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DUMBING DOWN?

PUBLISHING, THE MEDIA AND THE INTERNET

by Robert M. Young

It is easy to believe in golden ages. I have experienced three. For many years I did research on Victorian periodicals, in particular, The Edinburgh Review, The Quarterly Review and The Westminster Review. It was in the pages of those periodicals that the great debate on evolution and what was then called ‘man’s place in nature’ was conducted. The leading thinkers of the period reflected at length on geology, biology, political economy, natural theology, philosophy and so on. The circulation of The Edinburgh Review was 13,500 in 1818 and about 7,000 between 1860 and 1870; the analogous figures for the Quarterly Review were 14,000 and 8,000. The Westminster Review (the third of the great quarterlies) was founded in 1824, never had a large circulation, and averaged 4,000 in the period 1860-70. Leading intellectuals, Herbert Spencer, Charles Lyell, William Herschel, T. H. Huxley and other luminaries (though not Darwin) wrote for them, and they referred to them regularly in their correspondence. These periodicals were integral to the best scientific and philosophical culture. There was a common context of arts and sciences, literature and theology. This began to break down in the 1860s, and nature and human nature were literally parcelled out into new, highly-professional learned journals with titles reflecting their territory in the carve-up of the common context — Nature, Mind, Brain, Man (anthropology) and so on, while a new breed of middle-brow journal was launched for the intelligent layperson, e.g., The Nineteenth Century, the Contemporary Review and The Fortnightly Review. The general monthlies sold 3,000 to 20,000, although the Cornhill sold 80,000 in 1860 (2,500 in 1871 and later 12,000) and Cassell's Magazine sold 200,000 in 1870. Macmillan's and the Cornhill sold 100,000 in their best years. The weeklies had circulations of up to 300,000, but 40,000 to 60,000 was more usual. The key to the success of this last group of magazines was that they contained serialisations of the novels of writers like George Eliot, who wrote for Blackwood’s Magazine and The Cornhill Magazine. The new popular periodicals were good. Some were very good, but they did not contain the leading edge of new thinking. Academic professionalism had overtaken and undermined the common intellectual context, and laypeople had to settle for simplifications written as higher journalism. T. H. Huxley was the master of this genre. The relationship between leading intellectuals and intelligent laypeople has been problematic ever since.

My next golden age was in my own childhood. I cannot remember when I did not read Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, Popular Science and Mechanics Illustrated. All were popularisations, but they were excellent ones. Radio also had amazing drama series and music high-, medium- and low-brow. I started listening with a crystal set, then got a tiny valve radio small enough to hide under my pillow and then had a larger one with a short wave band. I saved the money from my paper route and bought a second hand Hallicrafters S-40A communications received which brought the whole world of radio to my finger tips. I listened to the BBC World Service, Radio Moscow and ham radio. I even set out to train as a ham radio operator in my mid teens, but my teacher turned out to have unwelcome amorous designs on me, so I shied away from him and his tuteledge and did not complete the course. I also had my first experience of another magical technology: the wire recorder. It allowed me to create my own compilations of favourite songs and listen to them at time of my own choosing. These two instruments together gave me a sense of freedom from the constraints of conventional media and to some extent to go my own way. I think that my experiences with them bent the twig so that I would have a lifelong penchant for making my own spaces in culture and my own compilations of it.

My third golden age began when I was a undergraduate and won the English Prize in my first year at Yale. This was remarkable bit of good fortune since I had read practically no literature at school. My professor took me aside and said it was time I started to build my library. I don’t think that up till then I had ever bought a book which was not assigned. He told me to subscribe to the Times Literary Supplement and open an account at Blackwell’s in Oxford, and I ordered many, many paperbacks from them for two shillings and six pence each. I also subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and Best Articles and Stories.. When I went to Cambridge a few years later I was awe-struck by the wealth of books — mostly Pelicans — for sale cheaply on the train station platform. I had never seen anything like it. All were there for self-education. And there was The Listener, New Society, New Statesman, Encounter, The BBC Third Programme, BBC television’s ’Monitor’. Practically all of these are gone. Of that list, only The New Statesman still limps along; indeed, it is currently known as ‘Staggers’. Also gone are the excellent documentaries which were commonplace in British television. until the early 1980s. The Scientific American, once a source of deep popularisation, is now a tabloid, and the less penetrating New Scientist is even more catchpenny.

