A New Arena of Struggle: The Electronic Front
by Christopher Irwin
The following article is an edited version of an article published in the November 1994 issue of Political Affairs, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party, USA. It has been added to to introduce some Australian background.
Much has been written recently about the "Internet", the massive link of computer networks and databases which some liken to the invention of the printing press and which others dismiss as nothing more than a buzzword.
For computer users the ramifications of this expanding technology are glaringly apparent. However, non-users may be at a loss to understand the fuss. Put shortly, we are witnessing the first step into the next arena of struggle: the electronic front. The computer revolution is upon us, affecting how we obtain information, how we communicate, and how opinions are shaped.
However, most computer owners are less familiar with the Internet than they are with commercial "on-line services". While the Internet is a loosely organised central database of files and information, commercial on-line services are consumer-oriented computer networks offering not only dry data, but also news headlines, movie reviews, games, sports highlights, stock updates, and on-line encyclopedias. On-line services usually tie the whole package together with colorful graphics and easy-to-use selection menus, and, more importantly, offer programming that will put computers on the road to becoming as invaluable an information medium as television.
Currently the largest commercial online services are Prodigy, CompuServe, GEnie, and America On-line (AOL). It is imperative to remember that these services, which together boast over five million American sub-scribers, are commercial services, for which subscribers pay a monthly charge (sometimes with additional hourly fees) and which are owned and operated by large corporations, such as GEnie's parent company, General Electric. Just as newspapers and television stations serve their capitalist owners, so too are these on-line services the tools of capital.
To better understand the electronic class struggle, it behoves us to look at who is using computers, what is being programmed to these users, and how this affects public opinion.
Over half computer users have household incomes seven times greater than the poverty level, and a whopping 91 per cent are employed in "a business or profession", indicating that the large share of computer users are not working class, and most certainly not poor.
Larry Magid, a computer columnist for Prodigy and The Los Angeles Times, recently noted that despite the falling prices of computers, the technology is not getting into the hands of the poor:
"Personal computers have been called the 'great equalizers' of this era, making it possible for rich and poor to share in the wealth of our information society. Yet, because it will be financed by private industry, it is not clear whether it will be truly affordable to the vast majority of people.”1
The August 1994 issue of PC Magazine noted similar trends:
"The spread of technology in America is uneven. A college graduate with a family income of $50,000 a year is ten times as likely to own a computer with a modem (the device used to access on-line services through the telephone system) than a non-graduate who earns less than $30,000.”2
Given that an average computer costs $US1,000 to $US3,OOO per unit, and that publicly-owned computer "libraries" are almost completely nonexistent, it is not hard to see why computers remain out of the reach of low-income families. Learning to use a computer can also get expensive: an average night course on basics runs to $US60 and usually more than one course is needed.
For those who do own and understand their machine, access to the online services does not come cheap: an average monthly bill for an on-line service can total between $US16 and $US75, in most cases more than a cable TV bill. Making access more selective is the fact that of the four major on-line services, only Prodigy allows for payment of the monthly fee by conventional billing methods: users are sent a bill every month and pay by money order or cheque. Compuserve, GEnie and AOL each offer only two methods of payment: credit card and "automatic electronic withdrawal".
The latter is a fast-growing method of payment which enables a business to automatically deduct funds from your bank account (via computer) without ever sending a statement or bill; the entire transaction occurs automatically and "invisibly", showing up only on your monthly bank: statement. This puts on-line services out of the reach of those who do not have or use credit cards, and who either do not have cheque accounts or would prefer not to allow unlimited access to them by businesses.
To add insult to injury, America Online actually charges users a $2 per month surcharge for the privilege of automatic electronic withdrawal, an unmitigated outrage since such a transaction means AOL does not have to buy paper, envelopes, postage or even pay someone to process the bills!
Analysing these trends and statistics allows us to see who is using computers and commercial on-line services: people who can afford the technology. Let us now look at what on-line services are offering those users. Since Prodigy is the only service with conventional billing (although they are expected to change that soon), it is the one best suited for an analysis of the programming trends of on-line services.
Prodigy, co-owned by Sears and IBM, has gained in popularity due to the boom in personal computer sales and through clever TV advertising. As reported in PC Magazine, Prodigy currently serves two million subscribers and is the largest of the major commercial services (although AOL is quickly gaining).
