Media for All the People... and the Internet

Over the weekend, while listening to an old episode of Star Talk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was reminded of just how incredible the open Internet is. And what happens when a few massive corporations dominate the airwaves.

Neil was interviewing Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek - an African-American woman who just happened to be the 4th in command of a starship in the distant future. At about 9 minutes into the podcast, she begins telling an amazing story. In short, she wanted to quit after the first season to do stage productions. But the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others prevailed on her to continue because her presence on TV was revolutionary.

As someone who grew up watching sports and the Dukes of Hazzard, I never understood why some were so attached to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek. But in listening to this interview I began to understand. Sure, I grew up identifying with "them Duke boys" but what if I hadn't?

Long before the Long Tail, the few channels of television available aimed for the white middle class demographic. Portraying African-Americans in any position of authority was so rare that Neil deGrasse Tyson regularly exclaims that before seeing Star Trek, the science fiction of TVs and movies provided no confirmation that black people would be around in the future.

In 1967, having an African-American woman on television in a position of authority was so novel that one of our greatest Americans, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., went out of his way at an NAACP event to tell her what an inspiration she was to his family.

Big corporations aren't evil. But they have one goal -- increase their profits year after year. During the civil rights era, increasing profits year after year meant avoiding controversy. Somehow Gene Roddenberry broke through with Star Trek, inspiring many who were unused to any positive representation on television.

Unfortunately, in 2012, it seems that maximizing profits includes creating as much controversy as possible - how times have changed.

Nonetheless, we live temporarily in a time when content creators aspire to be "viral." Ten years ago, anyone who had a great idea for a channel had to give partial ownership to Comcast or other powerful corporations to have a chance of people seeing it. Not anymore.

But increasingly, a few corporations are again controlling the means of distribution. My house in St Paul has two broadband options -- a slow CenturyLink DSL line or a moderately faster and more expensive Comcast cable line. Comcast is regularly voted as the most hated corporation in America but it has more customers year after year -- because they have no other choice.

And Comcast is exploring ways of shutting down its competitors in online video delivery, like Netflix. It just bought NBC-Universal. Like the cancer cell, Comcast only wants to grow. And grow.


The Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable model threatens the future of the open Internet. For a few years, we have been experimenting with massive system where nearly anyone can produce content and nearly anyone can enjoy it. Whether or not this experiment continues will hinge on exactly how many alternatives to the big cable and telephone companies we have.

Without the open Internet, I doubt if we will have media for All the People. Instead, we will have access to what Comcast thinks will generate the highest profits.*

For those interested in the role of media and race more specifically, be sure to check out News for All the People by Juan Gonzalez and Joe Torres (buy it at your local bookstore or via IndieBound). The media has been far from neutral in the history of oppression and race relations, perhaps because it the means of distributing media (printing presses, radio and TV stations, etc.) inevitably seem to become centralized, as documented by Tim Wu, and owned by a few powerful corporations.

* Fortunately for me, I actually enjoy the summer blockbuster movie spectaculars like Battleship and the Transformers.