There are, in my opinion, only two beacons which are still shining in all this gloom. The New York Review of Books, launched during a strike at The New York Times in the 1970s, still provides excellent essays on the world of letters. And CNN is excellent in its coverage of breaking news. They point a camera at it and stay with it. Another beacon shewn and was soon put out. A television series called ’Voices’ was on Britain’s Channel Four between 1982 and 1988. It was the brainchild of an admirable producer, Udi Eichler, who has sadly recently died. It offered excellent coverage of culture, including a series on ’Psychoanalysis’ in which I took part. After a time it was obliged by the channel to go for ’bigger names’. It was never corrupted but it was axed and replaced by something much newsier. One of its producers, David Herman, did a series on ‘Late Great Britons’ — Gladstone, etc. I did the one on Darwin and was treated well. A decade later I offered the same producer a series on Victorian Grand Narratives and their presence at the close of the twentieth century: Malthus, Darwin, Spencer, Marx, Freud. Each was to be associated with a leading idea: pessimism, evolution, progress, revolution, stoicism. He warned me that television has dumbed down considerably in the intervening decade, that many hands would simplify the script and my only autonomy would be in writing the book of the series, the rights to which I could keep for myself. We tried a couple of treatments, but we finally gave it up as likely to end in tears when the bowdlerisation would begin. Another television producer whom I admire told me recently that people who have worked for The History Channel return to the mainstream useless for other work, so exacting are the simplifications required in that project. They do some fascinating programmes, but they tend to concentrate on war, weapons and biography. You don’t see much, if any, social history, cultural history or history of scientific ideas. The format is formulaic and the budgets are tiny, as they also are in the few documentary slots which remain in mainstream television. Of course, there are still some blockbuster series - Robert Hughes on American art, the forthcoming series by Simon Sciama on British history — but they are relentlessly middle-brow, smoothed out for the international audience. In general, cable has so far focused primarily on sport, cartoons and movies, though who knows what the hundreds of channels on digital television will enable. So far, however, in television more has meant worse.

It has been said that there were three moments in the British media which were relatively wide open, when intellectuals and other creative people had access to the mass media. One was the Third Programme on BBC radio in the 1950s. The second was BBC 2 in the 1960s, and the third was the first few years of Channel Four in the early 1980s. There have been other niches, for example when Sydney Newman, who has recently died. He commissioned a series of excellent one-off dramas in the Armchair Theatre series and was then a key figure in BBC drama, but that opening closed and he returned to Canada to head the National Film Board. John Houseman did something similar in the USA on CBS television with Playhouse 90 in 1958-59, but that space was short-lived. Houseman believed that one thing which compromised live drama was the introduction of videotape; something vivid and urgent went out of the performances.

The problem at present is the cultural mind set of the executives who make the decisions. They will take no risks, they want to maximise the audience and they are cynical. They are also authoritarian, for example, in dictating the director and producer and in interfering at any stage. One of the main network patrons has a chart on his wall with three words: ’Good, Cheap, Quick. Choose any two’. A current favourite is the ‘docu-soap’, where you point a camera at a real situation for a time. No actors to pay and a tiny crew. The steeple-jack and traction engine aficionado Fred Dibna has been good for several series. The police are, too. Cheap and cheerful infotainment. The products the decision-makers require and get have a smooth narrative surface. There is no space for reflexivity or critique, no consideration of different, partial and competing views on intellectual issues, no sense of questioning of the terms of reference, conceptual frameworks, levels of assumptions and frameworks of ideas. What gets done is short on interconnectedness, surprises, vexing open questions. Ideology, politics, world views and structural determinations are eschewed. Commercial channels dwarf the national networks, e.g., BBC, CBC, and the equivalents in Australia and Europe, and they are increasingly required to make alliances with commercial production companies. The watchword is ratings. For example, anything below an audience of two hundred thousand is zero rated.

Looking for a moment at other media, in the course of writing this talk I encountered a lament in The Guardian about the downgrading of book editors. It said that they were once at the centre of book publishing but they are now subordinate to sales and marketing personnel and are not allowed to practice their craft of improving manuscripts. They also move about, become agents and drop out at an alarming rate. A friend in publishing who keeps his finger on the pulse says book publishing is now a shambles — that it is all done with mirrors and honourable people are rare and persecuted. This is also said to be true in academic publishing. My recent contacts there bear out this pessimism.