Access requires that Prodigy software be loaded into a person's computer; this software is usually sent free by Prodigy as an enticement for signing on. Using the computer's modem and a household phone line, a local phone number is dialed from the keyboard which connects the computer to the Prodigy network. Within a few seconds, the Prodigy main screen pops up and you have begun using the on-line service; you've also begun being billed at Prodigy's minimum $15-20 per month rate.
The entire process is similar to cable TV subscribing, except that the information is transmitted over phone lines into your computer, with your computer monitor displaying the information. Most of the information is type, although there are colourful graphics and (most recently) some sound bites. There is, to date, no full-motion video, making the experience quite different from television.
The main screen of Prodigy tells its corporate roots, and as such displays a glaring affinity to coerce subscribers' opinions towards corporate aims. Beneath a bright yellow and black Prodigy logo are three of the day's top headlines, some service information, a semi-weekly poll question, and a menu of other choices, such as "Entertainment" or "Sports". Typing a selection causes more detailed information on the selection to pop up on the screen, such as full-text news stories or poll results.
While Prodigy's news is culled directly from Reuters and AP, it undergoes snipping by a Prodigy "newsroom" before being posted on the screen. The newsroom staff also assigns the headlines that will appear on the opening screen, much the way the editorial staff of a newspaper decides the front page.
The results are typical: the headlines for March 29 read "Somalies Looting & Shooting as UN Troops Struggle" and "Is Russia Making New Bio Weapons?" To pursue further reading, you have to "turn the electronic page" by selecting the headline; of course, the body of the story supports the slant offered by the headline.
Prodigy's "user polls" are even more obvious in their attempts to alter and misrepresent American public opinion. Under the guise of offering subscribers a means to "voice off” about current issues, the use of clever graphics and skewed questioning undermines any attempt at fair polling.
For example, the recent poll question "Can Russia Be Trusted?" (loaded enough as that is) was accompanied by a graphic of a bear peeking menacingly through a keyhole at an unsuspecting Uncle Sam, his back to the bear, busily signing an important document.
The use of these graphics performs the function of steering an opinion before the user even takes the poll: your mind is made up for you. Not so curiously, within a six-month period, not a single Prodigy poll resulted in a different opinion than that expressed by the graphics.
In a recent poll on health care, users were treated to a series of questions on their preferences and views. When the question of "which health care plan would you prefer?" popped onto the screen, only two plans were presented: the Gephardt Plan and the Mitchell Plan. Not only was there no mention of single-payer, there was not even a "none of the above" choice. Users who wanted to complete the poll could not even opt to skip the question!
Prodigy recently exposed its deviousness and was publicly slapped when a recent joint venture with Atlanta-based news publisher Cox Newspapers started to smell funny.
As reported in the May 1994 issue of Direct (a direct marketing trade journal), Prodigy and Cox set up "Access Atlanta", an electronic town hall where subscribers could sign on and discuss issues. Casual participants were unaware that Prodigy was "watching" by collecting data from the discussions to develop database information on subscriber demographics, lifestyles and interests for future marketing purposes.
For example, a user writing a note about his interest in automobiles might have soon found his mailbox filled with auto dealership flyers, or answer the phone only to hear a pitch from an automotive magazine salesperson.
Consumers launched a wave of complaints to protect their electronic privacy. As a result of the public outcry, the program was soon dropped.
Generally safe places to express opinions, such as electronic town halls or "bulletin boards services" (BBSs), are the most popular features of on-line services. Prodigy's bulletin boards come in the form of menus, for which you first select a main subject (such as "Arts" or "Politics") and then select a more specific topic (such as "Movies" or "Bombings in Bosnia"). You are then able to read postings by other subscribers on the topic and reply with your own.
It is a new way to publicly communicate ideas, and the single most important area of involvement. Simply put, these billboards are "electronic soapboxes" on which users can shout rallying cries.
While some progressive topics thrive, the fact remains that most of the discussions and notes are noticeably to the right. It is not a coincidence that the attitudes of Prodigy subscribers are "in sync" with the attitudes put forth by Prodigy' editorial policies. In a recent poll of over 3700 users, it was revealed that 50 per cent consider themselves "conservative", 39 per cent consider themselves "moderate", while only eight per cent refer to themselves as "liberal". On-line services attract conservatives who can afford computers but tricks, such as those used by Prodigy newsroom and pollsters, tend to push people into the conservative camp, making it difficult for left forces to express themselves.
