Written November 2008.
Published February 2009. in Media Landscape: Serbia in Transition, DeScripto – A Journal of Media in South-East Europe No 3, Vol 4, Vienna:SEEMO, 2008. Download the original publication here.
Between the “Internets” and handouts-for-free: Media in .rs and the Idea of The Network
The title of this article is deliberately borrowing the expression from George W Bush and his “take” on how the Internet may be (mis)understood, delivered in public debate as late as 2004, in order to introduce the perspective from the very start – what we will observe here is not a unique “misunderstanding” of what Internet may be, and something inherent to Serbia only; but, it is fair to say that in Serbian society, more then in most of the other places it may be comparable with, the very idea of Internet is still ‘under construction’, and during this process is a subject of numerous misconceptions and manipulations.
We need those wires. And cables. A lot of cables.
The wider awareness about the potential of the Internet in Serbia came fairly recently (some would say that we are still waiting for that to happen). This ‘slip’ from the global mainstream is being explained by the distinctive local history of 90’s, which for Serbia would be marked by the violent appropriation of ‘public’ by advancing ‘private’ (in all possible meanings), several lost wars it never ‘officially’ took part at, reverting to the political ideas and social values of previous centuries, and finally by the international isolation and embargo on anything and everything. Including Internet? Well, in some respect, yes. During 90’s Serbia was “allowed” to have a narrow “tube'” or two (can not resist to quote senator Stevens here, to properly accompany GW Bush) to connect it with the rest of The Network – after all, it was the Internet which still was below the radar of regime’s media police but which immense potential to connect and communicate ‘tremendously contributed’ to ‘democratic changes’, right? Anyhow, the result of such policies from the side of both the regime in question and ‘the international community’ is that Serbia entered 21st century pretty much disconnected, with analogue modem here and there just to make the picture more grim. And after several additional years required by the new establishment to ‘reposition’, Serbia finally entered the world of “wider tubes” sometime in 2004, but again, ‘not for real’ – the service was and still is significantly lagging behind what is the average bandwidth of Europe today, and the prices… Serbian state-owned Telecom remained to be one of the not so many left in the world of telecommunications with a so-called “last mile” monopoly. It may not be necessarily a bad thing – where this monopoly from the side of society or a state is being lost and “free market” completely took over, we already seen quite a few challenges to the idea that all information going trough “the tubes” should be treated equally, and some businesses trying to grab the piece of other businesses at the expense of ‘network neutrality’ (and, without any doubt, at the expense of ‘democracy’, ‘the right to public speech’, ‘truth’, ‘transparency’ and other principles the contemporary networked society is based upon – so such attempts should be necessarily defined, prevented and sanctioned by the law). On the other hand, there is no guarantee nor mechanism set in place not to see this position being exploited by the state monopolists in a similar manner. If a national public service like RTS (Radio Television of Serbia) sees no problem in being backed by the budget, funded from the mandatory subscription and by selling a commercial space all at the same time, no reason for the state-backed telecom company not to try to do the same, and forthcoming recession about which everybody is getting more and more worried but which seems that nobody really understands gives a tremendous opportunity for (any) state or business to bring decisions which it does not have to explain or argument at all – so, ‘recession’ and ‘crisis’ may become some sort of ‘magic’ words, and something you are not really expected to discuss…
Back to the story of Internet – the result of such a recent local history combined with the still existing 100% of monopoly in Serbia is that the prices of Internet access remained very high compared to the Europe and the region, and extremely high compared to the average local income. Obviously, infrastructure-wise, Serbia is still one messy place – it is not easy to get the connection at all, and once you get it you find yourself paying more-for-less, compared to everybody else around; but, if compared to the situation of before 2004, there is at least something in the terms of the connectivity, and it is getting more and more wide-spread, if you are lucky enough to be in Belgrade or a few other (for businesses and politicians more interesting) places. The first serious landmark number was reached in the Spring of 2008, when, according to some surveys, in Serbia was 250 000 broadband users. Some sources state that we are operating with the number of around 500 000 already, some would mention much more, but the statistics would come from different sources of which none should be considered as absolutely confirmed and ‘objective’, in a scientifical way; this kind of dis-orientation is illustrative for the lack of more mature social infrastructure in the field, as still we wait for clear government policies (and then to fight with the consequences of it), still most of the government and businesses and other institutions would have sloppy and dysfunctional web sites, still e-mail is not something widely considered as a valid sort of communication, still there are no means of online electronic payment and related services emerging… And still, some of us enjoy the marvels of the lack of over-regulation in the field, and hope it will stay that way.