Something similar can be said of news and newspapers. Money is just not available for much serious foreign coverage in television or especially in the quality newspapers. Entertainment, cookery, travel and features (some of them excellent) are cheaper and increasingly fill the space, while agencies supply the foreign news. It is bought in and suitably tailored at source for all sorts of purchasers. The presentation of news on television is a major site of dumbing down. The distinguished newscaster, Robert McNeil, has recently written a rather bad novel, Breaking News, (with at least one sub-plot left dangling) but a good essay on this, in which he deplores the stress on sex. violence, crime and scandal (104) and the trend of turning politics and news into entertainment (272, 286), leading to a whole new philosophy of ’information-entrtainment television’ (320).

I should acknowledge here that I don’t feel so bad about music. Classical music on radio is still excellent, in spite of cuts, and various forms of popular music all have their niches. These can, of course, be recorded and archived, as can documentaries and films on television. Technologies can give degrees of freedom. After my wire recorder came Ampex then Revox tape recording, and when Ray Dolby’s noise reduction systems brought high fidelity to the compact cassette, I moved over. I have built up precious libraries of thousands of audio tapes and hundreds of video ones. I will mention in passing another enabling technology. My university in Rochester had the first Xerox photocopier in general use, and I have had the good fortune always to have one available, including one in my basement at present, so that my vast unclassified collection of photocopies make my study a sea of papers. These means of reproduction are ways of resisting dumbing down by enabling the creation of one’s own cultural archives in various media.

If, as I have argued, the mass media are dumbing down, what shall we do? Well, there are several alternatives.

One is to go independent. In the late 1950s and especially in the 1960s there was a political and cultural atmosphere in which conventional media came under sharp scrutiny, and many new spaces were created, especially in print media as a result of cheap offet litho priting and new typesetting technologies. I have fond memories of being involved in founding periodicals in several settings. There was one at Yale in 1956 called Criterion, another in 1959 when I was in medical school called Reflections. Each allowed a group of dissidents to speak in their own voices, calling, among other things, for reforms in the medical school. There was a flowering of this sort of thing in the mid-1960s at the time of the student rebellion, and new periodicals were created by young dissident academics in practically every discipline. I was involved with one called the Radical Science Journal which later transmuted into Science as Culture and in still going. Others which come to mind are Radical America, Critique of Anthropology, New Left Review, Capital & Class, Science for People, Telos, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Radical Philosophy, Radical History Review, History Workshop, Feminist Review. It would be difficult to convey how exciting it was to apply one’s academic training and skills to the exploration of one’s own political and social beliefs, deployed in mounting critiques of orthodox scholarship and in constructing alternative accounts, and how earthshaking we felt the controversies between different political sects to be. We also set up a distribution network, the Publications Distribution Co-op, which was independent of the straight media world. It succumbed to sectarianism but was reborn as a small business called Turnaround which is still catering for small publishers. With the demise of the radical subculture most of the journals I have mentioned have had to find havens with commercial publishers as an alternative to ceasing to publish. It is worth noting, even so, that practically all of them are still going, if not in every case going strong.

