Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Capitalism distorts the enormous potential of this technology' Colin Sparks: the internet
The internet is one of the most publicised developments of the last ten years. We are told that it is going to change every part of our lives. The dramatic growth in the numbers of people with access to the internet will continue. Business will find the answer to all its problems in the friction-free capitalism of cyberspace.
According to Wired magazine, house organ of the netheads, we stand on the verge of a new age in which capitalism will expand rapidly and indefinitely. Along the way it will abolish poverty in the developed world and lift the billions of poor in the developed world out their misery. Environmental problems will be solved and cheap renewable energy sources will ensure that global warming is kept at bay. All of the things that make people want to do away with capitalism root and branch will be sorted out once and for all without anything much changing. The internet revolution will make the socialist revolution an irrelevance.
It is easy to laugh at this sort of thing. After all, the internet was born out of the needs of US military scientists to function after a nuclear exchange. True, it went through a brief period of subsidised anarchy in the early 1990s, but today it is ever more clearly a gigantic building site. What is being built today is the largest shopping mall in the world. Soon you will be able to get anything you want on the internet -- provided you can pay for it.
There is more to it than that, though. The development of the internet is one of the clearest examples of the way in which Marxists claim capitalism operates, and of the ways in which it distorts human ingenuity in the pursuit of profit. The world wide web, the technology that has made the internet available to millions, is a good example. It was originally developed by particle physicists at CERN in Switzerland. They wanted to find an efficient way of organising the vast quantity of data their research threw up and they hit on the idea of a linking technology. The next step was the development of a graphical way of using this technology. This was done by researchers at the University of Illinois. They produced something new, called a graphical browser. They named it Mosaic and gave it away for nothing.
So far the story is one of more or less free scientific enquiry. Various capitalist states financed research projects that were of no obvious and immediate potential for profit generation. Scientists used the most advanced technology to solve problems they faced in understanding the world. But Mosaic was different. It had business potential. The programmers who developed it set up a company, Netscape, to try and make money out of their idea. Their success attracted other, bigger, capitalists, most notably Bill Gates of Microsoft, into the market. The next couple of years saw the browser wars as Netscape and Microsoft fought it out to be the dominant player. In the end Microsoft won. Its browser was not necessarily better than the competition, but the company was much bigger and much richer, and that gave it an unmatchable competitive advantage.
The hand of capitalism can also be clearly seen in the distribution of access to the internet. Far from being a technology that overcomes the divisions created by class society, the spread of the infrastructure of the internet follows them exactly. The strongest predictor of how many internet hosts there will be in a country is the level of wealth. Rich countries have many computers connected to the internet. Poor countries have very few. Finland has one internet host for every 5.5 members of the population, and the US has one for every 12. The population of the ten countries with the highest density of hosts, all with one host for less than 20 people, amounts to 363.8 million people. This is around 6 percent of the world's 6 billion people. China has one host per 48,071 people. India has one host per 48,668 people.
The same is true inside countries. In the US there is a 'digital divide' between rich and poor. There is also a 'racial ravine' in internet access between blacks and whites. Only 6.6 percent of households classified as 'black non-Hispanic' with an income of less than $15,000 per year have a computer, and only 1.9 percent of these use the internet. By contrast 80 percent of households classified as 'white non-Hispanic' with an income of more than $75,000 per year have a computer, and 60.9 percent use the internet.
The history of the internet is the history of the capture of the fruits of human creativity by capital and their subordination to the needs of profit. Capitalism seizes ideas from the discoveries of disinterested scientists, from academic researchers exploring arcane issues, from amateurs working privately for their own interest, and welds them together with the fruits of its own investigations. Whatever the motives of the originators, the final product has one goal and one goal only--to make profits. The tragedy is that this technology has enormous potential for human development. It allows quick and easy human communication, irrespective of place. Like modern industry, modern communication is a necessary part of a world of freedom. But, again like modern industry, capitalism distorts this potential to its own narrow ends.
The promise, however, is equally great. The computer and the internet have rapidly advanced the socialisation of intellectual work, and with it the fuller proletarianisation of millions of 'brain workers'. At the same time as it has seized these new technologies as fresh avenues for profit, so capitalism has recruited millions more to the ranks of its own gravediggers.John Molyneux: visual art