Broadening “the tubes”.
So, it can be said regarding the infrastructure, however expensive, slow and sloppy it may be, that it became available for quite some number of people now; what is with the culture of using, which would be ‘the second stage’ in introduction of a certain new social paradigm (of technology, of media, etc)?
According to the (previous) government and the Secretary of the former Ministry for Capital Investments, Dragana Đurčić, the fact that Serbia is still at the very bottom of the European list considering the ‘penetration’ of computers and Internet is not the fault of government, but of citizens themselves. She was quoted saying at the SEE Broadband 2007, a regional ‘broadband conference’ of the countries of South East Europe held in Belgrade, the following:
“The reason for not using the internet enough is definitely not the price because [in the survey probably commissioned by government] only 9,6 percent of households considers the price of broadband Internet too high. Most of the households – around 44 percent – say they don’t want the broadband Internet, don’t need it or don’t know how to use it.”
But why all those people would think that they do not need or like to be connected, how would they decide about it? And why the government would say that it has nothing to do with it’s society attitude towards what is being considered a global ‘revolution’ in communications? The culture of using and promoting the usage of Internet, as we all know too well and as is the case with anything else, does not happen ‘by itself”. It is not that millions of citizens will wake up one morning, ‘feeling the need’ to be connected, and then rush to local providers and enlist for a line – it comes as the consequence of the set of strategies and campaigns to ‘create’ that need and/or desire. The interest of society to participate in The Network needs to be clearly outlined and articulated to everybody involved; of course that the role of media would be crucial in creating this kind of public awareness and consent. The problem is, the traditional media in Serbia at this moment do not see the Internet as a friend or ally; so it would be the combination of misunderstanding and fear which would guide owners, managers and editors of “the big media”, and consequently the entire public sphere, into either rather pretending that the Internet is not really happening (or that “the whole thing is overblown” and does not deserve much attention) or into the very campaign against the Internet, presenting it as not just insignificant and meaningless phenomena, another fashion-of-the-moment to fade away tomorrow, being replaced by something else, but also a potentially very dangerous place to be. This is something which was also characteristic for the lot of traditional media in societies which were going to this kind of ‘media transition and which came to use digital networks before, and on a wider scale, and still this process is unfolding in many different places – as ‘the tubes’ got broader, not only printed media, but radio and then TV came challenged; but precisely of it being the matter of time, and also of scale, now the media in those societies would have already a certain position towards ‘the Internets’ – they would be pretty much clearly divided on the basis if they somehow are trying to merge or intertwine and eventually become the part of One Network, or if they have opted for the approach to ‘fight back’ and resist it. And none of them could ignore that the Internet is both already here and constantly emerging, becoming more powerful and ‘unavoidable’ in each circle of its permanent expansion. Still, nobody is sure what it exactly did to us, and it is understandable that a lot of people may go trough the period of disorientation and confusion – obviously, there is some kind of ‘in half of a generation split’ happening among the population in their 30’s upwards. There is already some research on the possibly growing cultural differences and the phenomena of ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘miscommunication’ between those involved in transformation and those who are not; but there is also something which should be viewed as coming from the entirely different angle. It is the willingness to understand, the trust to ‘others’ (and especially ‘younger’ or ‘new’ others’) from the side of skeptics, and an honest and (however ‘painful’ it may be) realistic attitude towards what is already happening and what is emerging as ‘ubiquitous’, which elevates the idea of Internet, or anything ‘new’, to the tipping point, making it not ‘the phenomena’ of the avant-garde and ‘experimental’ practice of one society anymore, but a common, not-a-big-thing and default social infrastructure. The ‘tubes’ have to become transparent, to the point it makes them almost ‘invisible’, before we can consider that we finally accepted it – but never, ever, we should forget the material practices and material character of it.