A second strategy to confront dumbing down is entrism. I tried it for substantial periods. The first effort sent me into a black depression, which is why I now profess psychoanalysis. The second nearly bankrupted me. I am not speaking loosely. It somehow transpired that an opportunity to make network television documentaries based on my own work literally fell into my lap some years ago during one of the golden ages I mentioned. We had pots of money, and I had editorial control — at least on paper. The series was called ‘Crucible: Science in Society’. One was broadcast throughout Britain every month on the newly-launched Channel Four, and there was an associated Pan Books paperback series which I edited. What happened, you’ll not be astonished to hear, is that the norms of the medium quite quickly permeated our work like a miasma. It wasn’t primarily censorship, though there was some of that. Nor was it betrayal from within, though we had that, too. The main problem lay inside the minds of the people who were working on the series and the norms of the medium itself. Television is a dense medium, and in the end it was impenetrable. I would want to make a point about structural causation, and they would say, ‘Where are the pictures?’ I would want to make criticisms of a famous scientist’s way of thinking about the relationship between science and society, and the chosen narrator would refuse to speak the lines. I would try to convey how ordinary people feel about the nuclear threat, and the channel editor would call it touchy-feelie and only broadcast it very late at night. But more important than all of this was the casual labour or ‘freelance’ system of television. Each researcher, director producer, production assistant, editor and so on was only as saleable as his or her last show, so they covered their asses. Careerism won out in the end, and that militated against anything deeply critical or subversive of the scientific establishment. The last straw was that we were on a new channel, one which was launched with a policy of publishing others’ ideas. But the government of the day, Mrs. Thatcher’s, quite quickly leaned on the channel to close down all its radical programmes. I well remember getting a phone call at renewal time from the newly-appointed commissioning editor for science of the channel. He said, quite simply, ’I want you to know that my last job was writing speeches for Margaret Thatcher’. We were axed and replaced with a slick series called ‘Equinox’, the first programme of which was about racing car engines with lots of throaty roaring engines, spanners and shiny chrome. As I said, I was so depressed that I went into analysis and eventually trained and am now a professor of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

In the meantime, however, I had a brainwave. When they change the text in a television documentary, it is justified as the legitimate prerogative of the director, producer, editor, channel commissioning editor. I remember a defining moment. I had written, ‘Technological decision-making is a political process’. My producer rewrote the sentence as follows: ‘Technological decision-making is a complicated process’. By contrast to this demoralising situation, when a text gets changed in book or journal publishing, it’s called a typographical error, so I thought: ‘That’s for me!’ I set up a press called Free Association Books and published over three hundred volumes of books and periodicals. I had complete editorial control and exercised it with a will. If I say so myself, we did a fine job. Someone once said that my press was the most important single influence in the culture of psychoanalysis, broadly conceived, since the war. I was also told by the founder of the subject that it was a main inspiration in the creation of the new discipline of Psychoanalytic Studies. We also published in critical science and a few one-offs in any field that I thought we could do something worthwhile, e.g., Martin Bernal’s Black Athena on the racist assumptions in classical studies. Our books were greatly admired and won many prizes. Some became classics. Like the television series had done, it took all the energy I had and then some. It also took all the money I cold beg or borrow and then some. In fact, in the period in question most small specialist publishers went to the wall or got taken over. For example, the pioneering feminist publishers, Virago, is now an imprint of one of the media giants. The founders of the left imprint, Pluto Press, went broke and had to sell it to someone with a deeper pocket.

I was stubborn - still am. I mortgaged my property, badgered rich and not-so-rich friends to buy shares. One girlfriend from my Dallas high school days eventually put up three quarters of a million dollars. Over the years the press lost a million three hundred thousand pounds. I took in a new investor and then hired a greatly admired pro from one of the main academic publishing houses. In the course of these changes I became a minority shareholder. I was shown a document which reassured me that I could never be removed from my directorship. Nevertheless, some months later, they simply voted me out. As I see it, they stole the company from me, morally, if not legally; I did not have enough money to discover which. After a time the investor manoeuvred things so it was pointless not to sell my shares, so I did and was able to pay off all pressing creditors. He then managed to get hold of her shares, as well. They never got along, and she eventually resigned amid much acrimony. Now he owns it a hundred per cent. He approached me, saying that the soul had gone out of the company, and would I please come back. I could have autonomy, a list in my name called ‘The Founder’s List’, and so on and on. I said no, then after a time I said yes and he promptly he reneged on his offer. A lovely space in culture has shrivelled, and I’ll be paying off the long-term debts of the venture until I die.

You may find these baleful tales, told in a self-indulgent way, but that was not my purpose in telling them. You may even say, ‘Some guys never learn!’, but I have. I learned from television not to put myself in the hands of gatekeepers and careerists, and I learned from publishing not to depend on having a deep pocket or untrustworthy backers or fellow directors.

