The End of 'Bandwidth'

Why We Must Learn to Understand the Infinite

How to Cite

Bruns, A. (1999). The End of ’Bandwidth’: Why We Must Learn to Understand the Infinite. M/C Journal, 2(8).
Vol. 2 No. 8 (1999): End
Published 1999-12-01

It used to be so simple. If you turn on your TV or radio, your choices are limited: in Australia, there is a maximum of five or six free-to-air TV channels, depending on where you're located, and with a few minor exceptions, the programming is relatively uniform; you know what to expect, and when to expect it. To a slightly lesser degree, the same goes for radio: you might have a greater choice of stations, but you'll get an even smaller slice of the theoretically possible range of programming -- from Triple J to B105, there's mainstream, easy listening, format radio fodder, targetted at slightly different audience demographics, but hardly ever anything but comfortably agreeable to them. Only late at night or in some rare timeslots especially set aside for it, you might find something unusual, something innovative, or simply something unexpected.

And of course that's so. How could it possibly be any other way? Of course radio and TV stations must appeal to the most widely shared tastes, must ensure that they satisfy the largest part of their audience with any given programme on any given day -- in short, must find the lowest common denominator which unifies their audience. That the term 'low' in this description has come to be linked to a negative meaning is -- at first -- only an accident of language: after all, mathematically this denominator constitutes in many ways the most fundamental of shared values between a series of fractions, and metaphorically, too, this commonality is certainly of fundamental importance to community culture.

The need for radio and TV stations to appeal to such shared values of the many is twofold: where they are commercially run operations, it is simply sound business practice to look for the largest (and hence, most lucrative) audience available. In addition to this, however, the use of a public and limited resource -- the airwaves -- for the transmission of their programmes also creates significant obligations: since the people, represented by their governmental institutions, have licenced stations to use 'their' airwaves for transmission, of course stations are also obliged to repay this entrustment by satisfying the needs and wants of the greatest number of people, and as consistently as possible.

All of this is summed up neatly with the word 'bandwidth'. Referring to frequency wavebands, bandwidth is a precious commodity: there is only a limited range of frequencies which can possibly be used to transmit broadcast-quality radio and TV, and each channel requires a significant share of that range -- which is why we can only have a limited number of stations, and hence, a limited range of programming transmitted through them. Getting away from frequency bands, the term can also be applied in other areas of transmission and publication: even services like cable TV frequently have their form of bandwidth (where cable TV systems have only been designed to take a set number of channels), and even commercial print publishing can be said to have its bandwidth, as only a limited number of publishers are likely to be able to exist commercially in a given market, and only a limited number of books and magazines can be distributed and sold through the usual channels each year. There are in each of these cases, then, physical limitations of one form or another.

The last few years have seen this conception of bandwidth come under increased attack, however, and all those apparently obvious assumptions about our media environment must be reconsidered as a result. Ever since the rise of photocopiers and personal printers, after all, people have been able to create small-scale print publications without the need to apply for a share of the commercial publishers' 'bandwidth' -- witness the emergence of zines and newsletters for specific interest groups. The means of creation and distribution for these publications were and are not publicly or commercially controlled in any restrictive way, and so the old arguments for a 'responsible' use of bandwidth didn't hold any more -- thus the widespread disregard in these publications for any overarching commonly held ideas which need to be addressed: as soon as someone reads them, their production is justified.

Publishing on the Internet drives the nail even further -- here, the notion of bandwidth comes to an end entirely, in two distinct ways. First, in a non-physical medium, the argument of the physical scarcity of the publication medium doesn't hold anymore -- space for publication in newsgroups and on Web pages, being digital, electronic, 'virtual', is infinitely expandable, much unlike frequency bands with their highly fixed and policed upper and lower boundaries. New 'stations' being added don't interfere with existing ones here, and so there's no need to limit the amount of individual channels available on the Net; hence the multitude of newsgroups and Websites available. Again, whatever can establish an audience (even just of a few readers) is justified in its existence.

