|IT'S HARD FOR ME to get too excited about something like the Time/AOL merger, mainly because I've never found AOL to be a particularly interesting aspect of the net. Since I've always regarded Time-Warner as the very model of
a bland media conglomerate, exerting its influence rather like a huge planet
-- gravitationally -- rather than because of the quality of its products,
I actually regarded the news of the merger with a yawn and a shrug -- it
seemed a good, if uninspiring, fit.
Now, I know that the fact that a takeover of Time-Warner
by AOL is supposed to be revolutionary -- the "Triumph of the Net" or some
such hyperbole -- but I still can't see that it's too exciting. A big company
gets bigger, and the net gets a step closer to cultural homogenization.
No stunning shock, there. Actually, it would be a lot more interesting
if it didn't happen.
Which is always possible. Like most mergers of this size,
Time and AOL can only consummate their union if the stock price of the
latter -- as inflated as any net stock, the experts ominously say -- remains
strong for the whole of the next six months, which is how long the engagement
is scheduled to last. If, at any point, the share price of AOL takes a
serious dive, Time -- and the banks that are brokering this deal -- will
wisely pull out and leave AOL much diminished. It's a very insecure relationship.
In my mind's eye, I imagine a merger like Time/AOL as
a kind of dance of elves and fairies, a light-show straight out of Fantasia,
with magic dust boiling out of a pot and creating shimmering castles in
the air. The actual value of a company like AOL is based on subscriber
lists and "perceived value", and while a company like Time-Warner has a
lot more actual capital -- physical assets, facilities and real estate
-- they're still a media company, and subject to the vicious shifts of
public attention and fashion. Down at the bottom of the picture, dancing
around the cauldron, are the shadowy figures of bankers and major shareholders, the vested executives and corporate strategists with their stock options chanting magic words like "convergence" and flailing their arms around, desperate that the glittering edifice holds together.
I'm also pretty underwhelmed by the hand-wringing about
Time/AOL heralding the death of the net as a venue for personal expression,
the beginning of the end, finally climaxing in the media grail of "convergence", where the net, television, radio, telephones, cable, satellite dish and video rentals and record stores all unite in one pipeline right through our walls, through your cell phones, and into every corner of our lives. Let's be honest -- little sites like this, like almost any diary, including the thousands of "personal" projects on the net that rise and fall according to the enthusiasm of their creators, are the street-corner pamphlets of the net, a vanity press and a mail-order record label where you make out
your cheque to the artist, or buy a cassette off the stage after the show,
while the band packs up their gear and tries to make change from a twenty.
Wonderful and marginal and transient, and not even a drop in the bucket
compared to, say, dell.com, or amazon.com, or the New York Times on the
But what about the "death of distance", the way the net
brings together people who might never meet each other, to talk and trade
and buy and sell and argue with each other and share the banal details
of their lives with each other? It's a wonderful thing, of course -- but
utterly ephemeral in the end. If, for instance, I should decide to stop
writing this journal tomorrow, perhaps a half-dozen of my eighty or so
regular readers will send me goodbye e-mails wishing me all the best, and
then promptly forget all about me within a day of taking the bookmark down.
Celebrity, in the end, can only be created and sustained on the broadest
public canvas, and since the only money changing hands here is between
me and my ISP, there's no economic impetus demanding that this site perpetuate. We're here because I love doing this, and you like reading it. Which is more than you can say about Time-Warner most of the time.
As for the commercialization of the net, that inexhorable
process began when the first GIF or jpeg downloaded onto someone's screen;
when the net started to look like a magazine or t.v. I never held much
stock in the "purity" of the net; I'd put a banner ad up here in a second.
I'M ACTUALLY MORE CONCERNED about Time-Warner buying EMI,
and creating the biggest music conglomerate in the world -- 20% of the
world music market concentrated in one corporation. It's a bit of news
that seems to have got a lot less play than the disturbing spectacle of
Steve Case and Gerald Levin hugging in front of a roomful of reporters.
Not that the state of music could get any worse -- rock is a twitching
corpse, pop music at its most insipid since the early Sixties, jazz has
become the easy listening of the new century, and classical music is a
blundering business where venal fossils ride on the backs of the broken
dray horses of the opera house and recital hall. Still, there have been
moments -- I regard the back catalogue of any record label as its real
treasure, and in the case of a company like EMI, this encompasses pretty
much the whole history of recorded music.
Corporations seem to be more concerned about selling to
a customer "profile" -- some ideal vision of the perfect consumer, vaguely
but constantly dissatisfied with yesterday's purchases, always on the verge
of pitching the whole lot and trading up to the newest thing -- and while
such a creature only exists in the fashion industry, they've always tried
hard to create that ideal customer by making choices limited and alternatives
inconvenient. The music industry tactic of making you buy the same music
over and over in different packages can only run through its cycle once
a generation, but CDs have been on the market for nearly twenty years,
the time is ripe for a new medium to make us re-invest all over again.
Perhaps that's the motivating logic behind the Time-Warner/EMI merger,
in which case I'd say it makes for bigger news, hiding slyly behind the
In any case, it all just makes the world a much more boring