Which brings me to my current hope, the internet. I cannot recall how I first got interested in it. I think it was an extension of the wonderful effect having an Apple Mac had on my writing. I had struggled and managed to write book on an Amstrad, but when a friend persuaded me to get a Mac my life was transformed. All those scrawlings, depending on typists, Tip-exing typos, painful revision went out the window, and I became my own person as a writer, correspondent and incompetent businessman. Then I met someone who could help me to get onto email. That was the first attraction - email. My friend patiently explained that there were email, usenet and the world wide web, The first internet service provider which was not for closed groups like businesses or universities had just set up - Demon Internet. I must admit that it took me months of anxiety and frustration get it to work. All those phonecalls for technical support with the line always busy and the advice when you finally got through was incomprehensible. Something similar but not so onerous was true of getting onto the world wide web. I was doing it before the Netscape browser was available, and surfing was more like digging trenches with a spoon, but when Netscape arrived lovely things began to happen. Now all you hasve to do is buy an iMac.

First, I learned that my university department had a web site. It took months to find a way of putting things on it without irritating the net technician in the faculty, but once we became independent of them there was no stopping us. We created email forums, put articles and books on it, compiled guides to the internet, a Dictionary of the History of Ideas, a Dictionary of Mental Health and eventually a new web site, not bound by the university’s rules, called Human—Nature.net. I suppose I should confess here that there are still mysteries of the net which are impenetrable to me. For example, I remain too anxious to learn how to put things on the web or take them off and rely on the kindness of others for this operation, one which I really should learn to do for myself.

All of this may seem rather esoteric to you. In some ways it is, but in some ways it is truly remarkable. I and people with whom I work have created a dozen email discussion forums, and a visionary, Ian Pitchford, with whom I and our centre have been fortunate enough to collaborate, created a consortium of about fifty forums in the general area of mental health. This means that people all over the world hold ongoing discussions of matters of mutual interest and also link up with people in adjacent disciplines with whom they were hitherto unlikely to be in contact. It’s easy. You subscribe by sending a message to the relevant server asking to be put on a forum. All messages sent to that forum are thereafter relayed to you and all other subscribers by the software, a sort of electronic addressing machine, and you can reply or not. Most people don’t; they are known as ’lurkers’. Some do a lot, some too much, and they are known as tedious. If you are not interested in a particular topic, you can just ignore those messages — trash or archive them. I am on forums with as many as seven hundred and as few as forty members. I am on about fifty of them. I get hundreds of messages per day but only open the ones which are directly to me (with my name in the subject line) or on topics I choose to pursue.

In addition to the email forums there is, of course, ordinary email. You may ask what’s wrong with the post. Nothing, but email is quicker, often instantaneous. I write emails to people to whom I would not write a letter — just a note, sometimes more. I make new friends as a result of people’s responses to what I write on email forums. That’s how I got asked to Toronto on this trip. I have made a couple of enemies, as well. I am also in touch every day with people from all over. That part is thrilling. It is the current equivalent to the role the Frenchman Pierre Mersenne played in the seventeenth century in acting as a clearing house among scientific correspondents. Indeed, the main history of science email forum is called Mersenne. It is hard to convey how much email and email forums have facilitated communication. There were 90,095 email forums on last Tuesday, with more being added every day. I am on ones like History of the Human Sciences, Psychoanalysis, Group-Psychotherapy, Philosophy, Science-as-Culture, Darwin-and-Darwinism, but I also subscribe to Kierkegaard, Habermas, Philosophy of Literature, Literature and Science, Electronic Publishing. I have been on Country Music, Nanci Griffith, Military History, Descartes. Anyone can set one up for a few dollars per month. There are forums for the parents of children of leukaemia, for fat people, for families of substance abusers, for pet lovers, for religious denominations, for fetishists, for paedophiles, for militiamen, for VW Beetle owners, for whatever.

That’s just email. Now what about the world wide web? There currently are a million and a half web sites with a total of 320 million pages. A web site is an address - Universal Resource Locator or URL — where you find a chunk of information. It is usually text, but it can also be text and pictures, moving pictures, music or all of the above. There are web sites associated with many of the email forums I mentioned a moment ago. I am involved with a number of them. Indeed, my writings are on a couple of them — over a hundred articles and a dozen books. Here is where I hope I can begin to kindle your enthusiasm about the potential of the internet. The site of the Sheffield Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies were I work is visited over a thousand times per day. The other main site I have been involved in setting up has received 155,000 visits in the few months since we set it up. It contains articles, chapters, books and other materials on various aspects of human nature. The site where my writings are gets between one and three thousand visits per day — over four hundred thousand since the existing counter was put on it. Compare this with the number of people who are likely to read an article in a learned journal or buy an academic book. Most learned journals in fields in which I work have between one and two thousand subscribers and many have five hundred or less. A commercial journal publisher can make a profit with two hundred institutional subscribers, but they will charge a lot for a four issue volume, typically $140USD in my world. Most books get published in modest editions of between 750 and 2000 copies, cost 40 pounds in hardback and 15.95 in paperback and do not make a profit.

