net.wars: The Digital Revolution turns 15

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 June 2008

"CIX will change your life," someone said to me in 1991 when I got a commission to review a bunch of online systems and got my first modem. At the time, I was spending most or all of every day sitting alone in my house putting words in a row for money.

Wendy M Grossman

The Net, Louis Rossetto predicted in 1993, when he founded Wired, would change everybody's lives. He compared it to a Bengali typhoon. And that was modest compared to others of the day, who compared it favorably to the discovery of fire.

Today, I spend most or all of every day sitting alone in my house putting words in a row for money.

But yes: my profession is under threat, on the one hand from shrinkage of the revenues necessary to support newspapers and magazines – which is indeed partly fuelled by competition from the Internet – and on the other hand from megacorporate publishers who routinely demand ownership of the copyrights freelances used to resell for additional income – a practice that the Internet was likely to largely kill off anyway. Few have ever gotten rich from journalism, but freelance rates haven't budged in years; staff journalists get very modest raises and for those they are required to work more hours a week and produce more words.

That embarrassingly solipsistic view aside, more broadly, we're seeing the Internet begin to reshape the entertainment, telecommunications, retail, and software industries. We're seeing it provide new ways for people to organize politically and challenge the control of information. And we're seeing it and natural laziness kill off our history: writers and students alike rely on online resources at the expense of offline archives.

Wired was, of course, founded to chronicle the grandly capitalized Digital Revolution, and this month, 15 years on, Rossetto looked back to assess the magazine's successes and failures. Rossetto listed three failures and three successes. The three failures: history has not ended; Old Media are not dead (yet); and governments and politics still thrive. The three successful predictions: the long boom; the One Machine, a man/machine planetary consciousness; that technology would change the way we relate to each other and cause us to reinvent social institutions.

I had expected to see the long boom in the list of failures, and not just because it was so widely laughed at when it was published. Rossetto is fair to say that the original 1997 feature was not invalidated by the 2000 stock market bust. It wasn't about that (although one couldn't resist snickering about it as the NASDAQ tanked). Instead, what the piece predicted was a global economic boom covering the period 1980 to 2020.

Wrote Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, "We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world. And we'll do it without blowing the lid off the environment."

Rossetto, assessing it now, says, " There's a lot of noise in the media about how the world is going to hell. Remember, the truth is out there, and it's not necessarily what the politicians, priests, or pundits are telling you."

I think: 1) the time to assess the accuracy of an article outlining the future to 2020 is probably around 2050; 2) the writers themselves called it a scenario that might guide people through traumatic upheavals to a genuinely better world rather than a prediction; 3) that nonetheless, it's clear that the US economy, which they saw as leading the way has suffered badly in the 2000s with the spiralling deficit and rising consumer debt; 4) that media alarm about the environment, consumer debt, government deficits, and poverty is hardly a conspiracy to tell us lies; and 5) that they signally underestimated the extent to which existing institutions would adapt to cyberspace (the underlying flaw in Rossetto's assumption that governments would be disbanding by now).

For example, while timing technologies is about as futile as timing the stock market, it's worth noting that they expected electronic cash to gain acceptance in 1998 and to be the key technology to enable electronic commerce, which they guessed would hit $10 billion by 2000. Last year it was close to $200 billion. Writing around the same time, I predicted (here) that ecommerce would plateau at about 10 percent of retail; I assumed this was wrong, but it seems that it hasn't even reached 4 perecent yet, though it's obvious that, particularly in the copyright industries, the influence of online commerce is punching well above its statistical weight.

No one ever writes modestly about the future. What sells – and gets people talking – are extravagant predictions, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Fifteen years is a tiny portion even of human history, itself a blip on the planet. Tom Standage, writing in his 1998 book The Victorian Internet, noted that the telegraph was a far more radically profound change for the society of its day than the Internet is for ours. A century from now, the Internet may be just as obsolete. Rossetto, like the rest of us, will have to wait until he's dead to find out if his ideas have lasting value.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).