Eric Kluitenberg on Thu, 10 Jul 1997 12:32:05 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Some Remarks on the Question of Bandwidth

Dear nettimers,

As part of the Hybrid Workspace experience, which devotes itself to the
demand for bandwidth right now, I've written a short text, which summarises
some issues related to bandwidth. For me they seemed to be key-issues,
given the very short time span in which I had to write this text. I'm
looking forward to a productive disagreement..

If you're not in the physical neighbourhood, drop by at our web site:

If you are, we would enjoy to welcome you in the Hybrid Workspace, at the
Orangerie / Documenta / Kassel.

Eric Kluitenberg


Some Remarks on the Question of Bandwidth
by Eric Kluitenberg

It is not hard to see that the emergence of the graphical user interface
for the Internet, the world wide web, has greatly enhanced the public
interest and rising popularity of the Internet. Text communication and
text-retreival were already possible for many years before this sudden rise
in public interest. Enhancing the public interest in networking
technologies is part of a strategy to enlist a critical mass of the general
audience in the world of computer mediated communication. This process
still seems the only functional strategy that will prevent these extremely
powerful communication technologies to become the exclusive privilege of
corporate, state, scientific and other institutionalised users.
The attractivity of the Net for a wide variety of users, in this indirect
sense, serves an important political purpose. As more and more of the
social communication (i.e. the public sphere) is shifting from the physical
space to the electronic space, public participation in this electronic
public sphere also becomes more and more important. The democratic
potential of networked communications can only be brought out by enlisting
this critical mass of general users, conversely the autocratic threat of a
secluded elite of information haves can similarly only be prevented by
enlisting that same critical mass of the general audience.
        Seen from this perspective the demand for more bandwidth reflects
the desire for an open and transparent communication space. Sufficient
bandwidth for all is the prerequisite for enlisting the critical mass of
users in the general audience and keeping their attention. Down-load times
of more than a minute will ultimately kill any attempt to get the wider
audience to adopt this new medium and participate in the global infosphere.

But the issue, of course, is not that simple. The question is not simply
whether to have bandwidth or not, rather the question is what kind of
bandwidth will be available for that general audience. The utopian vision
of the Internet is that of an open, decentralised, horizontal, grass-roots
constructed, interconnected digital communication space. The intelligence
of the system in this vision is spread out equally across the network. The
intelligence in the network resides at the nodes, the decentralised
machines that operate the network, and in the biological information
networks that interact with it (the human brains). The human user is the
classical prosumer, a hybrid creature as much a producer and a consumer of
digitised content. This ideology ciristalises in the 'dumb network <->
smart terminals' vision of the network.

The corporate interest in the network, in the end the powers that will
construct the broadband channels we are now still dreaming of, has selected
quite another outlook on the data space. In the search for the killer
application, the roles are divided according to those of the classical
market economy. The producer  produces a product to be sold to a consumer
who consumes. The producer/consumer dichotomy, however, also gives rise to
a different picture of the network itself. Rather than the dispersed,
horizontal structure of the Net-utopians, the business models focus on big
data pipes that carry the weight of signals coming from the content factory
to the individual homes of the individual consumer. The network is
hybridised, big central pipes, very broadband access for the corporate
info-factory, made to measure (low bandwidth) connections to the home.
        The interface is defined by the standards of the consumer
electronics market. The Internet access node should be easier to operate
than an average VCR: 'Let's be serious who can really program her or his
VCR back home?' Following this logic the data stream going into the house
should be big, out of the house the user only needs to be able to make
choices within the grand offerings of big daddy entertainment industry, and
perhaps send out an occasional electronic letter. This ideology
ciristalises in the 'smart network <-> dumb terminals' vision of the

Meanwhile the enthusiastic amateurs can still do their own thing in some
obscure side alley of the digital entertainment highway, where they remain

A second major complication is the dichotomy between the west and the east
(as pointed out by John Horvath) and even more pertinently between the
north and the south. Bandwidth is one thing, the distribution of bandwidth
quite another. Global communication networks sounds nice, but means very
little. The division between high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth access is
drawn along economic lines (hardly a surprise). The bandwidth distribution
therefore closely mimics the geo-physical distribution of wealth in the
real space. More equally dispersed in the highly developed post-industrial
societies, and highly condensed and pocketed in the 'lesser developed'
regions of the earth.
The distribution of bandwidth, furthermore not only reflects the
distribution of economic power across the globe and across the different
strata of each society, it also intensifies it. More bandwidth for some,
means less power for many who do not share in broadband luxury. Alternative
networking structures are increasingly marginalised if the call for more
bandwidth is not coupled with a call for an even distribution of bandwidth
at the same time. The actual demand should therefore focus rather on
bandwidth for all, instead of more bandwidth per se.

Who knows, if someone devices a scheme to get rich of 'wiring the poor', it
might even happen by itself. If not let us recall some memorable words by
John Horvath here:

"People are being kept off-line until they can not only afford access, but
also the ability to run applications that use a lot of bandwidth. Thus, by
demanding more bandwidth rather than concentrating on, and supporting the
development of, less band-intensive web sites and applications, the
dichotomy between "us and them" will linger on while the chasm separating
the rich and poor widens, perpetuating the social, economic, and political
injustices that such segregation breeds."

John Horvath
Budapest, Hungary

In short:

We Want Bandwidth!

Equal Access Rights Now!

Broadcast for All!

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