Everything Old is New Again

About the passing of the "Internet revolution" and the promises of online journalism

Dear Reader, neither you nor I are with it. The trend has picked up, moved on and passed us by. Reporting from the World Economic Forum in Davos this weekend, The Guardian of London has dire news for the "Internet revolution". Essentially, the captains of what was supposed to have been a postindustrial age are pronouncing it "over". With a nice dash of understatement, the paper adds, "The downbeat assessment was in stark contrast to [the] euphoria at last year's forum."

Of course, the world's kids will always be months or more ahead of Davos Man. A study conducted by the British government-funded Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and released last December found them logging off in droves. Two million people in the UK and 28 million in the US are referring to themselves as "ex-net surfers". Regarding the teens which make up the majority of those millions, ESRC member Sally Wyatt puts it best:

"They came, they surfed, and they went back to the beach."

And yet you, dear reader, are still here, and so am I. We're here either because we enjoy bucking a trend or because it's deepest winter and far too cold for the beach -- or because we know numbers can lie both ways. Regardless of who's leaving the Net or why, the bottom line is that they're outnumbered by an ever-increasing army of newbies. Back to The Guardian, for example, which conducted its own poll and found nearly half -- 49% -- of all Brits online. What's more, "The 8 percentage point rise in adults online in 1999 was followed by a 12 percentage point increase last year."

Yes, the Net grows on, with non-Americans finally outnumbering Americans to boot, but for all that, the "Internet revolution" is "over". Why is this the prevailing mood among billionaire CEO's and sunbathing teens alike? Felix Stalder has gone the farthest to explain this one clearly and succinctly right here in the ephemeral pages of Telepolis, and when challenged on the Nettime (the archive hasn't been updated yet, so I can't link to Felix's specific post] list, laid out the argument again, even more clearly and more succinctly:

"The point that I tried to make was that the idea that the Internet can replace existing institutions has been dropped by and large. No too long ago, the Internet was discussed in terms of 'the end of the nation state', the 'death of the book', 'it will kill TV' and many other things that were supposed to simply whither away."

According to at least one utopian school at the roots of "cyberculture", a few other things, such as, oh, mortality itself, were supposed to simply whither away, too; but as Felix points out, the really big one was the one that came along much later. When it did, it blew all the others out of the water in terms of media coverage, and therefore, for most of us, "mindspace" as well.

Whether the general idea behind ecommerce was to truly "replace" the shopping mall and the corner store or, rather, to radically streamline real, existing capitalism and thereby speed it up frenetically is another argument. The gist is that, as it becomes clear that the availability of dog food and used underwear online fails to rewrite the basic laws of economics, investors have lost the faith, and this is what has the world's leaders, elected and unelected alike, declaring in Davos that the "Internet revolution" -- Bill Clinton, in Florence, no less, once even called it a renaissance -- is "over".

Telepolis will be marking its fifth anniversary as an online publication in March. Like you and me, it's still here, an occasion that calls for a look at one other institution the Internet was supposed to have thrown a severe whammy on by now: journalism. At this point, an unwritten law of online journalism forces me to link to "The Birth of Way New Journalism."

But that's ok. The author, Josh Quittner, has long since admitted that the piece was a bit off and in no uncertain terms ("I was wrong"). In a nutshell, Quittner argued that multimedia was the future of journalism, that reporters would file sound and video files and streams along with their stories, and further, that disintermediation would kick in with magnum force and that all these things would happen if not immediately, then very, very soon.

The article was "published" in HotWired, a site that strove to manifest in visual design at least the attitude and exhilaration of the future Quittner described, but he and everyone else soon realized that bandwidth, for one, was to remain a major obstacle to the full realization of this vision. Still, the staff, whose numbers ballooned with each new version of the site, had fun trying.

The fifth anniversary of Telepolis comes appropriately sandwiched between that of The New York Times on the Web (Anniversary Web Special - registration required) on January 20 of this year and that of Rewired, a typical example of the sort of anyone-can-do-it bootstrap zine that was popping up everywhere when I began editing it in June 1996. "Appropriately" because Telepolis has always been something in between, retaining both a modest budget and a high degree of independence.

We're in the midst of fifth anniversary season for a slew of titles, a season that started in 1999 with blockbuster titles like HotWired and Spiegel Online, which launched a day before Time and the great accompanying goof of online journalism, Pathfinder. 2000 saw fifth anniversaries for the real workhorses of online publishing, Feed, Salon and Suck. Later this year, we can add Slate to the list.

This short list alone features a ridiculous variety of early business models (when there's one to speak of at all), publishing schedules and design. When I first came across Telepolis, I was impressed with what I could read -- when I could read it. The HotWired-like obstacles to the content frustrated me, and I said so. Editor Armin Medosch snapped back, but we soon found common ground via private email.

Why bring all this up? Because five years is a reasonably considerable chunk of time. It's got weight and heft to it. Five years may be only a fraction of the age of the Internet itself, but still, when you talk about five full 365-day years, you move out of the realm of all the jokes about "Web years" and "Internet time"; you can seriously introduce terms like "history" and "perspective".

As disparate as the sites on our list might be, over time, they've all begun to look and act much more alike than they once did. Telepolis made its moves early and recently even Feed has given in. The lessons learned over the years seem painfully obvious now: load fast, text first (black on white works pretty well), publish at least once a day, more often depending proportionately on what you can afford, and so on. The greatest divergence to be found is in the content itself, and until the long-promised breakthrough in bandwidth finally comes along, that's how it should be.

Felix makes a two-bullet-point argument that applies here as well. First, the Internet has indeed lost its "utopian distinctiveness", but: "At the same time... the Internet begins indeed to transform the ground it has landed on." A brief run-through: the unexpected mass media event, especially when otherwise emotionally charged and perceived as somehow "collective", whether short and sudden (e.g., the death of Diana) or long and wrenching (e.g., Kosovo) sends us running to online news sources and forums for steadily streaming hits of more, more and more; a Matt Drudge, an unsubstantiated rumor, a link to well-aimed political joke can indeed ever so slightly tweak the course of events or at least opinions about them.

Overall, this long-winded appendix to Felix's argument aims to show that this beast, this medium, this technological quirk that accidentally hit the big time still carries with it traces of the places it's been, including the wildest and most utopian claims ever made for it. Felix asks, for example, "What happened to Kevin Kelly?" Well, he's still here, too, and still very much who he always was:

"I'm interested in becoming a good god, stepping up to the challenge and responsibility of godhood, without denying or trying to wiggle out of the fact that we are as gods."

Nevermind that we really ought not entrust a species that can't cure the common cold or pull off a US presidential election with its own future. In the heat of the dotcom frenzy, we forgot about these people, but post-boom-n-bust, as the smoke clears, it may come as a surprise to us to find them still around. Look, over there, on the cover of LA Weekly, it's Extropian extraordinaire Max More and his wife, the transhumanist, Natasha Vita-More.

Still here with them, dear reader, whatever they're saying in Davos or on the beach, are you and I. We've got some baggage to carry. Let's pick up what we need, leave the rest behind, and move on. (David Hudson)