The Internet has already changed some things in the labour movement and the left. But the changes so far have been small in comparison to those coming in the next few years.
By Eric Lee
The old political culture of holding meetings, getting people to come to meetings, travelling distances to and from meetings, waiting for meetings to begin, and so on, is going to decline. In fact, it already is in decline. A new culture of online discussion and debate is being born, and this will replace it.
Activists will meet when they want to, when it is good to meet, and will be able to focus on the essential, having dealt with mundane matters online. Time currently wasted - particularly in travelling to and from events but also in repetitive tasks like collating and stapling flyers, stuffing envelopes, etc. - can perhaps be more profitably spent reading and writing.
The Internet is already in the process of changing from an experimental tool, used by roughly a quarter of the adult population in the UK, into a true mass medium, accessible to all. In time, those who choose not to use the Internet's new possibilities of communication will be marginalising themselves as much as those who today would choose never to use a phone or motorised transport.
There have been roughly two periods of Internet use in the UK. Until three or four years ago, to have had access to the net meant to have been an academic. Then the Internet as a mass medium was launched, and first computer hobbyists, later millions of others, bought their computers and modems and logged on.
The introduction of the Netscape browser, back in December 1994, followed by other changes in software, made it infinitely easier to get online. Today, PCs are sold with Internet software pre-loaded and often all one has to do is double-click on a screen icon to get online and beginning using the world wide web.
I have recently been asked to train a high ranking union official who is a computer illiterate to use the net - and all I plan to do is include his Internet browser in the start-up programs group on his PC. This means that accessing the net for him will be as easy as turning on the power switch on the computer.
Another critical factor leading to universal access is the rapid drop in prices of all three components of getting online.
Computer hardware has never been cheaper, and if one is prepared to be, say, three months behind the cutting edge, computers can be had practically for free. I'm not exaggerating. I'm writing this article on a free PC recently acquired from Tiny Computers, a major High Street firm. Time Computers also has a free PC deal as do others. Several companies in the US are offering better deals, with very few strings attached.
The cost of Internet subscriptions used to also be a stumbling block, and as recently as a year ago, I and many others were paying up to £200 per year for the privilege of accessing the Internet. The launch of Dixon's Freeserve put an end to all that. Today, Freeserve is in decline, picking up "only" 14,000 new customers a week, down from its peak which was double that number, due to the competition of more than 200 other free Internet providers (including several unions).
The final cost of going online has been the telephone bill. As you all know, we have to pay per minute here in the UK, even for local calls - unlike in the USA. The first cracks in that barrier appeared when free providers, including BT, began offering free weekend calls to the net. The recent announcements by AOL and Freeserve of 1p per minute Internet calls and ten hours free use per month mean that the introduction of truly free access via an 0800 number is only a matter of time.
The rapid drop in the costs of getting online mean nothing for the upper classes, who have been online since the early 1990s, if they so desired. The tens of thousands of people signing up for Freeserve and its competitors every week are people for whom cost was and still is a barrier to using the net. The Internet revolution taking place today is bringing millions of working class families online for the first time. As costs drop, people coming online now are going to be online more time and will have newer and better tools - both software and hardware - to enjoy the experience.
As anyone who uses even the very fastest modems available today - the so-called 56K modems - knows, a major barrier to using the Internet remains its slow speed for anything more complicated than simple text. Pages take forever to download. Graphics on a page become an annoyance, not a pleasure. Multimedia including videos and audios are unrealistic so long as we are limited by our current primitive analog connections to the net from our homes.
All that is about to end too. BT has announced that as of October 1999, it will begin making high speed digital access to the net available through existing telephone lines. This technology is called ADSL and has existed for some time. It allows speeds of access that can be 400 times as fast as 56K modems. And ADSL access will be unmetered - users will pay a flat monthly fee, currently rumoured to be around £40 per month, and can be connected to the net 24 hours a day.
There are alternatives to ADSL (including other versions of the DSL technology) and these include cable modems (Internet access through your television), satellite dishes and even Internet via power lines. But the most promising one for now seems to be ADSL.
Universal access and high broadband access are both coming at more or less the same moment. Just as the sudden arrival of Internet for public use in the mid-1990s caught the left and labour movements by surprise and only now have many unions and groups managed to get up proper websites, so this development is also catching us largely unprepared.
And yet it will change the way we work even more than the Internet revolution of the last four years has done.
I think we can expect a revolution of rising expectations from Internet users. By this I include members of the left groups themselves, trade unionists, ordinary workers, everyone. People will increasingly expect to find timely and relevant content on websites - and not just online brochures. BBC Online is setting the standard with a continuously updated website which is financed to the tune of tens of millions of pounds per year. If the last era of Internet use required us to talk about updating our websites from time to time, in the coming era those sites will need to be updated continuously.
Broad bandwidth access means the possibility of finally delivering a rich multimedia experience to users. Most of our websites are now entirely text-based, which is appropriate to people using analog modems and paying 4p per minute. In the very near future, we will have to add colour photos, videos and audio to our sites in order to compete with well-funded, mainstream corporate-sponsored sites. All left groups and unions have figured out that where possible we add colour and photos to our print publications. Where we can, we produce videos and even CDs. The arrival of extremely high speed access to the home will make using multimedia a requirement on our websites as well.
Increasingly, the best websites already see themselves not only as providers of information but also as providers of services and community. In a recent controversial deal signed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, very cheap computers and Internet access will be delivered to working people who will access the net through portal web pages which are personalised for them and their unions. Instead of seeing a page which every other member of the union sees, they will be greeted by a personal page which includes their own pension fund details, access to bank accounts, and much more.
For a left group or union, at the very least websites should be tailored according to what is known about members today in databases. For example, a member of a particular union branch should see on her personal web page the date of the next branch meeting, contact details for branch officers and local branch news without having to specifically request this information. The personalisation of web portals, pioneered by Yahoo and Excite, has taken off and that standard of service which people receive from the major websites is going to be expected from the left and labour ones as well.
Universal access is a precondition for the building of true online communities. The more people are online, the greater the likelihood of web forums, chat rooms, and mailing lists to work as they were intended to work.
The success of the left in this period depends not only on its webmasters designing sites compatible with broadband access but with a major cultural change in our movement. We will have to learn to work in revolutionary new ways.
This means adopting e-mail and instant messaging services (like ICQ, Gooey, AIM, etc.) and using these instead of the far more expensive and inefficient phone and fax - not to mention snail mail. It means increasingly using interactive tools like web forums and chat rooms as supplements to the traditional kind of face-to-face meeting that takes up so much of our time. Meetings in rooms will still take place, but they can be shorter and more efficient if they have been prepared by pre-meetings online.
The widespread adoption of small digital video cameras which can be mounted on computer monitors (the cheapest ones in the UK now sell for £41) mean that video-conferencing is just around the corner, and this is a far better replacement for meetings than text-based web forums and chat. Broadband Internet, universally accessible, opens up the possibility for the British Left of reaching a vast audience at almost no cost. It can free up activists from many currently boring and repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on what really matters: winning the battle of ideas, strengthening solidarity among working people, and building a new International.
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