Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 28 Feb 00 14:38
Tom Valovic is a media theorist and a former editor-in-chief of Telecommunications magazine. He was the first writer to break the news about the Internet's commercialization in the early '90s. In Digital Mythologies, Valovic takes on the conventional wisdom on a wide range of subjects. The author has written extensively on the business and social impacts of computers and communications for a variety of publications, including Computerworld, PC Week, Information Week, Whole Earth Review, Media Studies Journal, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Boston Globe. He is on the adjunct faculty at Northeastern University and also authored Corporate Networks: The Strategic Use of Telecommunications. Leading the conversation with Valovic is Gail Williams. Williams has been a WELL member since 1990, when the future of cyberspace was an exciting remote mystery, subject to the full range of idealism and paranoia. Currently, she is Director of Communities for Salon.com, leading the development of two cherished gathering places, Table Talk and The WELL. Please join me in welcoming Tom and Gail to inkwell.vue!
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 28 Feb 00 18:13
Thanks, Linda. Tom, one of the things I enjoyed most about Digital Mythologies was learning about your historic scoop of the change to a commercial Internet. Talk about being at ground zero. Did you tell that story on The WELL at the time of publication? What sort of reactions did that landmark story get at the time?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Thu 2 Mar 00 10:49
It was an experience. For a while I was completely out on a limb, in a journalistic no-man's land. I had some trusted sources within the Internet community but the trick was to get some outside and independent validation --- and there really wasn't any to be had. Vint Cerf was on our advisory board so Vint and I talked a lot about it in e-mail and he was very helpful. So was Brian Kahin. But it was up to me to draw some viable conclusions as to what impact this was going to have on the telecom industry and on life in general. In terms of the response, it was not what I had expected. In retrospect, I guess I should have anticipated the deafening silence. After we published the piece, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean I knew the story was huge but at the time was probably too caught up in it to realize that it would take a long time before the significance to non-technical readers would fully emerge. The story started to break in some of the trade weeklies about six months after we published it. I didn't mention the story on the Well after we published it. But after the Internet's debut became more widely known, there were some interesting discussions that took place about the significance of Internet commercialization. Mitch Kapor posted heavily in some topics. It was an interesting time with lots of wild speculation about where things would end up.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 3 Mar 00 12:27
Would you please tell us what happened during this historic event? From Gail's question it sounds like the Internet went from being one thing to being something else. Would you say what that was, and how it happened?
John Payne (satyr) Fri 3 Mar 00 16:28
Was it a matter of a change in law or NSF policy?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Fri 3 Mar 00 19:02
Sure Linda, although I'm not sure that I would describe it as an "event". The commercialization of the Internet took place over an extended period of time with the most important things occurring, I would guess, in the space of a year or so. It was more like a Polaroid snapshot taking its time to develop. Of course that very fuzzy incremental process was also hard to write about and describe in a compelling way. I could write something like "The Internet will become a worldwide network for data comparable in scope and scale to the public telephone network." but that hardly would have described the Net as we know it today with all of its infinite variety and complexity. It was in some respects a quasi-poetic endeavor, always pushing the limits of language; like trying to make fog interesting to someone who wasn't there to see it. Events rather than a sequence of events would have been easier; these were more like footprints in the sand. So commercialization let the genie out of the bottle. Nothing happened immediately after a somewhat plodding regulatory process. For a while there was just a limbo of potentiality. But eventually it unleashed a series of initiatives that allowed Internet technology to move out of the academic and government sector and into the private sector. Companies like PSI and UUnet played a big role in that development. As to your question, John, I'm not an expert in Internet history --- that really isn't what my book is about --- but it did, in essence, involve the commercial development of the Internet backbone by ANS and NSF policy changes, of course, had to support that.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 3 Mar 00 21:15
I remember quoting a guy around then saying it would be impossible to predict what would happen with a commercialized Internet, in the same way that the people who produced the U.S. highway system wouldn't have been able to predict the rise of 7-11s.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 4 Mar 00 10:58
No kidding. It's so easy to confuse the infrastructure and the uses and changes in attitude and behavior brought by the changing infrastructure. Tom, one of your themes has to do with The Great Conversation, and the premise that the Internet might undermine the tradition of reading the great works of history and adding to a slow dialog over the centuries. I had some trouble with that, because when I read about the Internet as a phenomenon I try to substitute some terms such as "the intercontinental railroad" "the telephone" or "the printing press." I know great thinkers who were contemporaries used trains or phones to discuss their work, and may today, and that the printed word is still the primary form of time travel, so I find parallels in some of those uses. No one invention maps to the commericalization and popularization of the Internet, but I know some of those past changes similarly scared some observers and made others giddy with excessive ideallistic optimism. I remember a press release which went out from The WELL some years ago with a canned quote attributed to then owner Bruce Katz, who probably didn't write it but had surely seen it, and he characterized The WELL, this little old corner of it all, as "One big conversation." Even that was absurd on the face of it. The idea that the net is a big or a great conversation is to misunderstand the concept of conversation. On the other hand, the idea that real conversation, and even great conversation, can not take place using this medium or this platform for many media, is also strange to my ear. I'm a moderately well educated person, and I always knew if I needed to know more about the importance of a work I know about but have not read, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Origin of Species, I could go to the library and fill in that voice from the great thinkers of the past. Now I can either do that at my terminal, or have it shipped to me so I can read in the bathtub, something bad for books but worse for computers and bathers. I don't feel taken in by a "new electronic order" in doing this, should I be? Now that some of the technoinfactuation and fear of the first days of poularization are behind us, do you feel that the ability to converse in so many different ways is a threat to the tradition of the grand dialog of western culture? In a good way or a bad way?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Sat 4 Mar 00 16:16
