I had no doubt that I was seeking the start of a transformative global revolution. The fervor and excitement I felt then are still fresh in my mind, though few of those fantasies have yet materialized and some, as the years pass, are seeming increasingly unlikely in my lifetime. And I'm still not sure I was wrong.
Many of the ideas in that essay were indirectly inspired by the hell-raiser of the American Revolution, a writer I've admired all my life. Thomas Paine, a media pioneer, one of the first people in the world to advance the notion of free information in an open society, of individual liberty flourishing amid the demise of institutions and monarchies. In my piece, I imagined Paine online, flaming and blasting away.
In the overheated Wired environment of the time -- some of the people running the magazine were true political radicals, a rare breed in popular media -- the prevailing idea was that the Net would sweep away hoary institutions like Congress, Big Media and Wall Street, changing more or less everything. Top-down, exclusive, closed and proprietary entities would tremble and collapse at the outpouring of ideas, intellectual property, education, democracy and ideas that the Net would provide. One magazine columnist even gushed that illiteracy among the young would vanish because kids all over the world would be so desperate to get online.
I was Wired's easternmost correspondent, based not in California but New York; as such, I got a first-hand look at just how the Net was traumatizing Eastern media. The spectre of all these weird kids hacking together this exciting new kind of many-to-many information culture really shook people up. The bland, filtered, from the top-down media, Wall Street, Congress -- they were all scared to death. They hated the Net then; they still do. (Though just this week, I noticed the stodgy New York Times op-ed page appending e-mail addresses to its regular columns; a landmark of sorts.) Yet as much as the Net has evolved, it's shocking to see how little traditional politics or the popular press has. Real interactivity, perhaps the most political idea ever in media, barely exists off-line.
In my essay, published in the April, l995 issue of the magazine, I wrote that the pamphleteering Paine, who had no children, did have a descendant
"where his values prosper and are validated millions of times a day: the Internet. There, his ideas about communications, media ethics, the universal connections between people, the free flow of honest opinion are all relevant again, visible every time one modem shakes hands with another. The Net offers what Paine and his revolutionary colleagues hoped for in their own new media - a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds. That was part of the political transformation envisioned when he wrote: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Through media, he believed, 'we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.'"
It isn't clear whether we -- you -- began the world over again. We do -- thanks to the Net -- see with other eyes and hear with other ears, and think new thoughts. Those are still prescient and timely words.
Paine's ideas about a free press, an outpouring of individual opinion and a ferocious sense of social justice seem especially alien to the corporatized, homogenized, blow-dried practioners of "objectivity" who have inherited the American press. The Net suggested a rebirth of Paine's fading values.
Did it deliver? For sure, the pamphleteering model was true. The explosion in weblogs, pages, mailing lists, groups, topics, threads, message boards and p2p systems has introduced nothing less than a new age of individual expression. The personal archives now on the Net are unprecedented in human history, from family bios to discussions of gardening, dogs, politics and sex. Sites like Napster, Deja and EBay -- even Amazon -- have revolutionized business and consumerism. Sexuality has been liberating online, and TV and other forms of entertainment are sure to become subordinate to the Web. Cultural movements like open source have spread far beyond software in terms of their impact on society. The Net has made anyone with a computer a world-wide communicator or entrepreneur, at least potentially. Individuals are freer than ever to talk about sex, engage in heresy, sound off, connect with others, and distribute their thoughts. People with unimaginably diverse interests can now find one another instantly. It's easier to be a gay teenager, a member of a militia, an ex-Marine, a rabbit lover, a scientific researcher. Thanks to computers, there are now a million Paines out there.
But some things have been lost, as well -- influence and commonality. This new individualistic medium is so personal it's become self-absorbed, almost narcissistic. Individuals are speaking out, but it isn't clear who, if anyone, is listening. And it isn't always democratic either. There are few common grounds, town squares or open spaces online. People frequently use blocking and filtering software and programs to stick with the like-minded, not explore the different or experience other points of view. Ideas fly all over the Web, but they often end up on the screens of people who already agree, otherwise they would have long ago unsubscribed. Teenagers and political fanatics have turned the Net's public forums -- on Slashdot, CNN, ABCNews and MSNBC -- into hostile electronic cesspools. To have actual conversations online, you're forced to join clubs where membership and speech boundaries are regulated, even to the point of specialized blocking programs that permit people to gauge levels of hostility or agreement. The digital citizen isn't always very free and open to new ideas. Some of those sites are great, but this doesn't exactly constitute an open and democratic environment, one of the great early dreams of the Net. Joining a rational discussion of a common issue has become virtually impossible on any Net forum that's not restricted by membership or other restrictive tools.
In practical ways, the Net has proved more revolutionary than most of us thought. In l995, few people imagined how ubiquitous e-mail would become, how much of a family communications tool, how natural a medium for teenagers and college students and for grandma and grandpa, how fundamental to research and text, how threatening to copyright and intellectual property traditions. I hardly expected within a few years that a U.S. President would be passing along URLs in a speech before Congress. The explosion in gaming and online entertainment was similarly unforeseen -- most people took the new medium too seriously for that. Almost nobody predicted how specialized online communications would become, how polished online retailing would get, or imagine the marketplace potential of an entity like eBay. We did lots of heavy breathing about the rise of the virtual community -- expectations that have not been met. The hostility bred by the Internet wildly exceeded anyone's expectations, and is nothing less than a tragedy for the idea of the digital citizen.
The Net is, if anything, bigger than people thought it would be now, a part of more people's work and personal lives. Also their creativity -- art and writing flourish online, even when they can't make it off. But its primary impact has been practical, not ideological. Instant messaging has probably had greater import for younger Americans than digital pamphleteering has.
The hacker universe has sobered up as well. Who would have thought, a decade back, that one company, Microsoft, would in fact achieve everyone's paranoid fantasy and conquer the global desktop? Or that that one of the primary champions of Linux would be IBM? In the post September 11 era, hackers are in for a rough time, and the environment of the Net may change again. In the name of national security, authorities will be more vigilant and visible online, with the authority to throw up roadblocks all over the Net. The consequences of cyber-terrorism would now be staggering, and the spectre of the Twin Towers will give government the upper hand politically in its long brawl with the free spirits online.
Nor did anyone quite expect the speed of the transition from capitalism to corporatism, an era in which global corporations acquire media, commerce and popular culture; control copyright and intellectual property; and become the primary funders and corrupters of the political system.
Despite the flowering of individual voices on the Net, we live in an arguably less democratic culture than we did a decade ago, even before Attorney General Ashcroft's sweeping actions.
So does this add up to grim news? I don't know yet, and may not know in my life. The rise of individualism online seems irreversible. If individuals can't reach mass audiences, they can't easily be shut down, either. It seems inconceivable that our society will ever return to a few-to-many model of information, when masses of people waited for a handful of information gatekeepers to parcel out information. But as for the contemporary armies of Paine's some hoped would emerge from the digital din, make themselves heard, even achieve influence -- I'm still waiting for them.