A Critical Perspective on the 'Net

A Critical Perspective on the 'Net

Communication's Elmer sees Napster, Zapatistas as key links in history of Internet technology

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Captains of industry like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos may have grabbed headlines during the Internet boom time of the late 1990s, but Asst. Prof. Greg Elmer (Communication) keeps his eye on grassroots-level 'Net activities, including those of Mexican guerillas and a Boston area college student.

Asst. Prof. Greg Elmer (Communication) (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The success of the Zapatistas rebels in attracting attention to their cause via Internet technology, and former Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning's creation of the file-sharing network known as Napster, says Elmer, show that governments and established industries do not necessarily have the upper hand in determining the Internet's future.

"These are just two examples of how the Internet has fundamentally inverted some relationships," said Elmer, editor of Critical Perspectives on the Internet, a recent volume of essays on the Internet's history and evolution. "By harnessing both the technology and pervasiveness of the Internet, groups and individuals outside the mainstream have been able, at least temporarily, to turn social, political and economic establishments on their heads."

This activist use of the Internet represents something far different than television, film and radio have been able to offer, said Elmer, and differentiates the 'Net from other revolutionary inventions, like the automobile and telegraph.

"It's very decentralized. There is no command and control central, there is no Hollywood, there is no Fleet Street, there is no White House press office," said Elmer. "The editorial control simply is not there."

That unique structure also poses challenges to the burgeoning field of Internet scholarship, Elmer says. While the scholarly examination of the Internet is relatively new, its study integrates previously "balkanized" aspects of human and electronic communication.

"An increasing number of scholars of interpersonal, intercultural, political, and mass communication studies have all begun to question how their work and research paradigms have been challenged by new media, digital technologies, and the Internet," said Elmer.

He describes the Internet as a series of layers, with the top levels consisting of such technologies as Web browsers, services like America Online and corporate-developed software designed, in part, to promote commerce.

"That's how 99 percent of the users see the Internet," he said.

At the lower layers, however, are technologies that are the fundamental basis of the Internet and still considered "open source," he said. These technologies can be studied, understood and harnessed by anyone willing to learn, Elmer says, and these "hackers" are able to use their knowledge against larger organizations or corporations caught unprepared.

Activists and hackers, sometimes enjoined as "hacktivists," Elmer says, have had their successes in recent years, and their day in court.
The international circulation of the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, might be the most famous example of Internet-centered activism, says Elmer. Despite the Mexican government's efforts to contain the socialist uprising by military action and restricting media coverage, Zapatistas and their supporters broke out of the isolation and were able to state their program for economic and political revolution: first through written communiqués and personal interviews with independent journalists distributed internationally by fax and electronic mail; then through more detailed reports by Mexican and foreign observers circulated in the same manner.

"It was something very new to have people in, for example, Norway learning about the struggles of people in Mexico" through unmediated sources, said Elmer.

"It is amazing how difficult it is for governments to do effective PR," said Elmer. "They were caught completely unprepared."

Fanning and Napster represents the most famous case of an individual using the power of the Internet against a seated industry. Napster, used by millions to exchange MP3 music files at no cost, was the subject of controversy as record company lawyers, copyright experts, musicians and technologists argued over its legality. While Napster ultimately lost the legal battle and soon went out of business, other innovators took up the fight with different applications.

"[Fanning] simply understood what the big corporations and big government didn't," said Elmer. "Innovation rarely comes from big organizations and he proved that again.

"The Internet does fundamentally challenge the circulation of some commodities, like music in this case. That process I find fascinating."

These and other aspects of the Internet - including Hyper Text Mark-up Language, Web browsers, cookies, online guides, portals and Internet service providers, online communities and user inequalities - are explored by Elmer and his nine fellow contributors in Critical Perspectives. The authors, who represent a variety of academic, technical, political and industrial backgrounds, look at the Internet from a broad cultural point of view and examine its history, architecture, organization and governance.

"Everyone talked about the Internet as new media. I think what the writers do in this book is interrogate the claim: What is new media? What makes it new? How does it specifically change things? How does it invert the way we do things?"

Elmer said that looking backwards at the progress of other technologies offers some clues to the Internet's future.

"The PC has undergone many transformations in its short history, as has more broadcast based media such as TV, motion pictures and radio," said Elmer. "Many of the lessons of 'old media' - and technology in general - tell us that 'new media' will become increasingly more customized, mobile, miniaturized, and ubiquitous."


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