Flamethrower  by Matt Soell

...And Bandwidth for All

        As these words are being written, the American media is awash with stories of the pissing contest held by the two wealthiest political parties every four years.
        Chances are you've already made up your mind about the relative merits of both candidates. In fact, by the time you read this, all the fun will be over and television news anchors will either be heralding the arrival of the new guy or the return of the old one. For the purpose of this essay, though, it doesn't matter who wins; nothing of substance changes.
        Our current president made a rather bold proclamation at a campaign rally in Tennessee in early October. He proposed spending $100 million to get more American homes hooked up to the Internet.
        At first glance, it doesn't look like big news, and it wasn't treated as such by most. Sixty years later, "a chicken in every pot" has become "an IP address on every desktop." In a world where e-mail addresses and URLs pop up on gas pumps, comic strips and fly-fishing shows, the teeming millions are starting to wonder about this "Internet" thing everyone keeps talking about, and those who haven't tasted this particular Greatest-Thing- Since-Sliced-Bread are beginning to feel left out. Politicians have been known to promise all sorts of nifty things in exchange for a few votes; the president's plan to wire the nation sounded like just another campaign promise. Politics as usual. Nothing ever changes.
  If only the truly destitute are without a Net connection, what sort of prejudices will arise?
        But think about it for a while. Ignore (for the moment) the sinking feeling that any interest the government takes in the Net is a not-so-subtle baby step toward eventually co-opting the whole thing. Try simply to get your head around the concept of an Internet for everyone.
        You'll hear different numbers from different sources, but everyone seems to agree that A) only a small percentage of the world's population has Internet access and B) that number is growing all the time. Most would describe the Internet as a chaotic, but level playing ground, but anyone who's spent much time there can tell you it's an elite--and elitist-- community at heart. How else to describe a structure which most of the world knows only as a buzzword, rather than from first-hand experience?
        As the much-ballyhooed "Information Age" is forced upon our heads like an ill-fitting hat, we may see a new kind of class system arising on the Net. When a nation of newbies starts sucking up bandwidth, the old guard will assert itself one way or another.
        If only the truly destitute are without a Net connection, what sort of prejudices will arise?
        We may see a day when the speedy, hassle-free Net connection becomes a globally-fetishized commodity, not unlike the three-car garage or the big-screen TV. The office T1 connection and the home with ADSL have a certain intellectual appeal not found in a fast car or tight jeans...and it sure beats a 28.8 Kbps modem...especially if that modem is a government hand-out.
        We may see the virtual "community" extolled by the president wither away to an electronic mirror of our REAL communities. Imagine an electronic analog to the carefully-maintained cluster of townhouses, each one a mere waystation for the occupants on those rare occasions when they're not working or shopping, a roof to keep the rain off the TV or the PC. Now imagine a ghetto, tucked away somewhere so no one has to worry about accidentally wandering in...or those who might accidentally wander out.
        Personal experience suggests that a great number of current Net users are willing to pick a fight over the dumbest things. As the number of Net users swells exponentially, things can only get worse.
        It's closer than you think. Regardless of whether the government spends a lot of money to provide Net access to people who don't have it yet, more and more of the populace will get online in coming years. Startup ISPs cover the country like a blanket of locusts; hardware prices keep falling, and an Internet account is still cheaper than cable. Besides, the Internet is The-Greatest-Thing-Since-Sliced-Bread. Who in their right mind would go without?
        But eventually, someone's going to draw a line in the ether-sand. In many ways, it's already beginning. (Make sure you're using the "right" browser...and whatever you do, don't post to Usenet from your aol.com address.)
        You're going to be very concerned with which side of that line you're on.
        It's human nature.
        Nothing ever changes.


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