Forbes ASAP, December 4, 1995
Angst and Awe on the Internet
In 1995, Internet stories trumped even O. J. The net will have a far happier ending.
Well, it had to happen. As the Internet emerges as the central nervous system of global capitalism, the Luddite left is bursting into flames against the microcosm and telecosm, against interlinked computers and the global radiance of electromagnetic communications.
This rising resistance resonates with the press coverage that has long lavished attention on the excesses of the Net. Richard Shaffer of the Computer Letter counts 39,158 Internet stories during the first three quarters of 1995, beating O. J. by some 15,000 citations. Much of the coverage has been lurid. For psychedelic visions of virtual reality, the media have exalted Jaron Lanier in dreadlocks and bankruptcy above Bob Metcalfe, creator of Ethernet, or Gordon Moore, inventor of IC processing, or Charles Kao, father of fiber optics, all of whom reshaped the boundaries of human possibility. Computer viruses and Net porn win headlines and magazine covers that elude the creators of vast new computer powers, such as RSA encryption or the World Wide Web or new tools of chip fabrication at the quarter-micron level. Last August, Windows 95, a modest advance in operating systems, exploded across the press and the airwaves as if the entire media had been preempted for a Microsoft infomercial. No wonder befuddled academics, politicians and book publishers gain a grotesquely distorted view of the industry.
In Tom Peterss first Forbes ASAP interview (March 29, 1993), he predicted that the `90s would see a fabulous unfolding of new technology, accompanied with increasing outbreaks of technophobia, Ludditism and Marxism. Alvin Toffler greeted the initial readers of Wired with a similar dual prophecy of networked marvels, foiled by a multifront war against the Third Wave. Once again, Peters and Toffler may well be right, as from Hollywood to Harvard, Americas brainlords rebel against computer technology.
In his pungent new book War of the Worlds, Mark Slouka joins the rising chorus of resistance. Slouka finds it all a kind of lie. Like a speech of Ronald Reagan or a spiritual vision from the religious right, the virtual world is increasingly usurping reality and identity itself. Rather than doing away with the couch potato, the telecomputer has actually created a new, more tenacious variety of tuber: the individual who swivels from the television screen to computer monitor without missing a beat. . .
Today, Sandra Bullock writhes in anguish in the sinister clutches of The Net, with a blond, predatory, arachnoid Bill Gates (using Gateway software) masterminding the Web. Similar chimeras recur in antitech crusades. Bathed in the ultraviolet frequencies of sunlight, humans throughout the history of the species have raced through a planetary magnetic field of half a gauss in power on a terrestrial sphere charged by worldwide lightning strikes a hundred times a second to a capacitive level of 100 volts per meter of height. Yet Paul Brodeur and other electro-phobes panic at power lines, power plants, cathode-ray tubes, microprocessors, cellular antennas and other high-tech oscillators with an impact on humans measurable only in millionths of a gauss. They defy the fact that around the world use of electricity correlates almost perfectly with greater longevity.
Meanwhile, despite the higher longevity and the globally spreading jobs and riches springing from high technology, pseudoeconomists prattle endlessly about the growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. Publishers sign up other disgruntled nerds to write hymns to noble savagery and gardening. And from the fever swamps, a Marxist enrage posts bombs through the mail and addled editors detonate them in the pages of the Washington Post.
SUCH FEARS AND FANTASIES have always afflicted the course of human innovation and progress. With life expectancies rising eight years in the developed countries and 22 years in the Third World since 1950, people have more time to lash out at industrial benefactors who gain wealth and create it from sources hard to comprehend.
Misconceptions about the Internet, however, also abound in more savvy circles. From Stewart Alsops Agenda conference to the Internet Society, serious critics are emerging to predict that the network itself will bog down and degrade, jammed by traffic and trivia. Often unconsciously, these critics feed upon a spurious vision of capitalist ecology. Constantly recycling Garrett Hardins The Tragedy of the Commons as a theory of the Internet, writers such as Clifford Stoll in Silicon Snake Oil, and others from publications such as the New York Times to the National Review and the Atlantic, predict that the Web, as a public good, will be overgrazed, like the commonly owned fields of feudal Britain. Each herdsman or entrepreneur gains from adding to his herd or bandwidth, beating rivals to the remaining grass or spectrum, until congestion sins the common space.
As the epitome of a capitalist commons, the Internet, according to the critics predictions, will collapse under the impact of this law, clogged with traffic and polluted with porn and violence. As a precursor, the same writers cite citizens band radio, an earlier fad that rose meteorically and collapsed ignominiously when, as they see it, millions of middle- and lower-class hoi polloi rushed in and polluted the bandwidth without renewing it.
Overall, the resistance converges many streams of reaction. In general, the humanist opponents mistake the Internet for a continuation of television technology. Thus they ascribe to the Internet the very flaws that they find in TVcrudeness, violence, porn, entertainment for diverting ourselves to death and extend to the computer the old and mostly valid arguments of Neil Postman and Jerry Mander against the idiot box. Some of the other critics of the Internet benefit from TV and fear the Web will replace their familiar tube. The executives of media companies are mostly baffled by the new technology. Paralyzed by market research, as Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape puts it, they are trying to build bridges by counting the swimmers. A Washington lobbyist for a long-distance carrier wonders poignantly if America is ready for all this bandwidth. Baby Bells spurn the Internet to fund Hollywood films and TV.
Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology (avoiding the dialectical babel of the more open Unix, for example). They see the Internet as another arena likely to be dominated by Microsoft and a few giant media companies, increasing the wealth of Wall Street at the expense of the stultified masses of consumers and opening an ever greater gap between the information rich and the information poor.
Focused on the summits of the industryCEO seances among media conglomerates and software kingsall the critics can foster the impression that the Internet is a questionable, unpromising venue, vulnerable to monopoly and trash, thereby vindicating the Luddites and the Cassandras. From the beginning of its civilian eruption, however (see Forbes ASAP, The Issaquah Miracle, June 7, 1993), the Net has risen from the bottom up rather than from the top down; by nature, it is a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy.