The worry is obvious: just as an expanding high-tech
sector contributed to strong growth in the 1990s, so might a deepening slump in
technology drag down the entire economy. High among the sources of concern is the
recent meltdown in the telecom industry. Even after the dot-com collapse, a
broadband upgrade of the Internet seemed sure to be the next big thing, and
investors continued plowing capital into the companies supplying and building the
new infrastructure for high-speed digital communications. But now telecom too has
seen staggering losses, bankruptcies, and layoffs.
While the rise of electronic commerce excites visions of a new economy, the Internet continues to produce explosive growth in free, public communication. The sheer scale and variety of the electronic public domain are staggering, but the promise is not simply an information cornucopia. Despite all its problems, the Internet has the potential to remedy some historic defects of public communication. It has already begun to do so, and with additional capital and new forms of organization, it can do much more.
Several distinct developments contribute to the transformation of the public domain:
"If something is defined as real, it is real," goes a common dictum of the
social sciences. The passive voice, however, conceals an uncertainty: Defined by
whom? What if, for example, two antagonists define their conflict in opposing ways?
As American forces strike in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and the
Taliban say this is a religious war--a view that reportedly has resonance through
much, though not all, of the Islamic world. If not merely our adversaries but
millions of others define the war as religious, is that the reality?
Although they get little respect from political analysts, the forces of irony have been hard at work in the new Congress. They showed their subversive influence when the House Republican leadership chose Representative Thomas Bliley of Virginia to chair the committee in charge of health legislation. Bliley, a long-time advocate of tobacco interests, is an undertaker by profession.
Will a conservative or liberal agenda be at the center of national politics during the next four years? No matter how centrist George W. Bush and Al Gore sound, that is what the fall election is still fundamentally about. Conservatives seem to understand the choice and have lined up behind Bush. Many liberals don't and are withholding their support from Gore. If that ambivalence persists--according to polls through July, Gore draws less support from Democrats than Bush does from Republicans--it could signal low turnout, defections to Nader, and disaster for the Democrats in November, with enormous consequences for the future.