R. A. Hettinga on Wed, 6 Mar 2002 21:46:23 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Sterling: Information Wants to Be Worthless

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Status:  U
Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2002 17:34:42 -0500
To: Digital Bearer Settlement List <dbs@philodox.com>, dcsb@ai.mit.edu
From: "R. A. Hettinga" <rah@shipwright.com>
Subject: Sterling: Information Wants to Be Worthless
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SXSW interactive and the post post-boom landscape

Information Wants to Be Worthless

March 1, 2002:

Bruce Sterling takes stock of the situation.
photo by Kenny Braun

I can't wait for this next South by Southwest Interactive. I don't know why
they still call it that, though. They used to call it "Multimedia." Now
even "Interactive" sounds corny.

If I were them, I'd rename the event every year. This year in particular
demands a major image rethink. How about "SXSW Cyberspace Terrorist
Paranoia"? "SXSW Axis of Evil Global InfoWar"? Might we arrange open-house
tours of Enron and Global Crossing, perhaps using chartered buses? Why,
there's just so much to discuss!

SXSW Interactive has suffered surprisingly little from the collapse of
dot-communism. The core demographic at SXSW is the woolly-eyed digital
creative, a species of creature from way before the Boom. Those characters
were never anywhere near the big IPOs. They were all fueled by sheer
subcultural coolness.

Back in the Neolithic dawn of the Internet, you see, the academics who
built it used to beat the living crap out of a businessman the very moment
they saw him. One peep of commercial spam on their stainless not-for-profit
network, and the net-gods would reach right into your router and just
throttle you, like an egg-sucking dog. Businessmen would take one look at
that impossible Internet code, and they'd pick up their gray flannels and
flee headlong to CompuServe and Prodigy. You young folks these days, you
probably don't even remember "CompuServe." They croaked from being way too

Graying cyberpunk that I am ... all carpal-tunnel and bifocals ... I can
well remember some weirdo pals in the Information-Wants-to-Be-Free
contingent, idly wondering what would happen if the business world ever
"discovered the Internet." Obviously they would buy up every machine in
sight and try to make a profit at it. That much was dead obvious, for that
was the period's Reagan-Thatcherite modus operandi. Clearly all us artsy
cybergoofballs would have to find some other place to chatter and swap our
lies, like, say, faxes or CB radio.

But one scenario was way too far-fetched and idealistic, even for the likes
of us. What if it turned out that the Net was just plain too much for
business to handle? That it was downright toxic to free enterprise?

But look what happened. When was the last time that you saw commerce,
global capitalism, competition, the profit motive, the real deal ...
choking on advanced technology as if they'd swallowed a jalapeŇo? What a
spectacle! It ranks with the beached gasping of Marxism-Leninism in 1989.

Unworkable business models, the squalid collapse of e-commerce plans and
b-to-b markets. Hundreds of dead corporations, with e-biz magazines gone
thinner than Kate Moss. And those overachievers from Enron, my God!
Thinking so far outside the box that they're in the witness box.

I could well go on, but you don't want to hear this story from me. You want
to hear this from Lawrence Lessig, noted author of Code and Other Laws of
Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected
World. Lawrence Lessig will be keynoting SXSW on the cogent subject of "The
Creative Commons." Lawrence Lessig is a Stanford law professor and Lessig
is one heavy cyber-dude, he is heavier than depleted uranium. He despises
copyright abuse, and he also knows who, how, and why they stole our
broadband. I love that Lessig guy. Just knowing the truth is out there, it
cheers me all up.

Okay, so the Net has proved toxic to business and nobody's making any money
there. That stopped the profiteering, except for the spammers of course ...
hucksters who are methodically bringing net.commerce into such putrid
disrepute that it may well never recover. Lack of money, though, is not
stopping the innovation. It never did. The Internet now reaches half the
population of the USA. It is starting big seismic rumblings in China, Iran,
and India, societies that lack their own AOL Time Warner and therefore have
some dead-serious uses for cheap global network communication. Worldwide,
people use the Net for e-mail. E-mail never had a real business model, but
it was one feature everybody always wanted. The Net is becoming the
planet's water cooler. It's all about the schmoozing and the gossip.