A web site, by contrast, costs about $30 per month for essentially unlimited web space. This means that books and journals can be made available to the millions of people currently on the internt essentially free. Of course people can and do restrict access to web sites to paying subscribers. Some do, some don’t. That’s the beauty of it.

Remember my bŗtes noire? Gatekeepers, careerists, financiers and professional publishers (another breed of gatekeeper). E-mail and the web circumvent them admirably. However, this marvellous pluralism leaves us with the problem of winnowing out things we are not likely to be interested in. We need our own sort of gatekeeper, ones not mired in philistinism and conformism or subservient to the profit motive. Well, that’s not insuperable. People set themselves up as commentators, and you can choose which ones to believe. I am one, after all. The Encyclopedia Britannica vets sites; so do the many, many search engines of various kinds which have come into existence. They and other agencies have a look at web sites and make awards to them and/or put them on lists of admirable sites. Some vet by hit rates, but that puts CNN, Microsoft and porn at the top. Mind you, I have from time to time been top of the hit rate in the Health section of a certain counter service called WebSide Story. Others vet by advice. If you go to a quality search engine, say Ask Jeeves, you will be guided to the Sheffield centre site, to my guides to the net and to my writings. In addition, you can pay certain services to draw your site to the attention to a number of search engines. I never tried that, so I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that the internet is a seriously pluralistic marketplace and that I am very impressed, nay, thrilled by it.

I will mention two sites which do this job admirably. In fact, one of them, ’The Arts and Letters Daily’ http://www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/ has just been named best web site of 1998 by the Guardian and the Observer in London. It provides ‘an updated Report of News and Reviews’ and covers philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip. There is a companion site for science and technology, the ’SciTech Daily’ http://SciTechDaily.com/

The publisher’s welcome to the Arts & Letters Daily addresses my point nicely:

 

At this stage in its evolution the Web resembles a typical Australian goldfield, with vast mountains of low-grade ore. Mining in both cases can be arduous. On the Internet it means sifting through endless streams of verbose, under-edited, often self-indulgent prose, frequently accompanied by those tedious graphics that negate the "instant information" advantage of the Web.

Precious nuggets of real content are there to be found, however, and it's the mission of Arts & Letters Daily to extract them for our readers. We will continue to pan and sift from among the most intellectually stimulating sites on the Internet, updating daily. We make them available at a click.

I want now to draw your attention to the many ways we can create and propagate culture using readily available equipment and making no reliance on existing gatekeepers. We can buy in a local shop a common or garden video recorder and a cheap editing system and make our own documentaries and films and copy and distribute or sell them ourselves. We can use a Sony Professional tape recorder (also available in a local shop) and a tape duplicating machine (most domestic machines have this facility) and do the same for voice or music. The same goes for mini-disc recording, which has the advantage of no loss of quality in reproduction. Ditto CD recording and copying. I am not yet a practitioner in these media, so I am not up to date with their technologies. My main point is that relatively cheap equipment is available for making and copying pictures, texts and sounds. CD-ROMs are so cheap that magazines, newspapers and advertising firms give them away. Of course, you can also advertise your tapes and/or discs on the internet. Indeed, you can eschew all the technologies mentioned above and just put the information on web sites and charge for downloading them or give the pictures, sounds, texts or mixtures of them away free. Look what happened when the Starr Report came out. You could go to the CNN site and download it just like that. The same is true of non-multinational journalism. The infamous Drudge Report was the first to break the news of the Lewinsky affair. He got a quarter of a million hits that day; at subsequent major moments in the scandal he was visited half a million and then a million times in a single day. As far as I have been able to discover Matt Drudge is beholden to no one, and people flock to his web site.

