Don't Believe the Hype
Austin Digiterati on the Good, the Bad, and the Internet in Between
By Jon Lebkowsky
JANUARY 31, 2000: Just after the rockem-sockem World Trade Organization protests in Seattle -- not to mention the abduction by UFOs of the latest Martian lander -- the Chronicle sat down with a group of Austin digiterati to explore the digital future. Over the course of the afternoon, we found ourselves talking less about technology than the Internet's effects on society, politics, and economics, as well as how future generations may transform the way we use the Internet.
In this excerpt of a meandering discussion, whose tangents included subjects from the fall of Les Amis to the rise of open-source, what remain are the fundamental questions even these experts struggle with. What does it mean that this vast global network will be channeling not just communications, but retail sales transactions and bandwidth-intensive multimedia as its data pipes thicken and become ubiquitous? Are we served by this technology? Or served to it? When it comes to what the future holds, the consensus is there is no consensus. So you won't find the answers here. But by reading through this roundtable discussion, you may get a sense of what questions to continue asking as we stumble into the 21st century...
Austin Chronicle: Paulina Borsook wrote in Salon recently that the Internet has ruined San Francisco. There's so much money being funneled into the Internet industry right now that it's become a virtual boom town in cyberspace. In high-tech centers like Silicon Valley and Austin, the cost of living is spiraling upward. This is déjâ vu for some of us who witnessed Austin's boom (and the bust that followed) in the Eighties. Back then, housing was practically unaffordable for many people, because land was flipping and real estate costs were moving up. Could this happen here again as fallout from this boomtown ambience around the Internet?
Gary Chapman: That's not the real problem with how Silicon Valley is. I lived in Silicon Valley for 12 years, and I got out for precisely the reasons that Paulina wrote about. That was because it was becoming a completely uniform culture of high-tech people who were in a particular age bracket, who did the same things and had the same kinds of interests, and who were making so much money that they were transforming the characters of neighborhoods. Downtown Palo Alto was turning into something that looked like Rodeo Drive, instead of the old Palo Alto that I remembered and loved.
Steve Jackson: You notice that we're not discussing information technology itself, we're discussing the effect on society of the money currently being thrown at information technology. [laughter]
Chapman: Those things are hard to separate now. If you are talking about a culture surrounding information technology, then you're talking about all those kinds of spillover effects. These days the overwhelming driver of information technology and the surrounding culture is money. I think what a lot of people are tired of, and increasingly revolting against, is the hype and the sort of culture that seems to come with it.
Sandy Stone: It's hard to believe the utopian hype when the Internet is becoming more and more of a disembodied shopping mall. It's hard to believe the utopian thinking when we look back in history in the United States, even only as far as radio, seeing how it started with a kind of government subsidy, was rapidly taken over by major financial interests, and very quickly crowded out the original innovators. The brilliant inventors were channeled into commercialization, and any attempt thereafter to increase its innovative value or its potential for difference and for change was immediately crowded out by government, in the form of the FCC. Similar thing with TV. My question is: Has anyone else learned the lesson, aside from the business people? What I've been seeing in the past few months is something frighteningly different than anything I've seen over the past 10 or 15 years with regard to the kinds of conferences I get asked to speak at. The last two were absolutely overrun with men in suits, and it was clear that they were there to find out how they were going to get rich. You can't blame them for wanting to make a buck, but the parallels with the history of radio and television are deeply disturbing to me: government financing to get it going, private consortia then taking it over, and an increased channeling of creative resources into making money for a very few people. And possibly (though I haven't seen this happen yet on the Internet) the crowding out of the smaller innovator. We've actually only seen the tip of that iceberg.
