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by Wen Stephenson

If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar" (1837)

April 2, 1997

Discuss this column in the Media & Current Events forum of Post & Riposte.

See the previous In Media Res.
As you may well have heard by now, the next new-media revolution is upon us. The big story unfolding last month, just as the first installment of this column was posted, was the arrival of "networked push media" -- a combination of new technology and venture capital that heralds a fundamental shift in the nature of online interactivity. Already invading computer desktops across the land, new software products such as PointCast and CastaNet allow "content" companies, whether publishers or television networks or advertisers, to "push" or "narrowcast" (as opposed to broadcast) their information to a subscribing, entirely self-selected online audience. The "old" way of using the Internet, of course, is to seek out and "pull" information toward your Web browser. Push turns this relationship between information provider and information consumer on its head. Just as the "interactive revolution" on the Web was getting underway, the next revolution, so we're told, has come along to overtake it.

wrd_cvr pictureAll of this had been developing quietly for months, but the idea that "push" is the Big Story of 1997 didn't really take hold until the editors of Wired put the P word on their March cover. Predictably, some of the Web's way-new media critics fired back at the Wired editors, those fickle minstrels of the digital revolution, with everything from barbed sarcasm (Salon) to earnest contempt (Feed). In the background one could imagine the voices of indignant netizens: "What do you mean, 'push'? Are you trying to sell the Internet community down the river, back into the virtual slavery we escaped when we left television behind? No longer are we the passive, mindless consumers of big, centralized media. We're free -- and not just to choose whatever kind of information, news, entertainment, titillation, even advertising, that we want, when we want it; we're also free to shout back, uncensored, at the establishment. The chorus was building, we were ready to march on the Washington-New York-Hollywood nexus in a great electronic wave that would crash over the old order, crushing it, flattening it out into one decentralized, truly democratic cyber-society, when you shoved a hand in our faces and cried 'Halt!'"

It's as though Wired had said, Sorry, netizens, it was a nice dream while it lasted, but the revolution will be narrowcasted.

Last month in this column I suggested that the revolutionary impact of online interactivity -- the kind we're engaged in on this Web site, the "classic" kind the Internet was built on -- has been exaggerated and over-hyped in certain quarters. I concluded that as the Web becomes a commercial mass medium, either merging with television or taking on some new and as yet unforeseen form, an interactive revolution is, if anything, getting less likely than before. Several readers, responding in the Media & Current Events forum of Atlantic Unbound's Post & Riposte, took me to task for expressing such opinions. How could I say that what we're doing here isn't revolutionary?

My response goes like this: Most everyone can agree that something big is happening in the emergence of new media, and that the kind of interactivity we're engaged in here matters on some important level -- especially insofar as it affects the traditional relationship between journalists and readers, who now can interact directly with one another. But we should be extremely wary of overoptimistic claims about the future of the medium and its democratizing effects on society. We should strive to be as realistic as possible about the direction in which new media are heading.

Isn't it possible that the real story of the "digital revolution" -- of which the "interactive revolution" is a part -- is more economic than political or cultural, and involves the creation of new and more powerful corporate empires built on the integration of new and old media? Why should we not expect powerful conglomerates -- such as TimeWarner/CNN or Microsoft/NBC -- and the advertisers who will support them to dominate the new-media landscape as they have the old? Isn't there cause to fear that as the Web becomes a commercial mass medium our high-minded Webzines and interactive forums, once a major focus of activity on the Net, will be nothing more than isolated outposts in a wilderness of substance-free "pushed content" -- a virtual jungle of infotainment and niche advertising -- that looks suspiciously familiar?

Wired describes the possibilities a bit more sanguinely, to say the least: "Networked push media take us one more step toward closing the gaps between existing media, toward one seamless media continuum, viewable in an infinite number of ingenious ways.... All we can say is, Let a thousand media types bloom. Soon." Their idea is that the more different forms of media there are, the more decentralized the media will be -- and therefore the harder they will be for anyone to control. According to this theory, you too can start a network and compete with TimeWarner or Bill Gates. Nevertheless, as the Wired story admits, "Do-it-yourself is great, but as in most aspects of life, people prefer ready-made. And when it comes to information, that means getting things from trusted sources." It is precisely those "trusted sources" who are racing to dominate the new "seamless media continuum." Is there anything surprising, much less revolutionary, about that?

We've entered an era in which control of and access to communications media determine both economic and political power as never before. Perhaps it would be worthwhile at this point to ask a seemingly obvious question: What is the prevailing ideology of this digital age? It isn't a question you hear asked very often. But let's be honest with ourselves: Is it possible to have a revolution (if we must call it that) devoid of ideology? If the most significant, far-reaching changes are taking place on the corporate level, in boardrooms not chatrooms, then what is the ideology behind these transformations?