It is not that Serbia is that late in this queue to reach “the tipping point” – as we seen, even in the very society in which this ‘paradigm shift” of media was introduced, the United States, until yesterday we had both a tremendous wide-spread use of Internet among the population and a generation of ‘resistance’ to it, involving some of the ‘big media’ as well, and symbolically represented in the idea of Internet as ‘internets’ by the former president, or the even more amusing idea of Internet as ‘the series of tubes’ as explained by senator Stevens. The recent electorial victory of president Obama, widely attributed to the success of his media and fundraising campaign relying heavily on the Network, replaces this symbolical resistance with symbolical acceptance, clearly demonstrating that it is not the matter of opinion but of recognizing the material practice to accept the new power of the Network, finally disarming the remnants of the generation of ‘skeptics’ and rendering any ‘offline” approach to oblivion. Important to add, it is not just the idea of the internet-as-technical-infrastructure for the exchange of digital archives and communication, and for creating ‘virtual’ social networks, which relates to that change, but also different other social processes, the daily practices and modes of organization (and of collaboration and communication and exchange) in what we traditionally called ‘the real life’, which both become visible or emerged as we started to use Internet more, changing significantly not what we think about or do ‘online’, but our understanding and material practices of ‘offline’, as well.
Regarding the traditional media in Serbia, there is no doubt that both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ aspects of this change are happening as we speak – most, if not all ‘the big media’ would have or are in the process of building the extensive digitized and networked presence, there is a vast network of ‘smaller’ media which are exclusively based on ‘online’ approach already, and the world of printed media is growingly resembling the looks and practices, ‘the interface’ and ‘the content’ of their online siblings. But, the shift in culture, ‘the tipping point’ or the symbolical acceptance still does not appear to be around the corner – despite all the practices we are undeniably witnessing happening, the ‘official’ attitude of the ‘official’ media remains at best in denial, and at worst quite defensive. If for this is already being said that it presents the ‘expected’ phase in this process of media (and social) transition, and something most of the societies experienced or are about to experience as the one (for some social groups) quite painful aspect of ‘evolving’ towards the networked society, then in Serbia this process may be more bold and more the ‘caricature of itself’ then elsewhere and before, as the consequence of the historical and political circumstances outlining it.
The politics of fear
A small survey made to illustrate this claim was done researching the excellent media archive of Ebart Media Documentation, who provided a support to FMK in data-mining media for this issue of de Scripto, and which can be found @archive.co.yu. It did confirm what is already suspected and ‘perceived’ from the experience – the traditional media in Serbia would either rather ignore mentioning the Internet at all (being in denial), by not attributing the online sources from which they predominantly aggregate news and information from, and, even more important, by avoiding any discussion on Internet and its omnipresence in the life and work of the growing number of people – in other words, you will not find much reports and discussion from or about the Internet in traditional media of today. It appears that if nothing really important happened since 90’s, and that it is still considered quite normal to accept that public communication and journalism, culture and politics, entertainment and science, and everything really, still happens on the pages of printed media or at the other side of TV screens. In most of the cases, if Internet is mentioned at all, it would be in specialized columns and TV shows, or small pieces of news reporting from ‘out there’, from some distant and still curious and dubious, not-that-significant-at-all place of ‘internets’, where we follow the activities of “them”, a defined and finite group of people who are ‘different’, and who for some reason decided to spend time “there”. It will almost never be about “us” and “here”. The second approach, much more aggressive (or, perhaps more accurately, a defensive one), is being used in the cases in which the existence and influence of Internet can not be ignored, or in which the aim is to spread the atmosphere of fear and doubt towards the very idea of it. The headlines and news excerpts did confirm that those are still the two dominant approaches used by the mainstream media, and before we continue discussing the issue, l selected some amusing and characteristic examples for you, all from daily and weekly press during 2008:
