Octavia Butler at the US Social Forum

I ended The Value of Nothing with a quote by Octavia Butler, the African American science fiction writer, and it’s very happy-making to hear that Butler’s work featured this week at the US Social Forum. More on that via DemocracyNow! (via Dan Moshenberg).

One Reply to “Octavia Butler at the US Social Forum”

  1. Hello, Raj,

    I just finished a quick read of the “Value of Nothing” which my wife is reading for her book club.

    Of the many thought-provoking aspects, your discussion of Karl Polanyi, the Forest Charter and the enclosure movement was most interesting to me. With that context in mind, I hope you don’t mind if I expand on a couple of points that I thought were worthy of more attention.

    You mention broadcast spectrum, in passing, as a possible way to create a form of private property that was under greater social control (p. 102).

    I’ve been a student of the connections between spectrum policy and the mass media ever since I read Robert McChesney’s book, Telecommunications, Mass Media, & Democracy: the Battle for Control of US Broadcasting 1928-1935. I sympathize with your intent to provide some alternative options to the absolute supremacy of private property, but my opinion is that “spectrum ownership” is not a model that should be replicated.

    In fact, I see the story of US broadcast spectrum as eerily reminiscent of the 18th century enclosure movement.

    Here’s why: During the earliest days of radio, spectrum was treated much like a land commons. To grossly simplify a lot of scholarship by McChesney and others, for a brief time, radio licensing was open to pretty much anyone, amateurs, experimenters, schools, churches, profit and non-profit organizations of all kinds.

    But as the potential value of broadcast spectrum became apparent, and the commercial potential of the new “broadcasting business model became apparent, the advocates of markets started to move in, just as land barons moved in on the open lands. The Federal Radio Commission established after passage of the 1927 Radio Act, the broadcast spectrum could have secured the rights of first users, which would have given legal protection to many, many small, local, educational nonprofit operators.

    But powerful industry groups argued that because spectrum was limited, the new FRC needed to step in and assign licenses in the “public interest.” Not surprisingly, the “public interest” was carefully defined to promote “general interest” commercially sponsored broadcasting. Stations with nonprofit or educational missions were shoved aside, or simply restricted from broadcasting.

    The consequences of this conversion can hardly be overstated.

    The first consequence is that most of the nonprofit or educational stations simply went off the air, which reduced the diversity of programming available to audiences.

    The second consequence was that the well-connected commercial that groups that did get radio licenses, with favorable frequencies and operating terms, were able to use those licenses to create wealthy, powerful communications empires. Many of today’s multimedia conglomerates (CBS, NBC, etc) can trace their corporate genealogy to those early license decisions.

    But the most long-lasting consequence was that the basic model of commercial broadcasting became the dominant communications force of the 20th century in the U.S. Nothing promoted business interests or reduced the impact of labor or alternative models of social organization like having radio and then TV be driven solely by business groups for commercial reasons.

    It’s an interesting footnote to the story of the Immokalee workers that one of their key assets is a low-power FM radio station, build with the help of media activists, which was a vital communication link for the IWC, and echoes the impact of “seeing Abahlali comrades debating ministers on TV.” (p. 141)

    Spectrum policy has gone through some changes since 1927, and today in the U.S. there are three classes of spectrum “owners” or perhaps rights-holders is a better term.

    Broadcasters, who were given their rights for free (not sold) in return for (mostly empty) promises of serving the public, cell phone companies, which purchased their rights at auctions, and charge subscribers monthly fees for mobile phone services, and a third class, a small sliver of spectrum made available for unlicensed use (Wi-Fi hot spots etc.)

    My thought is that unlicensed spectrum, particularly in support of mobile broadband, is a complete revolution, in some ways could be compared to return land or fishing rights from feudal baronies to public or common use. As with the fishing rights commoning you describe, the details of who gets to use unlicensed spectrum, the negotiations (now sometimes conducted instantaneously and electronically) will determine how much or how little the general public will gain from this new spectrum model, (and how much value will be captured by the technology barons, Google, Apple, Microsoft and so on).

    I plan to re-read your book more carefully after my wife’s book club finishes its discussion but I want to thank you for the huge value I’ve already gained.

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