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  • The Internet As Anti-culture

    A Little Corrosion Is a Dangerous Thing

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    Several of the politically repressive and culturally insulated nations of Asia can no longer resist: they are reaching their hands toward that glittering toy, the Internet. For many in the west, it's like watching a troublesome colleague light up an exploding cigar.

    Not that these nations are entirely unaware of the risks. George Yeo, Singapore's Minister of Information, believes that "the Internet is like fire. If you don't learn how to control it, it will burn you." That is why Singapore's government, under Yeo's guidance, is attempt- ing to manage the Internet by monitoring content and supervis- ing access -- all with the intent of filtering out "un-Singaporean" influences.

    The strong and fully justified assumption on this side of the Pacific is, of course, that all the caution in the world will fail. But not necessarily for the advertised reasons. New York Times edi- torialist, Philip Taubman, for example, misses the critical issue when he responds to Yeo's comment by smugly remarking, "in Singapore, a little democracy can be a dangerous thing" (Nov. 8, 1995).

    It can. But one marvels, first of all, at Taubman's blithe repetition of the mindless -- and by now badly tarnished -- axiom that the Inter- net is somehow automatically a democratizing technology. It would have been much safer to say, "A little cultural corrosion can be a dangerous thing." For this is the real truth we westerners feel in the gut as we watch foreign cultures take up our diversions.

    But cultural corrosion is not the best preparation for democracy -- a fact that the entire history of colonialism is now shouting at us. Nor is this fact only being tested in places like Africa and the Bal- kans. As the United States adapts its education system, its business, and its entertainment to the Net, we are concocting our own experiment in cultural dislocation.

    One small component of this experiment is about to begin. Within a few months, if all goes according to plan, sophisticated, offfshore gambling casinos will be taking illegal bets from the American public -- over the Internet. John Russell, a spokesman for the U.S. Depart- ment of Justice, while noting that "it's felony wire fraud to use the phone lines to place bets," went on to say that the F.B.I. is not about to prosecute bettors. "We don't consider it a priority."

    Stephen Pizzo, who interviewed Russell for the online Web Review (October 27, 1995), points out that the priorities are sim- ply an acknowledgment of reality. "Privately, Justice Department sources admit that enforcing the law in this case would require a level of intrusion into the private lives of Americans that would have made the KGB blush."

    Singapore's Yeo might well chuckle even as he sweats under the growing heat. Apparently, not only Asian hands get burned by "a little demo- cracy."

    We Americans have, of course, already proven our willingness to cede cultural ground to the gambling industry. But we are not quite so casual when it comes to the education of our children. Given the con- certed push to technologize our schools and thereby effect a Great Leap Forward into