"Freedom of the press is guaranteed
only to those who own one."
A.J. Liebling

Why Not Five Million Channels?

The All-Singing All-Dancing Optically-Cabled Multimedia Millennium is all but upon us we are told. It's touted from the covers of Time, Newsweek and The New Republic, and headlined across the front pages of the major dailies. Unprecedented deals are being cut, everyday it seems, between publishing empires, newspaper consortia, cable monopolies and the bouncing Baby Bells. "Digitized Delivery" and "Data Highways" are among the classiest of current catch phrases. But what's behind all this furious prognostication? Put simply: what's in it for us?

One scenario we're offered is the near-term potential of 500 cable channels. In their breathless enthusiasm, such reports usually neglect to mention the poverty of the programs we already get: B-movies from the "premium channel" providers; home shopping for the terminally bored; interminable game-shows and sit-com reruns; talk shows that make AM radio sound avant-garde; 24-hour news formats that focus on everything but. The list could go on -- and does.

The problem with broadcast in general, and cable in particular, is programming. Decisions about what to beam to viewers are rarely driven by considerations of quality or content. Instead, these top-down choices are predicated on a provider's ability to package and deliver an audience segment to its advertisers. Where mass markets are involved, the guiding principle of "give the people what they want" reduces such programmed content to its lowest possible denominator. But this style of opportunistic marketing has often proved disastrously counterproductive. What if people's seeming willingness to pay for their current 50 channels is based on the simple fact that there's nothing else on?

Something very like this is what happened to General Motors in the early '70s. Market wizards sequestered on the 14th floor of GM's corporate headquarters didn't read the signs readily apparent to the man and woman in the street. Those VW Bugs and Honda Civics popping up at every intersection were just anomalies. What Americans wanted were big fins and big gas tanks, not less ostentatious styling and better fuel economy. Then the oil embargo hit -- and the U.S. auto industry still hasn't recovered from its ludicrously bad call.

What if there were something else on, something fundamentally different from what all the high-powered market research says we want. Are the cable companies, Telcos and publishing conglomerates about to make the same kind of bad call GM did two decades back? Because there is something else "on" and that something is the Internet. For about the same price you currently pay for cable service, you can have not just 500 channels but 5,000,000. And you can have it all right now.

Unlike the passive-consumer orientation forced on viewers by the top-down delivery of information and entertainment, the Internet empowers subscribers to be commentators and publishers as well. In effect, everyone connected to the Net owns a press, and can be a provider as well as a consumer of its contents.

Unlike television, Internet provides genuine intelligence on the other side of the interface. Real people respond to what you publish -- or "post" -- on the Net, often with ideas and points of view it would have been impossible to predict. The horizon of a world view previously circumscribed by the daily paper and CNN suddenly expands beyond imagination.

Unlike broadcast programming that must cater to limited sets of tastes, the Internet enables people to connect with an incredibly diverse spectrum of interests and perspectives. Here, inner-city teens, blue-collar community organizers and rural school teachers rub shoulders every day with university researchers, corporate software developers and government policy makers. Some, threatened by this lowering of traditional class boundaries, have called it anarchy. Others, believing that people should have a voice in their own affairs, call it democracy. Whatever the characterization, the Internet phenomenon is unlikely to go away. It is already reshaping the world we thought we knew.

This is an intrinsically different model of the Data Highway than those put forth in many over-excited media projections of our digital future. The Internet model of peer-to-peer and reciprocal individual-to-community communication has far reaching implications for both business and the culture at large. If we are truly living in an Information Age and a Knowledge Society, as we are so often reminded, we might reasonably ask from what source this information and knowledge is supposed to arise.

Corporations have discovered -- often the hard way -- that these intangible resources largely come from the lower reaches of the organization, and not exclusively from management "experts." This insight is crucial to programs in total quality and improved customer service, and has driven massive investment in initiatives such as employee involvement, participatory management, cross-functional teaming and the overall flattening of management hierarchies. These efforts have not been motivated by some overnight upwelling of corporate altruism, but have rather been driven by hard-nosed assessment of what it takes to survive and prosper in the new global marketplace. What it takes is simple: unlimited access to vital information and the unrestricted ability to communicate new ideas. Not just for a select few. But for everyone.

Seen in this light, the one-way orientation of our communications media have disenfranchised most of the population. Couch-potato "information" consumers neither learn in any non-trivial sense nor do they tend to create new knowledge. But how many would truly prefer this vegetative state if offered an alternative that invited real participation and engaged response? We have read and watched, not The News, but the opinions and decisions of editors and market researchers. We have been subjected to the mindless broadcast equivalent of big fins and big gas tanks long enough. Far from being excited about a ten-fold multiplication of the same old thing, many of us are sick to death of it. As in the infamous battle cry of the movie Network: we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore.

The phenomenal growth of the Internet suggests that a lot of people are ready for something more compelling than passive, or even "interactive" TV (the latter offering us the ability to what? Beat the contestants to the right answer on Jeopardy?). If, as is widely believed, there are 15 million people on the Internet today, and that number is growing at 15% per month, that means global users will total roughly 40 million sometime next year, 100 million in two years, and far more than the total population of the United States within 36 months.

With numbers like these on the table, and the commercial pull they represent, you can rest assured that the necessary bandwidth will be there for any imaginable use -- whether it be sound, graphics, animation, full-motion video, or all of the above. If the principle of supply and demand means anything at all, it's safe to say that if you come, they will build it.

The Internet's humble 7-bit ASCII interface may not be much to look at today by the standards of the full-bore multimedia crowd, but it will evolve from lowly Civic to luxury Lexus in a lot less time than Japanese cars took to make that transition. In the meantime -- contrary to the end-of-literacy predictions of the Future-Shock jocks -- there are still a few useful things that can be done with Arabic numerals and the basic alphabet.

Why wait for what some alternative scenario may or may not deliver in two years or five or fifteen? Why wait until you can afford the latest killer CPU, a wide-screen state-of-the-art video display, a monster disk drive and an audiophile's dream stereo sound system? Nice stuff, to be sure, but you can play on the Big Board right now with nothing more than a beat up old terminal, a shareware comm package and a dirt-cheap modem. So hey, power up, log on, drop in. And let the presses roll. The data highway is already here, and here to stay. Often imitated, never duplicated: welcome to the Internet!