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Media, Mergers, Capitalism, and Popular Democracy: Part 2

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Or, Why AOL Is, Apparently, Perfect for Huff-Po and, Decidedly, Horrible for Majority Rule

UNIT TWO: What in the World Is AOL Anyway?

Chapter One--The Scientific, Technical, and Social Roots of Online America

 
ENIAC Computer by public domain
  America Online

            Today's text introduces Unit Two of this five part series.   This initial chapter leads on to three sibling sections that will, in as thorough and incisive a fashion as this humble correspondent can manage in a relatively short space, explicate what constitutes the corporate entity that has 'branded' itself AOL and considers itself the epitome of America in its online guise.

              Where we left off, media was mushrooming up from the cow paddies of routine politics.   How exactly did America Online, as of now not yet done with its third decade, emanate from the historical and political economic background of modern times?   The purpose of this quite lengthy section is to manage a tale-of-the-tape that offers an intelligible, and relatively complete, response to this inquiry.

            Like so much of what citizens now consider this virtual age, the roots of AOL lie in the way that the conflagrations of the 1940's responded to the deflationary death spiral of the 1930's.   In 1945, at the dawn of a new epoch that shined with a nuclear glow, as the Cold War heated up, and nearly everyone still breathing wondered where to bury a hundred million or so corpses and how to avoid the next tally from being higher still, the captains of capital looked forward to an unstoppable 'thousand-year-reich' of commodities and markets that only lasted a "glorious thirty" years, with everything antithetical hidden behind 'iron curtains' of one sort or another.

            These leading lights of the ruling class foresaw an age of ubiquitous convergence.   Communication and computation and observation would yield, in every sector of the economy, times when markets would work as their proponents had always promised, even as they continued to seek the institutional succor of government instead.   This new age would not eschew governance so much as it would make the public sphere subservient to corporate, which is to say commercial and imperial, mastery.

     ANTEDILUVIAN BEGINNINGS ON THE 'ENDLESS FRONTIER'

            The observer might not easily see the connection between AOL and   a project named the 'Manhattan Engineering District,' but Vannevar Bush joins the two like a rivet connects discrete plates on an aircraft carrier.   Not only did this MIT wizard unite the industrial and financial powers-that-be behind publicly-funded science, but he also insisted on the durability of this formula after the war.   In the event, he also succeeded in promulgating institutionalized funding and management models that followed corporate guidelines and priorities.  

 
Vannevar Bush by public domain
           In essence, Bush is the technical and intellectual father of the Military Industrial Complex.   His Science: the Endless Frontier links markets and profits and prosperity and power-politics and empire and innovation as a set of relationships that nations sunder at their peril.

            What is more, he both, on the one hand, very precisely conceived of the world wide web and many of its technical attributes as an aspect of this industrial militarization of politics and, on the other hand, proffered a guidebook--almost a recipe--for their initiation and growth.   In "As We May Think," also written just after WWII ended, Bush envisions personal computing, Wikipedia, hands-free 24/7 virtual connectivity, and a swirling constant interchange that many feel is still a possibility if the World Wide Web survives a corporate takeover.

            Moreover, this meme still resonates powerfully.   The term, 'meme,' is itself something like Bush's name for his concept.  

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library.   It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex' will do.   A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
  No wonder entire symposia keep flowering that orbit around Bush's now long-ago article in Atlantic Magazine .

            Equally applicable as connective tissue between such trendy(or declasse, as the case may be) eventualities as today's AOL and the inception of the war machine is the fashion in which Bush's ideas have become almost biblical in their expression of the current canon.   The American empire, American well-being, the very essence of the American way, in such thinking, are inseparable from the uninterrupted perpetuation of an ever expanding plethora of the hot new way, an endless frontier of endless frontiers.

            Needless to say, whether one appreciates the artfulness with which its principals have undertaken the task, America Online--with former Secretary of Defense and general corporate booster Alexander Haig leading the charge to invest--has depicted itself as the quick-and-easy path to such innovativeness.   When that way of conceiving things began to seem positively fuddy-duddy, AOL, driven by the relentless necessity of monetizing something , cast around for ways of reinventing itself as 'trendier-than-thou.'  

            That such an evolution, in a society under the sway of finance and industrial monopoly, inherently revolves around opportunistic cash-outs and market wedges, not to mention a tendency to sweep up the competition and the newest confabulation simultaneously, should come as no surprise.   Indeed, all manner of analysis recognizes such ineluctable expressions of capital's conceptualization of virtuality.

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The original 'odd bird,' my stint as head of High School ROTC included my wearing MFS's black armband just before I turned down an appointment to West Point to go to Harvard. There, majoring in bridge, backgammon, and poker for my middle years as (more...)
 

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But for social support, the world wide web would n... by Jack Hickey on Thursday, Mar 3, 2011 at 9:01:14 PM
A second in-depth installment view of HuffPo AOL m... by Jack Hickey on Tuesday, Mar 8, 2011 at 10:28:50 PM