Secondly, available transmission bandwidth is also highly divisible along a temporal line, due to the packet-switching technology on which the medium is based: along the connections within the network, information that is transmitted is chopped up into small packets of data which are recombined at the receiver's end; this means that individual transmissions along the same connection can coexist without interfering with one another, if at a somewhat reduced speed (as anyone navigating the Web while downloading files has no doubt experienced). Again, this is quite different from the airwaves experience, where two radio stations or TV channels can't be broadcasting on the same frequency without drowning each other out. And even the reduction of transmission speed is likely to be only a temporary phenomenon, as network hardware is constantly being upgraded to higher speeds. Internet bandwidth, then, is infinite, in both the publication and the transmission sense of the word.

If it's impossible to reach the end of available bandwidth on the Net, then, this means nothing less than that the very concept of 'bandwidth' on the Net ends: that is, it ceases to have any practical relevance -- as Costigan notes, reflecting on an all too familiar metaphor, "the Internet is in many ways the Wild West, the new frontier of our times, but its limits will not be reached. ... The Internet does not have an edge to push past, no wall or ocean to contain it. Its size and shape change constantly, and additions and subtractions do not inherently make something new or different" (xiii).

But that this is so, that we have come to this end of 'bandwidth' by never being able to come to an end of bandwidth on the Net, is in itself something fundamentally new and different in media history -- and also something difficult to come to terms with. All those of courses, all those apparently obvious and natural practices of the mainstream media have left us ill prepared for a medium where they are anything but natural, and even counterproductive. Old habits are hard to break, as many of the apparently well-founded criticisms of the Internet show. Let's take Stephen Talbott as an example here: in one of my favourite passages of overzealous Net criticism, he writes of

The paradox of intelligence and pathology. The Net: an instrument of rationalisation erected upon an inconceivably complex foundation of computerised logic -- an inexhaustible fount of lucid 'emergent order.' Or, the Net: madhouse, bizarre Underground, scene of flame wars and psychopathological acting out, universal red-light district. ... The Net: a nearly infinite repository of human experience converted into objective data and information -- a universal database supporting all future advances in knowledge and economic productivity. Or, the Net: perfected gossip mill; means for spreading rumours with lightning rapidity; ... ocean of dubious information. (348-9)

Ignoring here the fundamental problem of Talbott's implicit claim that there are objective parameters according to which he can reliably judge whether or not any piece of online content is 'objective data' or 'dubious information' (and: for whom?), and thus his unnecessary construction of a paradox, a binary (no pun intended) division into 'good' and 'bad' uses, a second and immediately related problem is that Talbott seems to claim that the two sides of this 'paradox' are somehow able to interfere with each other, to the point of invalidating one another. This can easily be seen as a result of continuing to think in terms of bandwidth in the broadcast sense: there, the limited number of channels, and the limited amount of transmission space and time for each channel, have indeed meant that stations must carefully choose what material to broadcast, and that the results are frequently of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road, non-challenging nature. On the Net, this doesn't hold, however: here, the medium can be used for everything from the Human Genome Project to peddling sleeze and pirated 'warez', without the two ends of this continuum of uses ever affecting one another.

That's not to say that what goes on in some parts of the Net isn't unsavoury, offensive, illegal, or even severely in violation of basic human rights; and where this is so, the appropriate measures, already provided by legal systems around the world, should be taken to get rid of the worst offenders -- notably, though, this won't be possible through cutting off their access to bandwidth: where bandwidth is unlimited and freely available to anyone, this cannot possibly work. Critical approaches like Talbott's, founded as they are on an outdated understanding of media processes and the false assumption of a homogeneous culture, won't help us in this, therefore: rather, faced with the limitless nature of online bandwidth, we must learn to understand the infinite, and live with it. The question isn't how many 'negative' uses of the Net we can point to -- there will always be an abundance of them. The question is what anyone of us, whoever 'we' are, can do to use the Net positively and productively -- whatever we as individuals might consider those positive and productive uses to be.

Author Biography

Axel Bruns