Thursday, February 14, 2002


The Gentrification of the Internet

There have always been barriers to Internet access for low income persons. However, hardware prices have gone down, and perfectly serviceable second-hand computers became available as users upgraded their systems. One of my old computers went to my sister before it finally ended up at my parents (where it is still working), and I am sure this is now a rather common pattern. At one point it even looked as if free Internet service might become available, and even Microsoft was looking at the possibility of drastically slashing their prices or offering free dial-up access. During that time the Internet was an open, anarchistic, and largely democratic
community, and it was becoming accessible to persons with even relatively modest means. That Internet was designed to share, and facilitate, the transfer of information. In that Internet what was available to one person was largely available to another. That era, which many of us thought would last forever, has passed, because not all Internet access is created equal.  Another development is that the Internet is starting to become stratified.

Now we are starting to see a trend where the singular "Internet" is being replaced by a stratified system.  Citing security concerns the U. S. government will almost assuredly carry through with plans to create a separate self-contained web for itself sealed off from the outside world. That means that our government is basically going to opt out of the web as we know it and create their own system. The availability of DSLand Cable hookups for Internet access has begun the process of gentrifying the Internet. Now, instead of having to fiddle with a relatively slow dial-up connection those who can afford it can opt for faster, and more convenient,always on connection. Although I am not sure that the faster connections are worth the money (I can do everything I want on my home network which connects to the web with an old fashioned dial-up line running through a Linux box) it is an  increasingly popular trend which supports using the Internet as a metered conveyance of entertainment (just like cable television and pay-per-view). The dream for business, I think it will eventually be the reality, is that people will access premium services for a price. Those premium services will be movies, music, and games that can be downloaded or streamed to the user for a fee. Without the increased bandwidth of DSL and cable connections such enterprises would not be very practical. Also, I suspect that premium information web "channels" will also develop that will only be available to subscribers. It is the cable tv model applied to the Internet. The end result will be something like that which happened to the last Super Bowl.

Nobody is talking about it but our society went through a major transition with the last Super Bowl. The Super Bowl, which has long been a fixture of popular culture, was suddenly unavailable for those who could not payfor it. The year before anyone with an old black and white television could watch the Super Bowl on network television. This year the Super Bowl was largely available only to those who had access to cable television. I am not a big football fan but it was a little weird to spend Super Bowl Sunday without the game on because we do not have cable television.

Another development is wireless.  Although far from being fully developed wireless computing, including access to the Internet and email, is already starting to mutate into something that will eventually take on its own identity. It is also pretty expensive for the average person. The Internet is changing.  Just as television showed much promise in the early days as a tool for doing much good for society (particularly in terms of helping educate and inform us) the Internet is in great danger of becoming nothing more than a commercial venue for making money rather than for doing good. Pardon my strong language, but the Internet is being reshaped into a whore, business is the pimp, and the government is being paid off to look the other way. As this trend continues the Internet will continue to become more stratified, and the gentrificationwill continue. There will still be some kind of low quality service for the have-nots but you will not be able to watch the Super Bowl on it. If you like infomercials you will absolutely love the new Internet coming your way.

Mike Perkins

No comments: