Peculiarities of Cyberspace

A land without scarcity

  • There is a widespread dependence on the internet by its users for the support of day-to-day research activities. Some people warn the virtual community that, unless it is careful, the internet could become overcrowded and worthless. No one owns the internet. Could internet become a 'tragedy of the commons', where everybody grabs as much as she can as fast as she can, and the resource becomes crowded and useless? Digital artifacts differ from tangible property like land, buildings, roads, automobiles, water reservoirs, and printed books in several crucial ways.

"The Net, because of its antispatial and non-material nature, differs from other economic resources that mankind has henceforth utilized. (...) Net material can be copied easily and cheaply. It does not require a place to store the data. More importantly, any number of individuals can use a Web site simultaneously without wearing it out in any manner or preventing others from utilizing it at the same time. (...) On the Web everyone can utilize the posted sources as much as (or more than) is necessary without the information becoming worthless. (...) There is no danger of all of the cyberspace being used up."
[Yousuf Dahme, Conceptualizing the Internet].

If we say that the internet is a land, than it is a land without borders, a land that can be used by everybody without the risk of overpopulation and without danger that the resource - the combination of all circulating information - will run dry. Digital information resources may become obsolete, but utilizing them will not waste the resources. On the contrary, it will reproduce and strengthen the resources. That's a crucial difference with the use of material resources. Material resources will wear out sooner or later when they are used frequently: money is spent, cars wind up on the scrapheap, bullets are shot away, raw materials get exhausted and water reservoirs dry up. This isn't the case with digital information resources. Sociologists who are specialized in resource mobilization research say that in such cases the 'situational costs' of the use of digital information resources are zero.

Economists have great problems analysing the peculiarities of the information that is distributed on the internet. The reason is simple: the catechism of the economist is still ruled by 'the cold star of scarcity' (Weber). In classical and neo-classical economic theory it is assumed that scarcity is an 'eternal necessity of nature'. However, resources - and also rewards - are not scarce under all circumstances. Resources only are experienced and defined as scarce in relation to the historical and socially structured needs and interests of human individuals. Scarcity differs completely from distress or lack: even the capital of the rich entrepreneur who is anything but in distress is scarce, just as the prestige of the famous scientist.

If the internet is a land then it is one without borders (everybody can in principle live in this land) and without scarcity (everybody can use all information resources without limitation). The borders of internet land come only within sight when we look at the material conditions which are necessary to get access to this network: who has to which extent the monetary means to pay the necessary hardware, the internet Service Provider and the telephone company? And scarcity comes only directly in the picture when we examine the cultural conditions of internet use: who has to which extend the knowledge and skills which are necessary to find useful information in the treasury chambers of cyberspace?

Liberty or Equality in Cyberspace

The commodification of the internet is going ahead. More and more enterprises discover that money can be made via the internet, much money. That's why the internet is assailed by entrepreneurs who want to use her to sell their products and services on the world market. The exploitation chances of the new virtual territory have a strong attraction on 'sharks' who smell a chance to get outrageously rich in one blow with some kind of trick, stunt or malversation. That's why we get all those unwanted commercial emails in our computers: 'you will get rich - but please send us your money first'. The robber mentality, which stood at the cradle of commercial capitalism, seems to get a second live in the informational phase of capitalism.

Watch out ... SharksInterested in making big money?
Are you interested in working out of your home about 1 or 2 hours a day, using your PC, the internet and email, and making $1000's per week with your very own internet Home Based Business?
You will discover the art of . . . .
"How to Really Make Money on the Information Superhighway!"

Consider this possibility 
Wouldn't it feel great to wake up in the morning knowing you are going to be making excellent money but don't have to leave your house to do it!?! Wouldn't your life be far less complicated?
You wake up in the morning and you put on a pot of coffee. As you sip on your cup of hot "brew" you saunter over and turn your computer on. Then, as your monitor glows from dim to bright, you find that you have inquiries from all sorts of people requesting what you have to offer. Later, after you have finished reading your inquiries, you stroll out to your mailbox. You find it is filled with letters from people from all across the world! What's even better though, is that the letters are FILLED WITH MONEY; cash, checks, and money orders. Then, after tallying up the totals, you find that you have made anywhere between $200 to $1,000 and it isn't even one o'clock in the afternoon.

Please make me rich first
I could provide YOU with FREE $400 BULK EMAIL SOFTWARE, $200 Check by Fax, Phone, Email SOFTWARE, 15 incredible HOW TO REPORTS you can sell for $15-30 each, plus LOW COST LONG DISTANCE, and your OWN FREE HOME BUSINESS?

Many people sincerely worry about this. The commodification of the internet can easily blockade free access to the wealth of electronic information, it can limit the freedom of the internet, and it may reproduce and even enlarge the existing forms of social inequalities (which are grinding as they are).

Yet some people think that the fears about the commodification of the internet are out of proportion or even terribly misplaced. One of those is David Fry. This is his story.