I like this. And there is more. I have not mentioned IRC, which means Internet Relay Chat. You can be in the same bit of cyberspace with a group of people. An email forum sends a letter to a designated list; this takes a little time. In IRC you all get the message at the same time and can conduct a group conversation or, as some do, play around with your personal or sexual identity. There is also a cheap picture technology called CU-See Me which means that you can see the person with whom you are communicating by email or IRC.

The pornographic potential of this and of videos and so on has not escaped anyone interested in this application of new communications technologies. As I said, the service which counts hits on the web sites with which I am associated is called WebSide Story. Just as it has a Top 1000 Health sites, it has a Top 1000 for pornography. In fact, it has a Top 10,000. When I last looked the number one site on this list had 280,034 visits per day, and number ten had 103,383. If the Sheffield Centre continues at it present hit rate it will have perhaps a third of a million visits over a year. All of the top 100 porn sites have over 20,000 hits per day or getting on for seven and a half million each per year; all of the ones up to number 2000 receive over 1400 hits per day or half a million per year. Although the WebSide Story counter service conveys that it lists ‘the’ top 1000 or 10,000, in fact, there are a number of competing services which count hits. Another which calls itself the Top 100 has four sites which receive over 25,000 visits per day, and the top one, called CyberErotica had 43,613,508 visits in less than two years. Most porn web sites offer thousands or tens of thousands of pictures. One which claims to be ‘the biggest index of pictures on the net!!!’ has over 300,000 files available. It boasts ‘more than 500,000 satisfied customers’ and ‘over a BILLION pictures served’ In case you may be drawing the conclusion that porn looms large on the web, I am told that, large as it is, it only constitutes two per cent of web sites and demand is said to be levelling off. I prefer to reflect on a musical analogy. People who do not admire rock music frowned on the growing use of walkmans. Then they realised that the same technology could play Boccherini, Mozart and Wagner. Internet picture technology can take one through the Louvre and the American National Gallery. Internet music technology can bring you any music. Most classic texts are already available gratis on the web, and thousands more are being added daily. Project Gutenberg, Books On-Line and Great Books of Western Civilization are attempting to list and provide access to them.

Be in no doubt about the growing influence of the internet. Here are some data culled from the files of NUA, a firm which gathers information about the internet.

(http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/index.html)

The art of estimating how many are online throughout the world is an inexact one at best. Surveys abound, using all sorts of measurement parameters. However, from observing many of the published surveys over the last two years, here is an ‘educated guess’ as to how many are online worldwide as of December 1998. Net connected:

World Total 151 million

Canada & USA 87 million

Europe 32.38 million

7 million online in the UK - growth rate higher than France or Germany

Asia/Pacific 25.57 million

South America 4.5 million

Japan 12.1 million

China 1.2 million (9.4 Chinese will be online by 2002)

About a million Russians are online

Africa 0.92 million

Middle East 0.78 million

A fourfold increase of online population is predicted to occur by 2005

The net will eclipse newspapers as primary source of news by 2002

One in five UK people used net in 1998

One in three UK children have used the net

40% of UK net users log in at home

43% of British schools are online

26% of adult Canadians are online (6.3 million access it on a weekly basis)

39% of Canadians have used the net - up from 27% a year earlier

18% of Australian households are online

One in three Europeans homes will be online by 2003

23% of Americans homes were online by end of 1998

44% of US college courses use email

12% of Americans accessed the Starr Report

Amazon.com, the internet bookstore, is currently the top shopping site. I think this is a hopeful sign that people are buying books and music as never before. I like to think it means that they are resisting the dumbing down of the mass media. As I have said, soon anything — books, music, movies and documentaries — can be downloaded from the web.

Once again, there are about 1.5 million web sites, consisting of over 320 million pages. These are growing fast. I believe that those of us who don’t want to be dumbed down can make very good use of these cheap and potentially ubiquitous spaces in cyberspace in order to husband and create culture and to try to make the world a better place. It is often said that entertainment technologies make people couch potatoes. I have taken care to mention the role of each of the technologies which has mediated the history of my cultural experience. I believe that at each stage new technologies have had an enlightening and a liberating influence. Some serious philistines are in control of much of the media, but we can make and share and choose our own level and taste. If we don’t we have only ourselves to blame for not making the best of our talents and sensibilities. Technological decision-making, as I said, is a political process.

6463 words

Talk presented as Distinguished Visitor to the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 13 January 1999.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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