I'd like to mention at this point the lawsuit which was instituted by Etoys (http://www.etoys.com) against Etoy (http://www.etoy.com). Etoy is an art collective that started in Austria and Switzerland. There are now members in the United States. A suit was recently brought against Etoy by Etoys.com, which has had a site only since 1997 [Etoy.com was registered two years earlier]. Etoys.com, much to everyone's shock, was able to get a restraining order against Etoy, so that Etoy is no longer able to use its domain. And if that isn't a victory of money over independent spunk, I don't know what is. [Ed. note: Following a significant response from Internet users, Etoys.com announced four weeks ago it would "move away" from its lawsuit; as we are going to press, Etoys formally announced they would drop their lawsuit.]
Chapman: That's an example, I think, of the biggest fight we're going to see in the next five to 10 years, over whether the Internet is going to become proprietary.
Jackson: The Web lets everyone be a publisher. Everyone in the world wants a wire from their home. Everyone in the world can publish to everyone in the world. Language is only a barrier for the next few years. They've already got real-time translators: They're not good, but they will get better. We are all publishers now. That has the potential to change -- don't say society -- say societies. I'm not looking forward to the way some societies are going to construct barriers to prevent their citizens from publishing to the world and from reading what the world publishes.
Jackson: But isn't there room for more quirky, interesting people?
Lodis Rhodes: We have an impulse in our whole society and economy that makes it very difficult for people on the margins, and when I'm talking about "marginal," I'm not talking about it in the usual sense. I'm talking about people who have the creativity, who might want to do something different, who might want to be different. It is difficult for folks with that kind of spirit to find each other. We talked about the Internet becoming proprietary, that you have to buy into that system when you don't have any money, and you need technical skill that many can't access. It may be all right for you, it may be all right for me because I've got a support network, but I can show you a lot of people who don't have the hint of a network to get the money or the access to technical skill to help them get started.
Chapman: It's the connection of the technology to these transformations of the economy, especially in high-tech centers, where it's becoming so expensive to live that it's impossible to imagine any kind of bohemian alternative.
Sue Beckwith: Right, the artists and the dancers and writers are going to leave, because they're tired of living eight people to a house. The Internet and information technology is moving us faster along the road to cookie-cutter society. To come out here and know that there's going to be a Circuit City and a Home Depot on one side of the street, and on the other side of the street -- just turn around, Anytown, USA: there's going to be a CompUSA, a PetSmart --
Jackson: Do you really think that people's search for identity is threatened because there's a Circuit City on every corner?
Chapman: Yes, absolutely.
West: But I don't think we can blame the problems of late, late, super-late capitalism solely on the Internet.
Rhodes: But the Internet is just the most recent example of that impulse. To me, it's obliterating choice. It's making it more difficult for difference or diversity to exist.
Chapman: The Internet itself is too complex, too diverse right now to make any kinds of generalizations about it. But I think what we're saying is there's a kind of fundamental struggle going on over what its future character will be. Especially because of the money involved. I think there are two channels going on. One is the channel that we were talking about, about the integration of the Internet into this kind of overwhelming economy. The other channel is the channel of democratic and really interesting participative kinds of activity. The sort of things that happened in Seattle recently were largely driven by Internet communications.
West: Yeah, there's no way that 40,000 people could be that well-organized without the Internet.
Chapman: They specifically said, "Without the Internet, we couldn't have done this." Those kinds of things are probably the most interesting, most portentous things about this technology, and a counterexample to all the other kinds of things we've been talking about.
West: I make myself be militantly ambiguous about the Internet, because the stuff you say about capitalism and the increasing behemoths is true, and the fact that a lot of people are using it for communication and organization is true as well. In fact I'm inspired by Sandy's historical example of what happened to radio and TV, because it's almost as if the system keeps throwing us up these examples, and we've had an opportunity to learn. So here came radio, and there was anarchy for a year or so. Here came TV, and there was democracy and anarchy for a year or so. Here came the Internet, and we're just seeing the end of a period, where there was for a couple of years an explosion of democracy and individual participation. It may be slowing down now, but to me that sounds like the discussion that happens at the end of every cultural scene. We had the same discussion in 1980 in the punk scene about whether Elvis Costello was selling out. [laughter] And every scene dies to be reborn. So if the Internet dies as a cultural medium, I have great faith that something else will arise, like hip-hop did in the South Bronx, to take its place.
