Maybe there never was such a thing as “the promise of the Internet.” Maybe that’s something I imagined I heard, a faint echo of the speech that opened every “Star Trek” episode. For some time now it has seemed that every day brought a new pleasure to be en-joyed on our computers and shared with an array of friends limited only by our email address books. That many of those “pleasures” involved cats flushing toilets or humans acting mentally disturbed didn’t shake our sense that, by golly, this Internet thing has got some real possibilities.
One possibility we may not have paid close attention to is that, like our options for cola, the Internet would one day be dominated by Coke and Pepsi. Fans of those beverages might say, “So what? I find them both to be crisp and refreshing.” Both are essentially pennies worth of product sold with breathtaking profit margins.
Three cents of brown stuff for $1.50 a can was on mind when I woke up last weekend to find that software colossus Microsoft had filled the front of two-dozen bulldozers with cash and dumped the pile on the steps of Yahoo! If Yahoo! shareholders can see their way clear to approving a windfall on their holdings, and if nobody barks about giving birth to Godzilla the Tech Monster Merger, we’ll soon have the vast and varied Internet mostly fenced in by Google and Micro-Hoo…or whatever they decide to call it.
While Yahoo! is seared into our brainpans as a presence in our computer lives, it’s only been around since 1995. Traveling leisurely through that not-so-distant past we might have warm memories of things that have come and gone in that time, such as the beep-beep of dial-up or even those feisty “people’s” ISP’s that were something like nine bucks a month. AOL first projected the shadow of an über presence in cyberspace, but there’s no getting around the fact that, at the beginning, most felt the Internet was going to be completely dem­­o­cratic… open and free. Well, free in the sense of choice.
True, no one forces you to drink cola. But to pull on that analogy a little further, consider how many places are left on earth where you can look in any direction and not see a Coke logo. Put that feeling alongside the one I got while watching the tepid comedy Knocked Up and enduring at least a half-dozen product mentions for Google in the first half-hour of the…well, is it a movie or an infomercial if you’re hosed with brand names throughout the script?
I’ll concede that I’m nostalgic for the heydays of so-called “computer fairs,” where fanny pack-wearing tech nerds shopped for “motherboards” and seemed to be creating a kind of cyber gypsy nation that would function as the resistance in any showdown between corporations and “the people” over cyberspace. But if you buy all that, then maybe you can see how the possible merger of Microsoft and Yahoo! feels like somebody just casually announced a construction start date for the Death Star.
At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to information. You can bend it to create appetite (“Everyone says MP3 files are great. Go buy an iPod NOW!”). You can weave propaganda into information to exalt the propaganda (“In other news, America can hardly wait to see Cloverfield…”). And you can lie by dispersing “information” that has been manufactured to deceive (“White House offered 935 lies after 9/11”). Recently, try as they might, Texans couldn’t persuade the world that UFO’s were attacking. Information, to move us to action, seems to need to correlate to something already inside of us. Can we be fooled endlessly when certain people control and/or create information, especially when it correlates to fears? That reality check comes in November.
If daily newspapers are becoming thin shadows of their former selves and all TV news derives from core corporate values that include keeping things “lite” and milking drama from abduction stories, then it will be significant, to say the least, when most or all Internet users enter through one of two corporate portals. I don’t imagine Microsoft making it easy for users of their operating systems to utilize any portal other than the one Microsoft might own. Windows users will verify that you often needed a crowbar to peel off MSN-related extras. Certainly if the MicrosoftYahoo! deal goes through, there will be a new version of whatever system Microsoft is currently offering waiting just around the bend. A wonderful new system that offers you the vast and unlimited promises of the Internet… as long as you fly your spaceship through the golden gates of Micro-Hoo.