Mass murderers buying arms over the Internet (Blic, 17.02.2008), A modern thief sits behind the computer (Glas Javnosti, 03.02.2008), Hackers from Kosovo attacked the web-site of the youth organisation (Danas, 18.08.2008 ), Albanians blocked Serbian web site (Kurir, 15.08.2008), Civil servants banned of using Facebook (Blic, 19.12.2008), Another robbery on YouTube (Blic, 27.02.2008), Electronic thefts (Ekonomist, 10.03.2008), National Agency for Telecommunication invades the privacy of citizen (Glas Javnosti, 30.07.2008), Cash machines under the attack of cyber criminals (Biznis, 03.03.2008), Cyber criminals arrested in Kraljevo (Politika, 05.06.2008), Online sexual maniac got caught (Kurir, 30.05.2008), Charges against Internet pedophile (Press, 18.06.2008), Videos of orgies involving horses available online (Glas Javnosti, 18.06.2008), Protect your identity while online (Pregled, 22.08.2008), Laws needed against online violence (Danas, 09.09.2008), How to prevent the misuse of Internet? (Narodne novine – Niš, 09.09.2008), Parents don’t know how to control the online content (Danas, 08.05.2008), Internet makes you dumber (Politika, 12.07.2008), Prostitution flourishes over the Internet (Blic, 09.11.2008), Internet addiction on the rise (Glas Javnosti, 30.11.2008), Manipulation of public opinion on the Internet (Glas Javnosti, 18.01.2008), Indecent proposals in chat rooms, parents misguided (Politika, 25.02.2008), Children are the target of Internet maniacs (Blic, 03.06.2008), Drugs and prostitution in the virtual world (Politika, 06.12.2008), Facebook addiction surpasses the addiction on computer games (Politika, 06.12.2008), Internet more expensive, e-mails under control (Blic, 26.07.2008), Inspectors chasing pirates (Politika, 14.11.2008), Computer viruses replaced bombs (Nedeljni Telegraf, 21.05.2008), A law on electronic communication is necessary (Danas, 03.03.2008)…
Hope you had a good laugh. Mind you, this is just a tiny portion of the headlines referring to Internet, and there is much more; so what the average citizen reading newspapers could conclude on ‘this Internet thing’? This is one dangerous place, in which terrorists, pirates and maniacs of all kinds operate, and children are the prey of an army of pedophiles; it is not just your money they steal there, but also your entire ‘identity’; and if by some chance it doesn’t get you addicted to itself, surely it will make you dumber.
Now press ‘enter’ if you dare
This is not to say that some of the things mentioned in the headlines do not happen – of course that there is a lot of ‘criminal’ behaviour online – but, more-or-less in the same ratio as in ‘the real life’, and it is expected – as Internet and related digital communication tools expanded our reach much beyond the possibilities of our body, or beyond the place we live at or the social circles we can be the part of – it did so for all the aspects of ‘us’… Also, this is not to say that there is no positive and affirmative coverage of the Internet, and that there are no specialized magazines and columns dedicated to promoting all things Internet (albeight most of it would be promoting the products and services, quite possibly connected with vendors or distributors and acting as advertisement, and there is almost no real critical and scientific discussion about Internet, besides on Internet itself) – but most of those would be confined to ‘specialized’ places and addressing the audience already aware of the Internet and its ever expanding potentials and problems. In the general picture, the ‘popular’ press, the one addressing just ‘the people’, in the situation where there is no immediate knowledge and experience of the topic, is still producing more fear and confusion then critique and curiosity; without having a clear social consensus, reflected in the media, that the Network is here to stay, with all of the gains and loses it may bring, it is quite possible that almost 50% of the citizen will continue to say: Internet? No thanks, I don’t think I want it, really… No matter how much is invested in infrastructure, or not, from this point on it is the culture which decides on the further progress in the field. And this is where traditional media should play a very important role. Once they are clear about what that role is supposed to be.
The alternate take on this article can be found here.