Jackson: The net -- not the Internet, but the small-n net -- has already run through some scenes, and I'm sure it'll run through others. Remember BBS's? Been here, done that, died, more things came out of it. Remember gopher? Gopher is still out there, but it was the greatest thing since sliced bread for about 16 months, then somebody came up with the World Wide Web, which absolutely took gopher, just trumped every one of its cards. We're going to see one scene after another play itself out. This is the greatest medium for meme* transfer that we have ever had, and I think what we're really seeing is a concern that if you let all the world's memes together in one big pot, then the number that are alive at the end of the year in that one big pot is going to be smaller than some of us like. It's not the Internet's fault.
The Internet just got people together and let that happen. If we want no Circuit City in a small town, all we have to do is cut the T1s, bomb the interstate highways, post armed guards at every county line, and in a little while you'll have a thousand flowers blooming again. But if you make it possible for people to communicate -- don't just blame it on capitalism, that's a cheap out. If you make it possible for people to communicate, sometimes you'll get consensus and the Internet is making it possible for us to have consensus, whether we like it or not.
Gene Crick: I have to interject here -- I find that frequently oldtimers and people that I revere and share with, we gather around and we have these simple conversations, and they're wonderful and rich, and we've come to essentially the same conclusions, and then we all go back home, and it's pretty grand -- but we don't do jack. My concern is that I've been watching a dark horse on the horizon, and that is the folks who are upstream of a lot of the phenomenological stuff that we're talking about here. They usually do the interfaces and the product choices and all of those. They're all vitally important, but they are going to be shaped largely by market forces and individual choices, but there's stuff that is not going to be shaped by that. And that, to me, is deep, gut-level infrastructure stuff. We've gotta watch America and the Internet. We now worship at the altar of the IPO. Our glitzy, self-celebrating Internet culture can sit there and worship an IPO, and that's fine for everybody, we've got full employment so long as somebody's got a paper hat somewhere that they can wear to a job and get less than they need to live. That's a good culture, according to this medium. And I'm not happy with that. We are creating, if we're not careful, a commercial medium that is being controlled upstream by infrastructure-level decisions. There's interests that want to determine whether we can have proprietary architecture and proprietary access to infrastructure. That's scary, because decisions are being made from a commercial engine. Commerce isn't evil, capitalism isn't even evil, Southwestern Bell isn't evil. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to do. And what it's not supposed to do is set the national agenda and maintain that ethical mooring that we've been talking about. We don't have anybody, any "we" that controls the Internet. The only thing that heartens me is that it's such a crapshoot. I was in China last month, and they were very calmly pointing out some things to me that are going to change the face of our landscape. Two million users 14 months ago. Four million users six months ago. Six million users projected in four more months. Folks, governance of the Internet is going to change when suddenly the Americans, who have gotten so arrogant, are outnumbered. I'm really worried about this; that's why I'm so obsessed. I don't want to be part of creating what may arguably be the strongest force for segregation that we've seen in the last half century. I don't want to be part of creating something that really does nothing but rejoices in e-commerce, goes for the target market, and leaves out perhaps a literal majority because it's not part of the demographic.
Chapman: The literal question for the human race is, "Is this technology something that narrows your vision, is it something that pulls you into your own solipsistic sense, or is it something that expands your consciousness and leads you to some sense that the human race has some new business, some new prospects for itself?"
West: That makes me think about what Gene said, that there's nobody providing any moral leadership, because nobody's holding the reins. -- There used to be guiding principles in the past. Practically, I think the future has "shut down" after reaching the year 2000. None of the projections I've seen go to even 2005. We don't have the sense of not only where we're going to be, but where we should be. That's the most frightening thing.
