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Archive for August 11th, 2008

wtf? where’s my gmail?

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So there seems to be some sort of massive gmail outage going on. Tomorrow we’ll perhaps hear about the billions and trillions of dollars worth of damage this has done. But of course, the financial figures miss so much, as they always do. All the bitchy gossip that will go unsaid. Lovers aiming to chat across oceans will have to take the night off or find another way. Baby pictures will rest on hard drives, unable to travel for another night. Think of the lost hours of trying and trying to open the millions of accounts.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for awhile about the increasingly significant role played by entities that we might call quasi-utilities. Mostly web-based, these free or almost free services come to seem like a kind of human right, an automatic endowment that we receive simply for being alive. We feel entitled to decent email access (once we’re on the web in the first place of course), free chat, free books (albeit not in paper form). We feels ourselves to possess the right to look at the photographs of friends and family. Maps, likewise, guide us from place to place without apparent cost. Of late, even scaled down versions of expensive programs like Microsoft Word have been added to Google’s pseudo-public empire.

We don’t notice the advertisements, though we do see them. We are familiar with the model from television which was perhaps the first of the quasi-utilities.

In a sense – and much to their dismay, from a profit-making angle, newspapers have evolved in this direction as well. I pay for a subscription to the IHT, because I like newsprint and it’s page for page probably one of the better papers in the world, but I don’t really need it to keep up with the NYT, which is right there waiting for me anytime I like and for free. Reading the papers for anyone who came of age just after I did has perhaps always seemed like something that you ought to be able to do for free, if you want to do it in the first place. When you scroll through the news on your computer or your phone it is easy to have the sense that you live in a world in which content is below and beyond value at once, something there for the taking. And of course the entire sector of media capitalists have never been panicked by anything like they have been by the dawning sense that music and tv programs and films too exist as non-commodities, items to be freely shared rather than bought and sold.

Now, there’s lots to be said about this. It is important to remind ourselves at the getgo that the publicness of the services and information provided by google and similar corporations only appears to be a public utility rather than a private business. Administrators at some libraries, thankfully, are beginning to catch on to the fact that google’s book scanning business is in fact a business – is not a frictionless gift to the world in the utopian form of “every book, every page, any time or way you like.”

That said, that said – what is perhaps the point to take away from these for-profit services is that they bring to the public a taste of the free and easy that comes of efficient public provisioning. They are, that is to say, advertisements in and of themselves for a healthy public sphere. Learning to get something for nothing (even if it’s not nothing, in the end, for now) is exactly the mentality that we’d be best served to foster. The web makes it easy, but perhaps it might best be visualized as what they called a “gateway drug” when I was a kid. (I don’t know if the phrase is still current – but the idea was that the true danger of pot, in its happy non-dangerousness, was that it readied kids to try more dangerous, destructive “hard” drugs.) It’s not a long leap from free and well-designed email to free and smoothly working public wifi. And from public wifi, it’s a longer leap, though not all that long, to nationalized health care. A bit further yet to media, housing stock, and all the rest. After all, who today would pay for an email account?

Two points to be addressed in future posts. One: the pernicious lies that are told about GDP destruction through the market dominance of public, not-for-profit entities. (The BBC comes to mind on this point… All those ads that could be run but aren’t – the international page views that the fucking Guardian could be garnering if not for the BBC’s site….) Yes, public entities do in fact reduce GDP – the takeaway from this fact is that there is something wrong with GDP as a yardstick of civic health, not that cash should be sliced away from the “public monopoly.” Two: It wouldn’t take much effort for us to offer the argument that any sort of user tax on ISP customers for downloads would, sure, be a fine idea but only if the proceeds were pooled into some sort of state support for artists rather than bottom-line fattener for media companies. We download free; the artists are paid by the state; Sony finds a way to fuck itself for trying. Nuff said. Three: and this is more complicated. I’d like to take a long look at the functionalist design aesthetic of google and its many sites as an impersonation of the aesthetic practices of an as-yet-impossible regime of use-value centered provisioning. The design of the google sites, despite the occassional burst of disneyland coloring, is rather amazing… The blandest thing there is on the internet is also the most popular thing. Something there to think about, don’t you think?

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August 11, 2008 at 11:13 pm