If you think the business scene at this year's Austin 360 was morbid, and
demoralized, and pitiful, and I was there, and boy was it ever -- well, you
should have seen the Davos World Economic Forum up in New York City. Which
I also witnessed, for reasons I don't much care to explain. Okay, I'm
topic-drifting here, but don't flame me just yet. You see, everybody at
Davos was scolding, not the computer-crazy Americans, but the Japanese.
They expect the Japanese banks to crater just any minute now. And get this:
The Japanese never swallowed any New Economy Kool-Aid. The Japanese bend
metal, they make Sony Walkmans and cars. They're still royally screwed. Try
explaining that. It's sure more than Fortune or The Economist are able to

Houston is supposed to be a solid, non-nonsense, oil-bidness town. Houston
doesn't have any SXSW. Poor Houston is the snakebitten home of Enron, while
Austin's feckless cyberslackers are still grinning and hitting the Return
key. Yeah, Dell fired some people here, so maybe local rents will drop and
all the potters and tapestry weavers will return from Wimberley. Man,
anything's possible these days.

The good folks of SXSW Interactive have a whole lotta blogging in the
schedule. You may have never heard of "weblogging," because it never yet
made anyone rich, but blogging is a way cool deal, man. Metafilter,
Memepool, Boingboing.net, I'm on those blogs all the time. Blogdex, Daypop,
those sites rock. SXSW Interactive is totally awash in the cream of blogger
royalty. They've got Meg of Megnut, and Derek of Powazek, and Jason of
Kottke, and Jeffrey of Alistapart, and a very Mongol host of other
bloggers. If this recital means nothing to you, you are probably old and
near death now.

Unlike those stellar bloggers, I was way too lazy to build any software,
but I myself have a blog these days. This is a sure symptom of a major
social contagion. It's much like my teenage daughter's AOL Instant Message
mania. Her Mom and I, we were kinda worried about her 90% digital social
life, until we realized that we don't have to buy her a car or any gasoline.

Net types like to catfight about whether blogging is the Way Forward or
utter self-indulgence. Since it is almost certainly both at once, blogging
is quite the hot topic. So there will be some bloggery debate, with
scowling, and finger-wagging, and pepper-gassing. Yes, blogging has its
limitations. There isn't much in the way of original content, for instance.
Weblogging consists mostly of logging one's websurfing activities, then
making sardonic comments about whatever you see. An activity one's admirers
find hilarious. Yet admirers rarely pay for this. Except in their

Fame, glamour, gold ... so funny how that works! Camgirls, for instance.
The trials and tribulations of girls with Web cameras, those are issues one
might well broach with a SXSW expert, like say, Amanda from Amandacam.

Sometimes, as a camgirl ... no, I am not a camgirl myself, but I maintain a
chilly, detached, surgical interest in their doings. As a camgirl, you
might post some lovely and somewhat indiscreet pictures of yourself on the
Internet. Or a picture of your boyfriend. For instance, your sweet, geeky
boyfriend that you stole from some other camgirl, who is somewhat less
attractive than you, and therefore gets fewer expensive toys from her
admirers, purchased and shipped from her handy Amazon wish list. Margaret
Mead could get three or four hot anthropological monographs out of this
behavior, easily.

At least you'll be better off than poor Chu Mei Feng in Taiwan, who is a
female politician who got cammed against her will by a jealous woman. Chu
Mei Feng had a highly unprivate romp with a married Internet entrepreneur.
That footage got spread to every horny Chinese guy on the Net. Today, all
around the Pacific Rim, poor Chu Mei Feng is bigger than Monica Lewinsky.
Everybody's Googling for her downloads. Chu Mei Feng is not attending SXSW,
so presumably that means the rest of us get to discuss her and her
remarkable, uh, issues. Chu Mei Feng is one of those entirely
noncommercial, communitarian Net phenomena, of such intense interest to
activists, intellectuals, and academics. And to science fiction novelists.
Man, 21st-century life is rich and full!

