Understanding the Internet in a Wider Historical Context
Marxism and the Means of Production: A Look at the Unique Nature of Internet Communication.
When Karl Marx developed his ideas of class struggle and the proletariat, he was quick to recognize the importance of written communication. In an age where the written word was increasingly a mass producible phenomenon, Marx was able to identify the importance of available press and media distribution. In his style, Marx hoped that this new found power could be harnessed for the purposes of the people and ostensibly Marxism itself. The goal was idealistic but possible. Never before had paper and the means of printing been so readily available. Moreover, the technical knowledge needed to author was also being widely disseminated in Europe by a growing network of Universities and Secondary Schools. However, various balls broke in a particular way and the sort of popular empowerment Marx envisioned never really materialized. As it was the means of media production never really ended up in the hands of those that Marx would consider traditional power brokers. From the Marx perspective, the great potential voice of the people was co-opted by the various foes apparently named as the haves. For the large part Marx was correct.
For over 100 years after Marx the large body media was indeed controlled by a very small percentage of the relative population. Of course there were exceptions mostly coming in sub-cultural periodicals and small press newspapers. In the 1920's Berlin had in print scores of newspapers and political pamphlets including Nazi papers that claimed a very small readership. Still, cases like this were rare and restricted to specific cosmopolitan centers and on the balance media production remain a province of the few. Some of this was a result of intentional co-option or an already established propaganda machine. But more often this centralization was a result of environment and practical systemization. One of these was conditions was a Marxian one, or the fact that most people all too often lacked the time and or disposable income to produce media periodicals. However this financial aspect paled as an obstacle when compared to the twin perils of lingual barrier and, above that, the existence and availability of a forum.
The results of Babel are still being felt and while a Communist Newspaper in Russia might have relevance to those in England, its is of little value to those who can speak only, English. Even if a translation could be obtained, there was the even more daunting mound of a means of dissemination. To establish a network of readers; an aspiring press needed a distribution network and product advertisement, not to mention a base of like minded persons. This dynamic was of particular strain to fringe associations and ideas where members were spread across hundreds or even thousands of miles. The hope of the plucky German seemed dead, that is until crafty DARPA employees developed a means of secret communication that would come to be called the Internet. Initially conceived of as a war time asset, the conception of the Internet quickly evolved. Slowly various Universities and persons came to embrace the idea of the Internet and slowly a train began roll. Most everyone can fill in what happened next, a cataclysmic rise in internet availability and content. After 1992 the internet exploded and had within 10 short years reached every country and continent including Antarctica. Everyone jumped on the band wagon and Internet contributors ranged from totally un-researched speculation to the most respected peer reviewed sources back to conspiracy theories galore and finally to an epic effect on the principal and nature of media.
In less time then the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the Internet broke the old order and surmounted the previous obstacles that had kept the means of media out of the hands of the workers. The first advantage of the Internet is the sheer size and capacity of it as a forum. By linking smaller domains together, the Internet is able to assemble a huge conglomerated, worldwide venue linking countries and people together on effectively equal terms. Any aspiring author is able to showcase his or her work to tens of millions of people. This global nature connects previously disparate communities and political concerns; exotic 1 in 1,000,000 interests are feasible even if members are scattered across many different nations. The old problem of language is rounded by translation software that can convert one language to another in a matter of minutes; although it should be noted no software exists that can surmount the other whammy of Babel: cultural specificity and parlance.
But of all the aspects of the Internet, Marx would likely be most satisfied with the way that the contributors enrich the Internet. The Internet is built on the posts and publications of millions of people. The ease of contribution allows persons author opinions and articles on a wide range of subjects. HTML, the technical skill needed to build a Web Page, is a very simple very laymen tool. It can be learned in a few months by any dedicated individual and requires no large financial investment. Forums and message boards fill in the gaps of those who don't know HTML, allowing even more people to contribute to the Internet. In most cases these means only require a short registration process for prospective users. Publication on the Internet has few obstacles and the rigmarole usually associated with 'hard copy' publication is not present. In this, Marx's dream of an available means of production has finally been realized allowing the masses to voice their concerns on the same footing as the elite. From a historical perspective this temporary reality is something new. Never before have so many people be able to express themselves in the written form. Ideological concerns tend to praise this accomplishment, citing not just Marx, but also the importance of free speech and an open flow ideas. A more cynical observer would note the erroneous bulk of Internet material and grammar, echoing the words of Plato on the superstitious and illogical nature of the common man.
The Internet is not, of course, the all encompassing fix to the issue of a Free Press or Open Forum and does indeed have several larger drawbacks. In fact, a bit of freedom of expression is actually lost on the Internet and strangely, the old foil of censorship is actually made easier. These losses come in the technical details of how content on the Internet is published and maintained. In a traditional periodical the words are set in ink on paper, in near permanent place and copied thousands of times. Once the words are in print they cannot be changed or deleted and anyone desiring censorship must literally run about with torches and a few accompli. This is a real advantage of a traditional ‘hard copy' style of media. While this factor might seem to translate directly to the Internet it did not and content on Internet is actually much more soluble then most realize. Posting content on the Internet may be easy, but it is also highly malleable. Unlike printed work, Internet work can be edited by the author many times and a few key strokes can change words, titles and most disturbingly; facts. Old works disappear in new edition and if The Raven was first published on the Internet, Poe would probably still be adding stanzas. This trend is vulnerability and allows an ease of censorship the Gestapo would have coveted. On the Internet an individual set on censorship can literally change the words of his prey and whole articles can be erased. This susceptibility is especially keen in Online Forums where server administrators can erase, edit, or eliminate undesirable posts. In true human form many of the server administers censoring online content are they themselves decrying it in the rest of the world, with the old 'its different' saying as justification.
Altogether, the Internet is a great resource for the common man and doubtlessly Marx would be pleased. It allows easy access to a massive venue and makes major steps in surmounting the trials of language and distance. Moreover, the Internet also allows contributors to be effectively anonymous, though this can be a two edged sword. The biggest advantage of the Internet is its cost effectiveness, it should be remembered that most people can afford access to the internet while most can't afford a printing press. Indeed, many problems exist, and a responsible observer should keep a close eye on the growing instances of online fraud as the timeless hustle has eagerly acclimatized to the Web. Still any ambitious one should recognize the Internet for what it is a tremendous resource and tool, but only when it is used with thought and care.
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