*  *  *

As important as this story about the future of media in the digital age may be -- and whether you accept the Wired editors' vision or not -- it is only one small part of the overall picture. As the computer-age pioneer Michael Dertouzos points out in his breathtakingly brash and often enlightening new book, What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives (1997), the media's obsession with their own fate distracts our attention from where the most significant changes are occurring in society.

Dertouzos tells a story that illustrates his point perfectly. At a major international conference he happened to serve on a discussion panel along with a famous (though unnamed) media mogul. The mogul was enthusiastic about the impact of technology on entertainment but was decidedly unexcited about the impact on other, less sexy areas, such as education, commerce, finance, government, health care, and law. Later, at a press conference attended by some fifty journalists, all of whom were falling over themselves to get at the mogul, Dertouzos tried to make the point that the media and entertainment industries represent less than 5 percent of the economy, and that the other 95 percent is undergoing equally rapid and profound changes that will have far greater effects on most peoples' lives. "When the moguls who, in theory, are at the vanguard of the Information Revolution don't appreciate its true potential impact," writes Dertouzos, "and the journalists who cover these moguls don't get it either, then the public can't help but have a skewed view."

Dertouzos, who has been head of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1974, describes a likely future in which the global information infrastructure becomes the central fact underlying our social and economic existence. Like the Wired editors, he sees this infrastructure, together with a mind-boggling array of new technologies, as giving rise to an environment permeated by media of almost infinite forms. But Dertouzos has little use for Wired's breathless rhetoric. His name for this globally connected world of the future, already taking shape around us, is simply the "Information Marketplace," which he describes as "a twenty-first-century village marketplace where people and computers buy, sell, and freely exchange information and information services." Dertouzos finds this image of the marketplace, which runs throughout What Will Be, to be "a crisp, simple model that embraces every activity that we might expect or imagine in the new world of information." The "Information Revolution," as Dertouzos depicts it, will bring sweeping changes in the way we do business -- and perhaps even in the way we conduct our political and social lives -- but the point is that we will go right on doing business. Furthermore, the difficult social problems that plague us now will not go away, and may even be exacerbated: "Will the rich who can sooner afford these technologies get richer?" he asks. "Will the poor be given new leverage, or will they just be left further behind? . . . What kinds of battles will be fought as everyone rushes to profit from the place? Who will be the winners and losers?"

So this is the brave new digital world we're rushing toward? Not an insurgent "Digital Nation" rising up out of the urban centers on either coast but a global interactive mall? Not the democratization of the media but the middle-Americanization of the Net -- and the ghettoization of the un-wired world?

*  *  *

One of the reasons this country has never experienced a true social revolution -- of the kind that overthrows an entire social order -- lies in the fact that we have been united for most of our history by a common ideology: namely, that of more or less free-market capitalism resting on more or less liberal-democratic institutions. The fact that there has never been a viable alternative to this dominant ideology -- and thus, as the historian Louis Hartz brilliantly argued in The Liberal Tradition in America (1956), no real revolutionary tradition (such as Russia's or France's) to which Americans can lay claim -- may help to explain the tendency of our romantic visionaries and discontented intellectuals (and, of course, our ad-copy writers) to grasp after the mirage of revolution, to define the changes of the era in the sweeping terms of revolution, when in fact all that was ever happening was the rather more mundane process of material progress, the seemingly inexorable march of technology in lockstep with capitalism -- a spectacle that every American age has witnessed.

One such visionary was Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose address "The American Scholar" I quote at the top of this column), though his idea of revolution was unusual, located not so much in the social or political realm as in the individual mind. I can't help thinking that had Emerson lived at our present moment not only would he have been committed to the ideals of interactivity -- the "old-fashioned" intellectual kind that flourishes online and off -- but he would also have been undeterred by the commercial transformation of the Internet and the new media, even the new "networked push media." I imagine him saying, as he did in 1837, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it." For me, at least, Emerson offers a way of looking at the present that suggests that the true significance of interactivity lies not in the marketplace or even the political arena but in the countless communications between individuals and the potential such communication holds out for human understanding where none existed before. What we do with our historical moment depends less on the revolutions in our media and technology than on the revolutions that take place within our selves.

But that's another story.

In Media Res is an interactive column. Join me in Post & Riposte's Media & Current Events forum and let me know what you think about "push" and the future of new media. I look forward to hearing from you. --W.S.

Wen Stephenson (wen@theatlantic.com) is editorial director of The Atlantic's New Media department.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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