What Time is It?

Date: Wed, 15 May 1996 00:57:56 +0000

From: dwh@berlin.snafu.de (David Hudson)

What time is it?

David Hudson

Somehow, this already seems like the Late Net Period. The mood out there among Net veterans, at least the way I'm sensing it at the moment, ranges from malaise to sheer panic. "We've had our fun, but it's all over now," would pretty much sum up the black cloud hanging over what we used to get a kick out of calling cyberspace.

About the only people who can still get worked up about online technology and its potential have either just closed a deal with Netscape or Microsoft or cashed in on the political capital to be reaped merely by peppering their speeches with a handful of buzzwords about "the dawn of the Information Age".

And that's the problem. From all corners, the Web has been pronounced dead, or at the very least, sold out. Dead or alive, it'd be hard to argue the place hasn't turned into a vast wasteland of billboards and banners with only the occasional oasis of genuinely stimulating content.

The case behind the rotten mood so tangible among so many who'd expected better of the medium has been stated eloquently by Jeff Johnson, a software designer and former Chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in a speech delivered to the Association for Computing Machinery's 1995 Conference on Computer-Human Interaction and reposted on the nettime list.

Granted, "The Information Hypeway: A Worst-Case Scenario" is about what could be and not what is. Still, throughout the presentation that might also have been titled "Paradise Lost", you can tell Dr. Johnson does expect the worst for the future even as he puts his finger on issues many are bitching about right now. He raises several solid, sobering points, and I'd like to respectfully counter a few of them. Chin up, folks, here goes.

Johnson's premise boils down to the prediction that the "Information Highway" is going to fall to the hands of the Fortune 500. They'll be running the show and that's why they're marketing it so keenly now. Any community-oriented networking, any public information services, or to wrap it up, anyone doing anything "good" with this technology is going to get shoved to the sidelines by the fat cats.

Not so much because the 500'll be making such a loud noise no one else will get heard. Johnson goes so far as to suggest that the dominant players will actively shut out anyone who doesn't immediately serve their purposes, i.e., make them money. In other words, the competitive hardball played by those who can afford to be in the capitalist game in the "real" world will be transferred, rules, stakes and all, to Cybercity.

I don't buy it. For several reasons, and we can start with this whole idea of an "information highway". As Johnson himself puts it:

[T]hee Information Highway will no be a single entity, though the name suggests otherwise. Rather, it will be a collection of many different component networks -- local, national, one-way, two-way, point-to-point, center-to-points, wire-transmitted, wireless -- providing a variety of services. Furthermore, most of these networks will be disconnected from each other, at least initially and probably for a long time.

Well, precisely! That's the beauty of what started out as a handful of independent networks, jelled into "the Internet" and is now splintering off into countless Intranets all over again. If there is going to be such a thing as "the Information Highway", it'll be visible in the mind's eye only. And that mirage will be known as the Web.

Naturally, the browser makers are working hard to Web-ize anything and everything that comes online. Posts to newsgroups, for example, are made to look like just another Web page in black on gray, but of course, they aren't. If the Web were to blackout tomorrow, another impossibility, but if it did, Usenet would still be around.

But let's assume you actually do fire up your browser to do whatever it is you do online, even send and receive private email. If you don't like what you see, click on. The presence of a big-budgeted Pathfinder or HotWired does not knock out some other innovative site presenting contrary views. For all the talk of limited bandwidth and a finite number of IP addresses, there's enough of both already to support wider range of material than I've seen at any bookstore in a long, long while.

Johnson goes on to draw parallels between the failures of pre-Net media, specifically television, and those he expects of the info hypeway. Basically, the old line about there being a lot of crap on TV and very little of any real value. Well, we needn't project too far into the future here; that's a fairly accurate portrait of the Web already, though again, valuable or not, there are more alternatives available via your browser than your remote control.

But these parallels can only go so far. It's much easier and much cheaper to get a page or a whole site up on the Web than it is to try to broadcast or publish on your own. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Go to www.jodi.com, follow the links and tell me that some of these people would have stood the chance of a snowball in hell of getting their material on the airwaves or in your local paper.

If the bone you have to pick with the Web isn't the unavailability of your flavor of information but the method of presentation, or to put it a better way, the slow, bumbling clumsiness involved in accessing it, I'm with you there. Maybe Java, Shockwave and the rest will revive all that seems dead about the content on the Web now. Maybe we'll all feel better surfing in groups through three dimensional spaces, chattering with each other about the scenery along the way. I don't know.

All the efforts of the emergency crew huddled over the patient right now might add up to the Web as a flatliner after all. But you know, so what? The Internet was booming long before Marc Andreessen figured a way out of his university cubicle. Millions had already been drawn by features of online technology that had zilch to do with clickable magazines. And email is still the Net's "killer app".

Even if the Web could be bundled as a single package and sold to the highest bidder, there'd still be plenty of other online systems left for the rest of us, many of them probably worthier of the hype the Web's been basking in so long now anyway.

Client and server software for localized BBS's has been quietly improving by leaps and bounds, and I spend more time on one (the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online - even though I live in Berlin) than on the Web. Johnson himself mentions the Berkeley Community Memory Project, the Seattle Community Network, the Santa Monica Public Education Network...

...Again, precisely! Worry about the division between the haves and the have-nots is certainly a legitimate concern, but online technology - at home, in the public library or your local cybercafé - makes accessing information and getting it out yourself more doable than via any other means and in ways the Fortune 500 can't do a damn thing about. Because if you stomp out or buy out one network, another will be up within hours.

Which provides a nice way to segue from the corporate threat to the political one, which Johnson doesn't spend too many of his thought-provoking words fretting over, but which many other Netizens do. Let me preface my single remark on this by saying that I'll fight with the best of them to ensure the rights of anyone, no matter what their political, social, sexual, economic, racial, etc., persuasion to get on and stay on the Net and say whatever s/he likes.

Nevertheless, my single remark is this: I have yet to see a single political threat to online communication that deserves to be taken seriously. The CDA? Please. Not even the judge presiding over the case now hashing out the Act's U.S. constitutionality can do anything but guffaw at the prospect of actually trying to enforce the thing.

Of course, it's the principle that's at stake, the precedent it'd set for future as yet inconceivably enforceable acts of nasty governments that we're all turning our Web pages black and donning blue ribbons for. Fine.

But it's worth keeping in mind that when Compuserve struck those 200 newsgroups because of some backwoods Bavarian court ruling, instructions for how to reroute and read them anyway were rampant. And just recently France has tried shutting down two ISPs and Usenet access, prompting alarms posted all over the place, nettime included. MediaFilter shot back:

this is idiotic...to cut off all newsgroups...and unnecessary...

Followed by a list of public access news servers and the crux of the Net's near invincibility:

Forget about the stupid local laws! They would have to filter all outgoing international packets to stop the access to these feeds from France.

Censorship is utterly futile. Any network built to withstand nuclear attack is not going to buckle under mere political pressure. Furthermore, the anarchic nature of the way information is transmitted is reflected in the character, structure and content of the Net itself.

Of course we should keep on our toes. Fight the good fight and all that. But a reminder of all that online technology has going for it might nudge a few of us to get over the funk, perceive the threats for what they are and get on with the business of making the online experience worth anybody's time.


David Hudson