Tiffany Lee Brown on 11 Dec 2000 06:32:32 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] SIGNUM issue

[From the latest installment of SIGNUM's two-part theme, "Whatever 
Happened to the Cyber Revolution?" It features personal stories about 
the New Economy, the cyberdelic early '90s, and the web explosion. 
Brenda Laurel reveals her thoughts on what happened at Purple Moon, 
while Mark Pesce riffs on his early days in the web business. Other 
contributors include Doug Rushkoff, R.U.Sirius, Brad Wieners, Richard 
Kadrey, and Jon Lebkowsky. -tiffany, SIGNUM editor.]

A Lettuce from the Editrice

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! So pull up a chair, sip a jet 
black demitasse of schadenfreude, and observe the spectacle. When it 
comes to new media and the new economy, many of us have awaited this 
inevitable moment for a loooong time-since before many of today's 
industry types knew what what the letters WWW meant.

Does this mean it's fun to lose your job and watch your stocks 
plummet? No. But anyone who didn't see it coming wasn't paying 
attention. I'm no economist, as my regular readers have no doubt 
cleverly deduced. Like most of us, though, I am capable of observing 
humans and their funny ways, watching cultural phenom emerge and 
evolve, and recognising patterns and cycles as they uncoil over time. 
Whaddya know? I haven't run into any real examples proving that the 
virtual can replace the physical, or that concepts like "money" can 
negate basic human needs. And as boring as it may sound, things that 
go up do seem to come back down most of the time.

Some four years ago, a magazine editor encouraged me to write an 
article about a nonexistent economic theory of my own invention, 
mocking the wild- and wide-eyed new economy theorists whose ideas 
were lauded at the time, and leading the magazine's more 
literal-minded and parody-impaired readers on a snipehunt. Though I 
never took him up on his offer to publish the thing, I loved the idea 
of it. For the basic tenets and the underlying reality of the 
so-called new economy sounded awfully familiar.

 From my point of view as a cultural participant and observer--and 
someone who'd been partially disabled by an early '90s Internet 
job--the Information Economy looked suspiciously like the Industrial 
Revolution it was supposed to replace. Changing the nature of the 
commodity (intellectual property, etc., rather than the widgets of 
old) did not in any way change commodification itself. Besides, all 
this data, information, media, and entertainment was simply added to 
the existing pile of stuff one could consume and produce. Americans 
would still buy vacuum cleaners and Slinkys and tires. People 
everywhere would still need food and shelter.

This radically new, improved economy would enable a minute sliver of 
the world's population to make more of this abstract stuff called 
"money," thanks to different ways of pushing around abstract bits of 
other money and signifiers of corporate ownership and digital 
collective hallucinations representing pork bellies. It might enable 
a few youngsters to squeeze into the rarefied strata of the rich & 
powerful, and it might knock out a few established members. If this 
would change the fundamental (im)balance of power and wealth in the 
world, I failed to see how. Middle Americans would still chase their 
tails in an endless consumer frenzy; citizens of poorer nations would 
still fall prey to diseases conquered decades before in the first and 
second worlds.

I knew enough to understand that I wasn't supposed to look at such 
practicalities, nor think in such mundane laymen's terms. This 
"economy" thing was supposed to be about powers far, far beyond my 
control and maybe even my comprehension: the virtual and abstracted 
realms of points and Greenspans, the mind-boggling weirdness of world 
markets and their increasing interdependence, the confusion of big 
banks that could steal your money in well-publicized scandals without 
getting punished. Apparently the big deal was supposed to be 
something about not needing to make a profit anymore; come on, who 
really thought that was gonna last? Economics might be far beyond my 
education, but this virtual economy sounded pretty squirrelly and not 
all that revolutionary.

Now the market is sifting through the dot coms, undoubtedly throwing 
out a few healthy babies with the bathwater. Instead of making jokes 
about the laughable explanations one can foist off on VCs as revenue 
models, people today are talking about operating in the black on the 
Web. Things are changing, and novelty is essential to this Web we've 
woven. Personally, I think this phase has been a long time coming, 
and it may have positive effects, such as shaking us out of the 
greedy, shallow, instant gratification mindset at least a little.

When I first conceived of this special two-part SIGNUM a year ago, I 
found I kept looking to the early '90s with fondness and nostalgia, 
combing my memories for some explanation as to how something so 
inspired, creative, exciting, and heady could have wound itself into 
a torpedo of greed, e-commerce, and astonishingly bad user 
experience. But this interesting and--for those of us whose hobby 
turned into an industry--profitable phase of development didn't kill 
off what made the Net so cool eight or nine years ago. It just became 
dispersed, as more new people and new stuff clambered online. A lot 
of us, ourselves, got burned out and cynical, but that's our own 
damned problem (and hardly an irreversible one).

Financial success burdened the Net with an explosion of growing 
pains. Failure hurts, too, but it's just another part of the process. 
It offers its own opportunities, including the possibility of 
redefining our relationship to this medium, possibly recapturing the 
spirit of independence, rebellion, expression, community, and 
downright silliness that got lost in the pursuit of the mighty 
dollar. Better yet, we'll move on to an entirely new cultural 
crystallization of creativity.

And maybe this time, it won't be about economics at all.

-tiffany lee brown
  editrice, SIGNUM
  copyright (c) 2000 SoundLightMedia

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