"As the popularity of the internet grows exponentially, many are raising concerns that access will be limited only to those with the ability to pay for it. Some argue that since access to electronic information will be so critical to life in the 21st century, steps should be taken to provide this access on an equal basis to all. Many with this viewpoint attack what they have termed "commodification" - selling electronic access as a commodity only to those able to pay.
Fears about the "commodification" of the internet are terribly misplaced. The internet, like anything else, is, and always has been a commodity. Since it was created, it has always been provided at a price. (...) 
The services are provided only because they benefit the provider. The internet is provided in the same way that office supplies are provided to workers. It is a tool to be used, in limited supply, with high demand. It is a commodity that can be provided, but only at a price. If we establish that the internet is already a commodity, then we can concentrate our analysis on what this entails, and on the original question of equally provided access for all. (...) 
Since internet access is a commodity, provided for sale in a somewhat regulated, but still essentially capitalistic marketplace, the concern has been raised by antagonizers of the class struggle that the internet will become "another way for capitalist oppressors to make themselves rich while excluding the working man." The technology of internet communication will bring change, so we must examine who will benefit most from it."
[David K. Fry, Liberty or Equality in Cyberspace]

Let us concentrate on the original question of equally provided access for all. Cybercapitalism means that (electronic access to) information is sold as a commodity to those with the ability to pay for it. It is true that there has always been a price tag on the access to the internet. We always had to pay money to get in. That is why some successful Internet Service Providers managed to become to wealthy businesses. Access to the internet is almost completely organized as a capitalist market. This means - by definition - a limitation of free access to information on the internet. Those who don't have the money to pay for the ticket will be excluded from the internet.

Commodification of access to the internet is one thing. But the implication of the commodification of information resources on the internet is much more dramatical. It would imply an essential injury of the rights of the netizens -- the loss of a liberated territory that was conquered with great effort.

Shakeout 1: Search & directory companies

The market for consumer oriented search engines is overcrowded and a shakeout was expected to occur in 1997. Only a select group would survive. Jupiter Communications predicted in Consumer Search Engine And Internet Directory Report.

  • "There are simply too many players offering similar functionality and features, competing for a limited number of advertising dollars and users. Meanwhile, search and directory players are now in direct competition with online aggregators, local and specialized content sites, and the many others that are threatening to usurp the traditional role of these services."

You don't have to be a visionary economist to predict a search engine shakeout:

  • "This is a lot like predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. Everyone knows there is going to be a shakeout in the entire internet field, not just among the search and directory companies, and not just the little guys will be affected. Major billion dollar companies are risking their very existence on the outcome, and no one, and I mean no one, knows who the winners will be. This report does stick its neck out in one area. I'm not sure we will see the big shakeout in 1997. It might not happen until 1998." [Al Halterman, publisher of the Technology Portfolio Newsletter]

Shakeout 2: Providers

Do providers face hard times?
Some providers find it difficult to survive. The dream of developing new and fascinating web sites has been broken by the fact that there is not enough advertising money to maintain these sites. Some newspapers predict that the prospects for attracting advertising to Web pages will become even bleaker.

"It's the end of the beginning, the end of the very hyped, very heady first wave of the commercial internet revolution. Next year reality bites the internet business and bites hard..." [Los Angeles Times, december '96].

In 1997 Rick Broadhead, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook, saw four important possibilities for big changes on internet:

  1. "Integration of products and computers with the Internet; such as CD-ROM titles that come with Web connections for updates.
  2. Push Technology; where services such as PointCast "push" news to the users rather than having the user go out and search for it.
  3. Practical Internet Applications; where companies offer useful service, such as the Hallmark Cards site which reminds users of important dates.
  4. The shakeout; where some companies decide they cannot keep supporting money-losing sites".

A shakeout in the internet field is easy to predict. But nobody knew when and how this would happen. There are still some big companies, like Microsoft and Sony who are investing enormous amounts of money in their web sites. And every week thousands of new sites are launched on internet by banks, brokers, car manufacturers, designers and others.

A new colonial war?

"Only when lions have historians will hunters cease being heroes" [African Proverb].

Cyberica is a very special place in the world. It's a place without traditional borders because we can virtually travel at very high speed to any place on the globe where we can find information or people to talk to. With the emergence of the internet we have learned to define cyberspace as a new continent, a free territory.

Almost nobody has foreseen that the discovery of this territory would lead to the most vulgar colonial wars where superpowers want to plant their flags, build their fences, and make their super profits. Commercial exploitation of the internet has given us more spam than we can digest without getting sick. Commodification of internet means you won't be safe for commercial intrusions when you are sitting behind your networked computer.

Many people try to resist against this intrusion in their private life. But they are poorly organized. They haven't yet reached a level of subversity that could challenge this pervertion of our potential common virtual world.

Resources on Web Economy and Commerce