But here is where the CPUSA's recent call to computer action comes into play. Prodigy subscribers may have no direct control over the editorial slant given to news stories, or what graphics are used to illustrate poll questions, but they do have the power to communicate ideas to a large number of people simultaneously. Progressive forces must act strongly to "counter-program" the continuous onslaught of pro-corporate and sometimes outright fascist propaganda. The technology makes it a remarkably simple thing to do, assuming one can afford it.
In addition, there are other things Communists can do at the keyboard. Recently, a Prodigy user posted a topic called "Communist BBS" under the "World News" subject. He suggested the notion of having a place to discuss Marxism-Leninism on the Prodigy service, and within one week the board had filled to over 100 communiques. Despite many attacks from right-wing conservatives and neo-libertarians, months later the topic was still going strong. In fact, People's Weekly World has been advertised on the board, enabling the newspaper to reach a new audience via "electronic distribution".
News topics, such as "South African Elections" or "Invasion of Haiti" may be analysed from a socialist perspective. Comments may be made on films, sports, education, etc, all from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism. The potential is unlimited.
Knowing this, private capital intends to keep the technology from the hands of the poor. Public libraries and schools are desperately under-equipped when it comes to computers, and of the institutions that have computers, virtually none have public access to commercial on-line services.
The famous Internet, formerly a public-access network, is slowly being overtaken by private enterprise "gatekeeper" services, who charge a fee to get into the Internet, again chipping away at free access. While small, progressive on-line services are cropping up (usually funded by private contributions), they cannot compete with the billion dollar corporations controlling this new medium.
The counter-attack waged on the electronic front must be twofold: first, Communists must counter-program existing propaganda spread via the commercial on-line services, giving constant commentary from a Marxist viewpoint. Secondly, all progressives must fight the takeover of this new medium by corporate interests and retain public ownership over the services the technology provides.
Initially this can be done not only by sending messages to President Clinton (whose National Information Infrastructure program seeks to privatise the medium) but also by conducting electronic "user strikes" or "modemonstrations" aboard the commercial on-line services. Such actions might take the form of large numbers of users posting identical slogan messages, drowning bulletin boards with planned counter-programming, or by tying live "chat" sessions by repeating certain typed "chants".
As Communists, we must fight against the corporate twisting of information and truth, while defending the right of working and poor people to have access to developing technology. Communists must take on each new form of information exchange and make sure the science of Marxism is properly represented and not lose hold of any new means of promoting socialism to a greater audience. This is what makes it so important for progressive forces, and for the CPUSA, to not only become involved in the "electronic front", but to take an active role in counter-programming capitalism's slanted information.
Postscript – About Australia
A recent Financial Review (17/05/1995) article reported that there are 175 million personal computers already installed world-wide and this number will increase by a further 45 million this year. Four million are in Australia or one for each 4.5 persons. Most of these are in offices but an increasing number are going into family homes. This will increase as children pass through school computer literate. Many computers are linked via modem to the global telecommunications network. All countries are now linked in this way.
In Australia there are a number of ways to get hooked into the Internet. The system used by The Guardian is called Pegasus with headquarters in Brisbane. There is a joining fee of $95 and then a monthly charge of $25 but this entitles the subscriber to 120 minutes of free time per month. After 120 minutes has been used the rate is 10c per minute from anywhere in Australia.
An incredible amount of information is available instantaneously on a virtually unlimited range of topics. All this can be accessed from your living room.
The initial cost of personal computers is relatively low – about $1500-$1800 with considerable capacity for storage of messages and an inbuilt modem. The only other equipment needed is a printer costing about $500. You can use your already connected telephone line.
Another development is the establishment by a number of communist and workers parties of their own network called Rednet. The Socialist Party of Australia is already participating in this net which will provide an opportunity for all subscribing parties to exchange information' news and documents without the delays experienced when communicating by post.
It is also possible to post articles and news items to other "conferences" which deal with news from countries and discuss specific topics like the environment, health, economics, etc.
It is vital that the left take up this new medium of communication and ensure that it is not left to the political right-wing to monopolise.
If you are interested and require more information, get in touch with the Socialist Party.
- Larry Magid, "Who Will Sign On?", Prodigy on-line column, 28 March, 1994
- Carol Levin, "Survey Reveals Psyche of Wired Society", PC Magazine, August 1994