The Titans of Technology: The Internet, Radio and Our Newton’s Laws

Sir Isaac Newton once gave name to pre-existing universal laws of motion. His three laws can be summarized as nothing changes course without force, the size of what is to be changed determines the force required to change it and change comes to all involved in achieving it. There are, of course, political equivalents whose laws are equally universal and also pre-date another Newton who later gave them name and Black political relevance. Dr. Huey P. Newton, whose birthday was February 17, once wrote that he “studied the law to become a better burglar” and extending the political equivalent of the other Newton added that advances in technology do not improve social relations. They, in fact, intensify or worsen them. Advances in technology, he noted, are developed by exploiting the very workers who are then further suppressed by those advances. These laws are worthy of application to all forms of study, even those of mass media and especially their interaction with Black America. They are, in fact, what should be our Newton’s Laws.

For example, FMQB, an online media industry trade publication reported this week that newly developing digital broadband internet technology is no immediate threat to established terrestrial radio. Simply put, the internet is a “one-to-one” communication technology where each individual listener comes at a cost of and to limited bandwidth. Radio, on the other hand, is a “one-to-many” technology allowing a set cost for broadcasting that is relatively fixed regardless of how many people tune in. The titans of technology have not quite figured out how to scale their economies so as to reach as many online as they do over the air. For the moment, it seems, radio as we know it is safe.

But radio as we know and experience it is a real-life horror show. Consolidated ownership and advertising, payola-driven content and no news all mean that radio, and particularly that targeting Black people, is a mess and needs change. Many hope and even already claim that the internet is a positive solution. But here we are given information that says the internet is not prepared to take over radio’s popularity and we already have research, like that from the Pew Research Center, which shows that incremental increases in internet usage do not translate into more diverse sources, topics covered or broader ranges of frames of interpretation. The digital divide keeping Black people offline is still an issue and those following the struggle over net neutrality have every right to be concerned that the next generation of the internet will be less open than the already less-than-free medium that it is now.

The problem for the titans of technology, of course, is that control over mass media is for the purpose of having control over access to masses of people to assure their political and economic dominance. Right now even titans like AT&T cannot afford to supply enough broadband to their 9 million IPhone users and CBS denies international access to its internet streams in an attempt to protect its limited network. None are prepared to cover the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to service an online audience that comes anywhere close to the 235 million listeners that still tune in to radio. The full media migration online is far from complete. However, we cannot afford to confuse migration with improvement. That is, the existing power struggle over radio is also migrating carrying with it the old rules over who rules.

Our Newton’s Laws, while they demand that advanced technology will only heighten existing conditions, also demand active and aggressive response. Black Agenda Report has already called for the establishment of a News 4 The People Coalition to challenge Black radio to provide its audience with more politically relevant information. We need at least that much to honor the man whose laws we should by now adopt as divine commandments.