Will the Net Replace Television?

by Karen Coyle
Written for Vision Television and the UN World Television Forum, November, 1997

This century has been witness to more than one revolutionary change in communications technology. From the telephone, which allows friends and families to keep in touch over any distance, to the ubiquitous broadcasts of television and radio that have turned our world into a global village, each technology has transformed society in unanticipated ways.

Our newest communications revolution is based on digital technologies, and like those before it the changes it is provoking are hard to predict. Just ten years ago the Internet was virtually unknown outside of the research and higher education communities. It allowed the exchange of e-mail and the transfer of files among a relatively small group of scientists who could collaborate on projects and share information. Today this same underlying technology supports a thriving information space with many millions of participants.

Unlike the telephone, these digital technologies can carry both one-to-one conversation as well as providing a means for any one person to make information available to all. And unlike the radio or television, there is room in this environment for an unlimited number of voices. Those voices are creating a startlingly heterogeneous global communications community. It's not surprising that the rise of this culture brings with it difficult questions.

If we ask ourselves whether the Internet will replace traditional broadcast programming, we are asking the wrong question. Just as the development of the telephone did not eliminate the need for mail, and as the broadcast mode of radio and television did not eliminate the need for the one-to-one conversation of telephone, this new communications technology will not supplant the functions of those earlier ones. We should ask instead: what is the function of the broadcast information services that we have today and how they can best interact with the vast digital community that is the Internet?

The Internet brings new capabilities to our communications environment. It can allow each and every individual the possibility to participate both as a consumer and a provider of information. Unlike the model we have today where our information sources are large and distant, we have the potential to greatly increase the number and variety of voices which are heard. Digital networks can also allow a greater granularity of resources; that is, they can support very small, local communities as well as the largest global community that we have ever imagined.

Working with today's models of communication, it is hard for us to envision an environment in which your information source could be either a national network or an individual in your local community, much less one in which you move seamlessly between broadcast and individual communication. Yet unless we embrace such a model we will lose the opportunity to develop the full potential of this technology. A digital democracy means the participation of untold millions of individuals from every point of the globe. The current model of limited numbers of broadcast voices simply will not succeed in this environment. Television and traditional media will not be eclipsed by the Internet, but they will have to share that space known today as "cyberspace" with a new and diverse group of communicators.

We have a crisis today over the governance of the Internet at least in part because nations and communities repeatedly try to exert controls that are both inappropriate and impossible in this new paradigm. It should be equally clear to us now that attempts to force the Internet into current media models will not work. We must instead develop new models that nurture the full range of communications that take place over digital networks. Only in this way will we be able to make the best use of the great diversity of communications modes that we now have - literally -- at our fingertips.

©Karen Coyle, 1997
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