Academic journal article Afterimage

The Revolution Will Be Microwaved: The FCC, Microwatt Radio, and Telecommunication Networks

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Revolution Will Be Microwaved: The FCC, Microwatt Radio, and Telecommunication Networks

Article excerpt

At the 1993 Conference On Electronic Superhighways, Michelle Farquar, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, quipped:

As development of commercial networking and telecommunication services expand, we are beguiled by the concept of high-speed superhighways. We visualize ourselves travelling along these electronic pathways at the speed of light, exploring not outer space, but something called "cyberspace," described by novelist William Gibson as a world of simulated stimulation that a computer feeds to a "jockey" (that's you and me) via a "cyberspace deck" (a computer). Explorers in Gibson's cyberspace often have difficulty telling what is real and what is not.(1)

Though the information superhighway has received an enormous amount of popular press, many Americans are still having "difficulty telling what is real and what is not." While radical changes, often couched in civic-sounding rhetoric, are proposed for U.S. communications policy, little is understood about the effects such changes will bring to Americans as consumers and more importantly, as citizens.

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991), Jurgen Habermas defines the Enlightenment's bourgeois public sphere as a "network of rationally debating private citizens,"(2) "founded on trust in the power of reason."(3) While his description of this positive moment of the public sphere is frequently and justly criticized as ideal, Habermas understands that this productive form of "publicity" has been almost completely eroded today. The philosopher aptly describes our current mass media model in observing: "The public sphere in the world of letters was replaced by the pseudo-public or sham-private world of culture consumption."(4) As Nicholas Garnham has pointed out. Habermas focuses on who owns or controls the material resources:

Debate on the relationship between public communication and democracy is still dominated by the free press model. The model remains an essentially idealist transportation of the model of face-to-face communication to that of mediated communication. It occludes the problem raised by all forms of mediated communication, namely, how are the material resources necessary for that communication made available and for whom?(5)

In the U.S. the shared control of mass media by corporations and the state has led to peculiar definitions of "private" and "public." Discourse and action, in the former case, are automatically proscribed in privately held companies; while in the latter they are controlled by elected representatives, the police, and government bureaucrats acting ostensibly in the public interest. Needless to say, such definitions exist only in an ideal realm, while their practical application is riddled with contradictions. Each of these structures carefully elides any real participation of the "public" as an arena in which to critique or debate the success or failure of institutional policy. Forms of community media can provide examples of successful public participation. Later, I will discuss the form of microwatt FM radio in detail.

Generally, participation in media by private citizens has been limited to either consumption of media products or as functions of media commodities. As both taxpayers and consumers, this specific public has largely funded the entire enterprise with little or no power over production. Extensive change appears to be quickly approaching in what has been heralded most recently as a "peaceful revolution." Promoted by the government and corporations, advocates for the "new" information highway promise a range of advanced services from health care to specialized education to the best package for delivering democracy itself.

Yet closer examination reveals these "utopian" changes in telecommunications to only reinforce existing relations of social power. The recent media blitz on the creation of a "national information infrastructure" (NII) is not so much tied to increased global communications, but to a series of very familiar goals in the interest of corporate profit. …

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