Got some gamers showing up. Harvey Smith from ION Storm, for instance. I'm
glad to see gamers on the SXSW scene, as when it comes to commercial Net
entertainment, online gamers have the golden touch. Massive multiplayer
online games: They're ticking like clockwork. People are in those game
environments whacking at virtual dragons with imaginary swords and man, do
these game guys coin the cash. Players of Everquest even sell their
Everquest gear on eBay. To judge by the auction traffic, Everquest players,
who are not even human but virtual characters, have a higher per capita
income than Russians.

Meanwhile, Slate and Salon and Feed and Plastic, and all these supposed
professional communicators, man, do they ever suffer. I'd like to see one
political organizer, even Begala or Carville, who could put together an
online crowd that can match those clamoring masses of Ultima or Everquest.
When will the mainstream catch on to this? It's so baffling.

Lotta Web designers. They're always there. They travel in clumps. Because
they speak their own unique languages, these people. Specifically, they
speak ActiveX, ASP, CGI, HTML, Flash, and Java. It's a wonderful thing to
see a profession so young, yet already so arcane. Furniture designers had
to work for hundreds of years before they ever used terms like "ischial
tuberosity." Even magazine designers, the closest relatives of Web
designers, well, they still kinda speak English, at least until you get
them started on typography.

photo by Kenny Braun

This would be a very good time to hang out with the Open Source people,
before they get formally reclassified as a national security threat. Have
you noticed that Microsoft is declaring that "security" is their brand-new,
No. 1 reason to live? And how about that alphabet soup of new American
cyber-security agencies? Like, for instance, the "Information Awareness
Office" at DARPA, which is being run by Admiral John Poindexter, of
Iran-Contra fame?

I'm not trying to wax all Noam Chomsky here, but those Open Source people
... they are, like, a multinational, leaderless, heavily networked outfit
with little-known agents and sympathizers in dozens of countries. Countries
like Finland. And Norway. It's definitely the Axis of something, I dunno
what, but something Scandinavian and fishy. You wouldn't believe how many
active Linux zealots there are in India. India is right next door to a
place, which is right next door to a place, that had some terrorists.

Sulekha.org is a Web site for Indian expatriates that is run out of Austin.
Sulekha is the most sophisticated ethnic community Web site I've ever seen.
I just webclicked a movie ticket for the Austin showing of Haan Maine Bhi
Pyaar Kiya, starring Karisma Kapoor. Somebody should pass the word to the
SXSW Film Festival that Bollywood is slithering into town via the Internet.

If Napster and its P2P clones ever get loose, nobody in the music business
will make any money ever again. And if 802.11b ever works, nobody will sell
Internet access and AOL will go broke. And if Linux had a decent graphic
user interface, Bill Gates would have no business model. Bill would have to
spend all his time giving vaccinations to little kids. You tell me what
we're supposed to do about this menace.

There are a few highly interactive groups that I don't see at SXSW
Interactive. They would be cops, terrorists, and the military. It hasn't
escaped the notice of authorities that Shoe-Bombing Boy was very into Yahoo
and Hotmail. The hounds of infowar are poring over captured al Qaeda hard
disks as you read this. The computer cops have a new top-level
cybersecurity office. As for the military, they were Internet from day one.
If you websurf for the Pentagon's "Joint Vision 2020" on "network-centric
warfare," you'll see a digital cluetrain like you wouldn't believe. We'll
be seeing a lot more out of these people on the Net, we're gonna get all
cheek-by-jowl and cozy with 'em. And you know what? They're so
noncommercial, too!
Bruce Sterling, one of the premier names in near future fiction, is a Hugo
Award-winning writer, and the author of Heavy Weather, Holy Fire, and

Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow will discuss "The Death of Scarcity" in a
SXSW Interactive keynote conversation at 2:15pm, Tuesday, March 12. See
www.sxsw.com for full conference schedule and more information.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah@ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah@ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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