-rush of combative ads, and their ‘grass roots’ battle against the socialists trying to deny people (corporations are people now, remember) their right to be heard in ‘the public square’ would be funded by the same people who keep thr Tea Party afloat. Elections will proceed as usual, the only change being that even more money will be spent than ever before. Big money fails sometimes – occasional candidates are simply too extreme to be electable, no matter what. But most of the time, the system works well.

The internet was the first real threat to this unprecedented consolidation of power. But that threat is gone and the only thing that will bring this global hegemony down is some vast international implosion of greed: the end of cheap oil, the acceleration of global warming, the destruction of the oceans the contamination of the drinking water. The world the Proprietors have built as a palace for themselves will have to crumble to bits from its own mindless greed, as all the others have, throughout history. Unfortunately, this time, the rest of the world is going to come down, also. They’ll take us all with them when they go – they’re ‘too big to fail’.

But so were the dinosaurs.

And this afternoon, the thought of a whole planet staggering through the rubble, reduced to plowing with horses, heating with scavenged wood and lighting homes with tallow candles, a life of medieval toil at the mercy of the elements, with travel and indoor plumbing and refrigeration the subjects of a dim racial memory and hare-brained science fiction – it seems like a fine trade-off. If that’s what it takes to bring these foul greedy tyrants to their knees, bring it on. I would go to war against them, but the war has already been lost. Today’s FCC report proves it; we live in their world, and we will go on living in their world until they bring it down around us. Then we’ll be living in their ruins. I can only hope the next oligarchs, the shrewd operators who get control of the fresh water, or manage to piece together the first electrical generator, will have learned something from the blind gluttonous excess of their predecessors.

But I doubt they will. They never have before.

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