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Broadcasting to the rescue of a chaotic Web? Things may not be what they seem!

Under the banner of sorting out the chaos of the Web for the supposedly bewildered user, a number of software solutions - the first of which was "PointCast" - propose to broadcast content directly to your PC. At first sight, an intelligent idea. Yet if you examine it more closely, such a "push logic" represents a serious threat to the heart of the Internet: its distributed nature.

In the traditional broadcasting context, the central position of broadcasters gives them complete control over content and, provided there are not too many broadcasters, a necessarily captive audience. Broadcasters are not going to give up their prerogatives so easily!

The many-to-many communication of the Net makes it possible to cater for individual needs in ways that traditional broadcasting is incapable of doing. In additon, instead of dealing with captive audiences, Web sites depend on their quality and the interest of their content to get people to visit them. The Web also opens the road to a great many smaller, independent competitors. The plethora of content on the Web, however, causes a problem to those who want to turn it into a viable money-maker. Introducing broadcasting on the Net produces an artificial scarcity of content, thanks to which the market value of content theoretically rises. As broadcasters can't fight the Net, the only solution left to them is to flood it with their broadcasting logic.

Is there not an inherent arrogance in the supposition of these new broadcasters, who, like their TV counterparts, feel empowered to decide what is best for people to look at and know? Despite potentially elaborate personalisation of choice, the individual can only choose from amongst what broadcasters propose. This apparent choice resembles that offered by parents at bed time: "Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes?" Seen from a different angle, those people whose opinions or creative material don't find favour with the new broadcasters will never be seen by those at the receiving end.

This is not a problem if the general public are in the habit of freely accessing the whole Web. But, are we going to be free to choose? Two things threaten to limit our choice and curb the natural growth of the on-line communities of interest that create order out of the apparent chaos. On the one hand, spoon-feeding of digestible (not to say pre-digested) material by big-money merchants constantly harping on "the chaos out there" may well deter many from exploring the Web. On the other hand, imposed technological solutions can predispose (not to say force) people to consume what is fed them rather than go out and help themselves. One such closed option proposed by advocates of broadcasting consists of giving pre-eminence in building networks to the "out-going" channel with only a low quality return channel thus embedding the broadcast model in the very infrastructure. Another is the tendency to include "broadcast" software in Web browsers and operating systems. How long before the market forces decide to put the broadcast option up front and the go-where-you-like Web browser out back somewhere? Microsoft, amongst others, are pretty good at this type of timely, benevolent choosing on behalf of their millions of users, locking people in an on-going, ever-increasing dependence.

In the best of all worlds, we shouldn't need to oppose the broadcasting and the distributed paradigms. Unfortunately, ours is not necessarily an ideal world. That shouldn't stop us striving to make it better. Broadcasting versus distributed logic is a question of power. Broadcasting concentrates power in the hands of the few. Distributed systems liberate the possibility of expression and spread the power more widely. It would be inaccurate to pretend that such a system is without difficulties. The choice, however, is important. Confronted with such a fundamental choice of society, let's not have the wool pulled over our eyes!

Alan McCluskey.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
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Created: October 15th, 1996 - Last up-dated: October 5th, 1996