Remembering the Week after Next

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked. "What sort of things do you remember best?" Alice ventured to ask. "Oh, things that happened in the week after next," the Queen replied in a careless tone. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

1It would seem, odd as the notion may appear at first glance, that memory can in fact be thought of as working in two directions: both backwards and forwards. Take, for example, the commonly enough expressed sentiment that one should avail of every opportunity that life presents to "learn from experience". Isn't to do so, in fact, a projection into the future of the 'memory' that has been gained in the past, and stored in the present? Isn't the implication that, with a little careful observation of last week, one can begin to 'remember' what happened in the week after next?

2Consider now the development of a revolutionary new communications technology. Who are its pioneers? Experience has taught that there are at least three categories of person (or organisation) which are to be found wherever tomorrow is being actualised. They are the visionaries, the enthusiasts, and the entrepreneurs -- though some may argue that this last category would better be called economic opportunists. Of course, these are not, and shouldn't be thought of as, completely distinct categories, separated by impermeable barriers; one can be in all three as easily as not.

3The early days of Radio fit this model. As an infant technology it was fostered by visionaries like Marconi, enthusiasts like the many around the world who cobbled together their own home-made transmitters and receivers, and entrepreneur/opportunists like Frank Conrad of Westinghouse, whose 8XK transmitted periodically during the first world war to test equipment made by the company for the American military (Mishkind).

4 The emergence of interactive networked computing, and ultimately of the Internet, fits this model too. There were early visionaries like Douglas Engelbart, and the MIT professor J.C.R. Licklider, who were among the first to see a potential for more than simply large scale number crunching in the fledgling electronic computing industry (Rheingold 65-89). Enthusiasts include the North Carolina students who created Usenet, and the Chicago hobbyists who "triggered the worldwide BBS movement because they wanted to transfer files from one PC to another without driving across town" (Rheingold 67). As for entrepreneur/opportunists, well, organisations like Netscape, Yahoo!, and leap to mind.

5 When revolutionary development is underway the potential for change is seen to be boundless. Radio was quickly recognised as a means to cross vast distances, and difficult terrain. It became a lifeline to ships in distress, bridging the dreadful isolation of the unforgiving oceans. It was put to use as a public service: the US Agriculture Department's broadcasting of weather reports as early as 1912 being some of the earliest radio broadcasts in that country (White). Similarly, Westinghouse's 8XK, along with many other fledgling stations, broadcast the results of the US presidential election on the night of November 2nd, 1920 (Mishkind). The "wireless" telegraph helped to join that huge nation together, and having done so, went on to inform and entertain it with news, concerts, lectures and the like. The democratising potential of the new medium and its easily disseminated information was soon recognised and debated: "Will Radio Make People the Government" demanded a 1924 headline in Radio Broadcast, an early industry magazine (Lappin).

6 All this inevitably gave rise to questions of control; for a free medium could also be seen, depending on one's point of view, as a dangerous, anarchic medium. Perhaps those who pay for it should control it; but who is to pay for it, and with what? For a long time there was no clear vision anywhere of how the medium could be made to turn a dollar. In England a tax on the sale of radio hardware was introduced to fund the newly formed, and government owned, British Broadcasting Corporation. Such a model was rejected in the US, however, where large corporations -- among them AT&T, Westinghouse and General Electric -- gradually gained the upper hand. The system they put in place at first involved the leasing of airtime on large networks to commercial 'sponsors', which subsequently grew into direct on-air advertising.

7It won't have escaped the notice of many, I'm sure, that much of this could just as easily be about the Internet in the 1990s as Radio in the 1920s. And this is where memory comes into play. Certainly there are many, and profound, differences between the two media. The very nature of the Internet may seem to many to be just too decentralised, too anarchic, to ever be effectively harnessed -- or hijacked if you prefer -- by commercial interests. But it was, at one time, also impossible to see how Radio could ever show a profit. And sure, commercial Radio isn't the only kind of Radio out there. Radio National in Australia, for example, is a publicly funded network that does many of the good things a relatively uncoerced technology can do; but is this aspect of the medium central or marginalised, and which do we want it to be?

8Robert Mc Chesney considers that "to answer the question of whither the Internet, one need only determine where the greatest profits are to be found". This is a fairly bleak view but it may well be true. To find out for yourself where the Internet is likely to go, exercise the memory of the past, and you might remember the future.