Chapman: Millennial technology is transforming so dramatically through consumerism, and so rapidly, that nobody believes the predictions anymore. And they also think that, whatever the future is going to look like, it's going to be expressed in technological terms. It's not going to be expressed in terms of justice or philosophy or Elysian fields of human caring. It's going to be expressed as "what kinds of stuff are we gonna have?" We're living in an age of innovation, the way the Greeks lived in an age of philosophy, or the Renaissance with an age of art.
Stone: The thing that possibly might be hopeful might be the kids, the ones who are not conditioned in this and do seem to have a natural feisty way to seek out something which is generally good for them. And over the years, our kids have been a source of change for the better that was not anticipated because the adults have been conditioned.
Will Kreth: I worry about that, when we say every strip mall in every city has the same chain store thing going on. I worry that the fact that these kids see homogenized community creeping over the landscape, that for them, there's a little less discernment, there's a little less of a need to know the difference between things.
Chapman: Yeah, I see some of that. I'm more encouraged by the fact that a lot of my students are really interested in finding some meaning in life. I think the consumerist, gadget-style has got to the point of saturation and is playing itself out, for a lot of the young people that I see. There's a great line in Office Space, when the protagonist says, "Human beings were not made to sit in front of a computer screen in a cubicle 10 hours a day! That's not what we're here for!" And a lot of young people have already reached that place. We're starting to get people like the kids in Seattle, who are starting to say, "Wait a minute, there really are some substantive problems in the world that we are going to inherit. We've gotta do something about it." I'm starting to hear that, and I'm hoping that the next decade, and there are some signs of this -- that this is the Fifties, and the Sixties are coming. That Seattle was sort of the opening shot for a new decade that resembles something a lot different than what we have.
Crick: But I'm also worried that there are so many young voices that are not being heard, that are disenfranchised. I'm seeing a polarized society, and we can hope that the young people with advantages will understand their morality that's there, but I'm so worried about the people whose career horizon is so short --
Chapman: I see a tremendous new generation of inner-city kids and world kids who've discovered this technology, and they're doing some interesting things with it. My concern is that wage differentials are getting so bad that we have people who are doing nontechnical work that needs to be done -- washing clothes, serving in restaurants, pumping gas -- those are the people who we need to have that work done, but they can't survive. There are all these jobs that Americans won't do, so we have the illegals coming up to do them for practically nothing, no benefits, constant harassment. That's the real justice problem. It's an insidious suggestion, and it seems to be so pervasive, the suggestion that if you're not part of this high-tech economy, you're a loser. Well, dammit, we've got a lot of jobs in this country that need doing, even if they don't get paid enough. So somehow we have to get the high-tech elite to admit that, and to say that there are lots of people out there that we need.
West: It's sort of interesting that we've gotten on this political vein, which I'm with 100%, but it's so fascinating that it doesn't really have anything to do with technology per se. And I'm interested in why all these people who are involved in technology have this political bent, and what we think technology can do to further that.
Chapman: Those kinds of economic trends in technology can no longer be separated very easily. Now what we get in Austin is the same thing that happened in Silicon Valley. People are moving here to make money. They don't have any connection with the community. They don't really care about it all that much.
West: Inc. Magazine just rated Austin No.2.
Chapman: They're just coming here because this is where the money is, and lots of people did that in Silicon Valley, too.
Jackson: Some of them already have the money, and are coming here because they believe this is a good place to live.
Crick: I've been thinking about that one a lot lately, trying to narrow down some ways to spend my time, to focus. I think I've gradually eroded the conceit that I'm going to affect the chosen path of the Internet or of technology. Instead I'm focusing my efforts on seeing that as many people as possible are involved in the choice. That's all, nothing more than that. I don't really know. I lack the wit or the wisdom to say what the hell the Internet ought to be like. I can't even fully describe what it is.
* Coined by Richard Dawkins, the term "meme" refers to a packet of ideas. It's similar to gene: As genes replicate, so do ideas.
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