Previously in Web Citations:
Shake Your Musicmaker
Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.
Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.
Revenge of the Wizards
Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.
Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!
Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.
A Penny for Your 'pinion
Ben Auburn on what Epinions.com learned from the Weblog, and what Webloggers may be learning about the Web. (Hint: it has something to do with money.)
Heard It Through the Grapevine
Forget Windows, or even Linux. The defining artifact of the Information Age may be the chain e-mail. A testimonial by Nicholas Confessore.
The Addiction Addiction
The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold
The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky
The Net's Next Vice
Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon
The Great Divide
The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson
More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.
January 26, 2000
There was a time when it seemed that the digital revolution was as much about culture as technology. Each week or so the digerati heralded new forms of art, literature, entertainment, human interaction of all sorts. "Content" was king, and Webzines and online communities sprouted across the Net, so that it looked like a golden era of alternative, decentralized new media was being born on computer screens before our very eyes. This digital culture -- always just over the horizon -- promised to bring with it truly positive change. Distinctions of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, appearance -- all would melt away in cyberspace, we were told, as the world became more connected.
Then, a couple years ago, we stopped hearing so much about digital culture and started hearing a lot about the digital economy. In fact, it's a sign of the Internet's mainstream acceptance -- its mindboggling growth and dizzying commercialization -- that digital culture is seldom spoken of these days as some exotic, futuristic thing. We take it for granted. It's the air we breathe. And, despite the utopian visions of the digerati, it's a lot like the same old consumer culture we always knew.
We. The wired, the affluent, the educated. The digitally cultured.
Recently, another shift has taken place in the way we think about the digital revolution. As e-commerce sweeps the economy, there is a sense, especially among the Net's veterans, that a battle is on for the soul of the new media, and many have started talking about the Internet more in terms of politics and public policy. Issues like free speech, privacy, and intellectual property have come to the fore. One issue in particular, however, stands out as the most daunting, perhaps because it is among the most intractable of age-old social problems. While the Web's new corporate masters (and the legions of journalists who cover them) hail the economic "miracle" of the Internet, some of those who influence the national agenda have finally woken up to the fact that a majority of Americans -- disproportionately those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and disproportionately African-American and Latino -- aren't participating (to say nothing of the vast majority of people around the world who remain unwired). And so has been born the issue we now know as the "digital divide."
Since last July, when the Commerce Department released an alarming report on the demographics of Internet connectedness in the United States, highlighting the growing gap between technology "haves" and "have-nots," an increasing amount of lip service has been paid to the urgent need to address the issue. A White House sponsored Digital Divide Summit, the launch of a new Digital Divide Network spearheaded by the Benton Foundation and the National Urban League, and other private-sector initiatives, are all promising signs. But so far no concerted, large-scale program has emerged at the national level, where it belongs. Could it be that there's a lack of galvanizing leadership? Or is it possible that talk of racial and class disparity in the new economy is unlikely to capture the imagination of a public entranced by the stock market?
The political arena, of course, may be the wrong place to look for solutions to the problem. That seems to be the assumption among a group of entrepreneurs who are taking a very different approach than the one talked about in Washington, D.C. -- an approach that focuses not on the basic issues of access to technology and education but on creating Internet content that will appeal to those who are underrepresented online. Venerable online players such as NetNoir and Blackvoices.com have tried, with some success, to create Internet portals for the African-American "market," and QuePasa.com has established itself as a kind of portal geared to a Latino audience. Now, an ambitious new venture called OneNetNow.com wants to become a truly multi-ethnic online community, billing itself as the first Web site "specifically designed to bridge the Digital Divide by providing content, community, and e-commerce relevant to multiethnic groups." (OneNetNow's "official launch" is scheduled for sometime this spring, but users have been able to preview the site since January 11.)
OneNetNow's mission may sound a bit like putting the cart before the horse -- what good does it do to create "relevant" content if the vast majority of your intended audience lacks the technology to access it? And, one might ask, what is "relevant content" anyway? To be sure, there are issues that affect certain groups more than others, but do African-Americans and Latinos have interests so different from those of other Americans that they can only be coaxed onto the Net by appeals made in narrow ethnic and cultural terms? Is that kind of multiculturalism the best way to promote unity on the Net?
If OneNetNow succeeds -- and with the support of celebrity board members like Jesse Jackson, Edward James Olmos, and Sammy Sosa, together with an array of high-profile business leaders, it may stand a chance -- it could raise other, larger questions about the direction of the Internet and the relationship between digital culture, e-commerce, and politics. Whether an effort like OneNetNow should be viewed as a return to the promise the Net once held as a cultural phenomenon in which content and community take priority over commerce, or whether it should be seen as merely the latest attempt to cash in on the Internet's growth, will depend on whether the site's business strategy serves the interests of the people in the urban communities it is trying to reach. Otherwise, it will be hard not to look upon OneNetNow and similar ventures as anything more than cynical efforts to treat the digital divide -- arguably the single most important social issue arising from the digital revolution -- as just another marketing opportunity.
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Wen Stephenson has been the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound since 1996. He has worked on The Atlantic's online edition since 1994.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.