September 22, 1999

The Digital Commons

The transcripts of the on-going Microsoft antitrust trial make interesting reading if, like most Americans, you can appreciate the courtroom drama of posturing overpaid attorneys, evasive expert witnesses, a bored and biased judge who seems content with being reversed on appeal, and ream after ream of legalese bullshit.

It's better than the OJ trial. There's more directly at stake for the viewing public. And it's easier to follow than the bizarre unresolved murder-rape-incest-mayhem cases recently taken up as standard fare by CBS's 48 Hours. In contrast to the terminally inarticulate boobs featured on 48 Hours--where do they find these people?--all the Microsoft trial participants appear to have passed at least the eighth-grade. They all seem able to comprehend that people other than themselves may well exist and that those others may well view the same issues differently, without the direct intervention of Satan. This helps no end with dialogue. Were the Microsoft trial covered on TV there would be no need for a poorly scripted Dan Rather walking, trench coat clad, through a misty fog of artificial 48 Hours darkness, mystifying matters further in his efforts to "put it all in perspective." In short, given the popularity of Gates-bashing, it's a wonder the Microsoft trial hasn't made it to TV.

The pat answer, of course, is that the Microsoft trial is too technical in nature to be followed by the viewing American public, involving complex browser, operating system and networking software, and an endless alphabet soup of geeky acronyms for things that make it all work and even more geeky acronyms for things that make it all break down.

But who among the potential viewing public--the vast numbers who use computers at home or at work--hasn't wrestled with buggy software? Who hasn't tried to remove the seemingly irremovable from Windows: Internet Explorer or, more recently, AOL's damn persistent Instant Messenger? Who hasn't tried to intervene in the corporate tug of war over default browser status taking place within their supposedly "personal" computer? And who hasn't cried out in frustration for some simple explanation of all those cryptic error messages?

The audience is there. Explanation of the trial's technical issues is not that difficult. And, in fact, a day by day explanation of software and networking matters would constitute perhaps the greatest public and business service television has yet performed. Certainly it would be of more useful than, say, Jerry Springer's pseudo-moralizing psychobabble epilogues or happy-talk evening newscasts.

The real problem with putting the Microsoft trial on television is that any genuine explanation of the Microsoft trial's technical issues would very quickly reveal to the American public that the trial is not at all about software, software quality, software competition, or software anything.

The Microsoft antitrust trial is about divvying up the herd. It's a wild, wild west cowboy-shepherd-farmer range war over real estate. The desktop is virgin territory. Advertising, links, buttons, cookies, etc. are the fences. And we are the cattle, the sheep to be herded to the slaughter, the grain to be reaped, threshed, ground, sifted, packaged and sold to corporate buyers. Questions of browser and operating system quality, consumer satisfaction, and software utility and integration are mere incidents to the real dispute.

The bottom-line is control of screen space, primarily the browser window and chrome. And with respect to this bottom-line the array of forces and their relative power is quite different than the story presented for public consumption. The current "browser" leader, for example, is neither Microsoft nor Netscape but AOL, which has never produced any worthwhile software and doesn't give a damn about software or access quality so long as the hit demographics look good. AOL owns Netscape, controlling what users see on its interface and homepage advertising. AOL also uses a heavily customized, restrictive and always outdated version of Internet Explorer to corral its own subscriber base from straying too far or too often on to the wide open Internet. Combining Netscape and its IE users, AOL maintains a commanding lead in the only "market" that counts: viewers. The trial continues but the battle has moved on to rival messaging systems, AOL's and Microsoft's, and to free email accounts, anything to rustle up masses of users for major corporate advertisers, who are Internet's real customers.

What must especially remain concealed from the public is that this epic battle of the Internet Titans depends on one thing: that users, on the whole, will remain passive, stupid, and fearful; that they will accept whichever master first appears on their screens; that they will not change inferior for better browsers; that they will stick with the "startup/home page" they are given; that they will be afraid to delete even obvious advertising folders, icons, backgrounds and logos from their screens; that they will never make the computers for which they pay truly their own by learning how to configure them. In sum, this turf war depends upon users viewing their computers as they view their television sets, convinced that their freedom of choice lies in changing channels among stations owned in whole or in part by a handful of media giants.

The transcripts of the Microsoft trial illuminate this central truth: it's not software, it's marketing, stupid. They reveal how far from anything that might be called "the public interest" this battle is being waged by Microsoft and Netscape/AOL. They also reveal the scandal of the Justice Department's Anti-Trust Division using inexhaustible taxpayer funds on behalf of every corporate predator that perhaps might not be interested in paying the potentially higher advertising rates of a "free market" victor in this desktop range war. The bogey-man is Microsoft domination of prime access to the global Internet herd at the historical moment when access through traditional media is all but tied up by less than a dozen heavily invested global media giants. The evil of Microsoft is that it threatens to end run their stranglehold and become, not a software monopolist, but another global marketing giant.

In the last analysis, this is the reason the Microsoft trial will never make "good" television for public consumption. For if the genuine stakes of the battle were revealed, the battle might not have been worth fighting. People might learn how much they can control what they find Internet by simply refusing the well-paved "defaults" to hell presented to them when they boot up or log on.

Imagine that tomorrow just 10% of online users woke up and simply changed their default startup page--Netcenter, AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, etc.--to some insignificant but personally interesting site. Imagine that the next day just another 10% did the same. Wall Street would panic within a week as the server statistics came rolling in. Congress would hold hearings on the "national crisis." The Feds would scramble the anti-cyberterror forces. And Bill Gates would announce that he was coming out of the closet as a life-long anarchist and probably make more money than ever. If you think this is just a joke, go read the Microsoft trial transcripts yourself. Start anywhere. Poke around. You'll see.

The sad truth is that the digital commons, like every other public space in history, will always be under assault. There will be no end of very powerful forces intent upon carving up or subverting it to serve narrow private interests. The sad truth is that, like every other public space, the digital commons can only be defended by active and continuous public use, by hundreds of thousands, millions of daily individual and small group decisions. And in the digital age, the sad truth is that we, the public, are going to have to recreate the digital commons, year by year, on ever-increasing levels of technological sophistication. And we must do it always in the shadow of the dazzling might of the latest and the greatest, the cutting edge.

It is in this sense that we are entering the kind of "cyperpunk" future depicted in films such as Blade Runner, where freedom and humanity depend upon being able to merge with the deafening digital background noise, to find and find again the partial, temporary invisibility it confers. These ancient values depend, above all, on our collective ability to recreate that sheltering noise by endless, ad hoc appropriation of "out-dated" technological debris cast off by corporate monoliths on their rise to dizzying heights of global domination.

For the next millennium and beyond, noise is freedom, noise is humanity, noise is the digital commons we must ever recreate.

Change your defaults; change your life.

May the noise be with you....

Posted by Raoul

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