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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Media Hoards

Yet another global empire to subjugate you

By Annalee Newitz

BY NOW it seems obvious that the Internet is a political playing field--I had an epiphany about this the other night as I was re-watching the weirdly left-wing movie Real Genius (1985) on some B-grade digital cable channel.

This movie reminded me that cyber-politics are nothing like political politics: there is no voting, no democracy, no big-guy-reaching-out-to-the-masses. There are no states and nations. Instead, the Internet offers us a ceaseless, nuanced confrontation between people who wish to share information, and people who wish to hoard it.

Clearly, AOL represents the hoarders. As you may have noticed, they recently hoarded Time Warner, another conglomeration of people who are known to enjoy hoarding. Therefore it is with the most political of intentions that I offer you the following observation: AOL Time Warner SUCKS ASS.

Not only that, but Dave Cassell was right. Yeah, you know, Dave Cassell--the guy who tries to kick our democratic butts and get us to vote against the AOLization of the universe with his blazingly anti-hoard online newsletter AOLWatch. He succeeded once over a year ago when his 50,000-circulation publication broke a story about AOL selling its members' phone numbers to telemarketers. So many AOL users were outraged by this news that the company was forced to revise its policy.

Dave--who also happens to harbor a strange but unrelated obsession with Mentos--is the closest thing we have to a cyber-politician devoted to information sharing. When I heard the bad news about this week's new global corporate empire, I got Dave on the phone and forced him to talk about why he dreads a future world ruled by AOL.

AOL's recent victory in the marketplace had Dave a little stunned. "It's worth one third of a trillion dollars," he kept saying. "I mean, I can't think in those numbers. What else is a trillion? Are there that many stars in the Alpha Centauri nebula?" Ultimately, his point--as always--had to do with the nerd on the street, the person whose life would never be worth that much money, whose influence would never rattle Wall Street.

"My fear is that we may be reaching a world where the motivating dream of Silicon Valley is gone," Dave mourned. "I mean, that garage-company dream is further out of reach for everyone because the big companies are so big and so entrenched. Can you visualize an AOL killer rising up out of the garages of Silicon Valley anymore?"

Then, as usual, Dave chuckled and made a joke. "What do you get when you cross AOL with Time Warner?"

"What?" I asked.

"AOL."

For a few minutes we reminisced about the old days of AOL when it bought the all-but-forgotten Internet service GNN in 1995. Although they promised to keep GNN alive, AOL suddenly changed its mind when they switched to flat-rate pricing--overnight, they transformed every GNN account into an AOL account without notifying subscribers. It's that kind of coercive corporate policy that makes people like Dave justifiably suspicious of AOL.

"I wonder now if AOL can be stopped," he mused. "It's like they're immortal, a fact of the landscape. If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st century will be the America Online century."

"That's interesting," I said.

"Hey, maybe I should put that in my column for Slashdot!" Dave enthused, always planning his next political screed, his next exhortation to the tired, huddled online masses.

I wondered what his biggest disappointment was when he heard about the mega-merger. "I'm sad about the online world because it's a place where you can get a future buzz when you imagine possibilities. It's not just about what's happening, but what will happen," he explained. "Every day, you're at a fork in the road, and I'm concerned about what happens at the fork in the road where we follow a path that AOL dominates."

Laughing again, Dave answered his own question sardonically. "Maybe this means that now you can get a busy signal from cable."

Or maybe it means that we live in a world where yet another thing has been taken away from your average geek, hoarded by marketers and slicks who sell their culture rather than sharing it.


Annalee Newitz (tabloid@jps.net) is a surly media nerd who knows where to stick those "free 15 hours" AOL disks.

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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