What I was trying to address in that essay was a particular type of mind set that views the humanities, art, and literature as a kind of obsolete, vestigial thinking that will eventually be replaced by the crisp utilitarianism of a renewed scientific rationalism and cyberculture-influenced point of view. Brockman's concept of "Third Culture" is a good example of this mindset. The real question is whether the "two cultures", to use C.P Snow's terminology, are locked into a zerosum embrace. I think it's arguable that they are. Why? Because human "bandwidth" is limited and if you flood it with micro-messages spinning off wildly and continuously from an accelerated sense of the present, soon enough there's little room for anything else. In this sense "surfing" is a very apt term for living in an Internet-driven mediasphere because if you don't keep surfing i.e. skimming the surface and taking in the next micro-event or micro-message and the one after that and the one after that in rapid succession, then you "go under". In the current modality, "wiping out" does not seem to be an option. (Contrast that with the sixties when "dropping out" i.e. choosing your own information environment was the whole point.) Personally, I don't think this kind of thinking will prevail --- at least I hope it won't. I have no doubt that there are many of us who have straddled these two worlds for a long time and will continue to do so, culling the value from each. But when I read about college students who are unaware that other research tools besides the Internet are available, I think that's cause for concern. What's going to happen when an entire generation becomes not illiterate but a-literate: books just aren't on their radar screen? So I think the threat is real and the lack of dialogue about this among educators, in the political sphere, and elsewhere is unfortunate. The field of education is where you can most easily spot the "zero-sum" paradigm rearing its ugly head. There are many cases of schools deciding not to invest money in upgrading text books and using that money instead for wiring schools to the Net. This is already fairly widespread. In the essay, I try to point out the Net's unique value as a larger forum for conversation and dialogue. I wouldn't want to detract one bit from the Net's capabilities in that department: there is definite value there. But even in this realm there are more complex issues to consider. In terms of actually ordering books via the Net, this is obviously a great convenience; but you can also purchase a lot of things on the Net so, rightly or wrongly, I tend to see this as somewhat incidental to the argument.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 6 Mar 00 08:52
The 'net is such a large *collection* of changes in ways or delivering and exchanging so many things it is always a bit like comparing apples and fruit salad. I share your skepticism about spending all of a limited supply budget on computers in classrooms, though I believe it's useful for kids and teachers to learn how to use the Internet. When the 'net becomes part of a delivery mechanism for textbooks and materials, be it by van, download or spoken textbook audio file, the effects become more complex because there is not one culture or set of values reflected online any more than there is one offline. That's something which seems to be changing rapidly now. Is it possible that as has been said, Cyberspace is dead, and we have lost the sense of a single "cyberculture" for both better and worse? Do you see significant changes in online culture?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Tue 7 Mar 00 09:49
Net culture has certainly gotten more diverse, more variegated. This pluralism is one of the Net's greatest strengths and needs to continue. Net culture has also gotten more enclaved (gated communities abound) and blatantly commercial. These are fairly obvious points, I'm sure. For those of us who were around in the very beginning of the online world's genesis (and I know that comprises a lot of people on the Well), it's easy to get nostalgic about that time. There was a special sense of participation, of having a front-row seat for a major cultural transformation, a chance to shape that process in any number of ways, major and minor. This was, of course, bound to be short-lived. The entropy was inevitable but a piece of you wonders if there wasn't some other way to maintain that aboriginal condition, so to speak, and keep that seemingly more primal community going. The cynic, on the other hand, would question that a real community existed altogether and would suggest that it was less a true monolithic culture than a group of admittedly precocious Net-savvy people who just happened to be at the right place at the right time --- an accident of confluence. For me, this sense was intensified on the Well. Unlike the Net, the Well had borders and distinct role-players: sages, rebels, community watchers, fence-sitters, prodigal progeny, charismatic visitors, town drunks --- the whole nine yards. Watching and participating in that probably irreproducible drama was fascinating and enjoyable. (I'm sure that still goes on at some level today --- it's just not nearly as visible, at least to me.) Some of this had to do with the Well's size and some with the fact that there still was a thriving commons. A simpleminded but effective analogy: one reason I like Boston is that as a city: it is within my ability to take it all in. It's comfortable, familiar, within my immediate ability to know it as an entity. I also like New York but for a very different reason: like the Net, I know I will never be able to take it all in. I think the splintering of the commons was probably inevitable, especially as the Net developed in parallel along side of the Well......
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 7 Mar 00 10:57
My expectations were been pretty different than yours, Tom. I joined the WELL in 1990, knowing that this was just one place among others. I don't wonder at the popularity of private email lists, intranets, buddy lists and various kinds of gated communities because it is neither possible nor desirable to be on close terms with the whole world, no matter who you are. Smaller group intimacy has more appeal to most people, given the experiences to compare. But there was that time of tremendous contact high, and sensation that everyone was plugged in to some special source, some of which spilled into that early hype. I remember an ad for perhaps MCI in about 1995 with the little girl on the beach who was about to be connected to something ... probably to be connected to It All ... which I first noticed as an indication that this enthrallment was crossing into corporate culture. And the online discussions of the time which considered eliminating governments in favor of infinite round tables, were seductive and fun, even though skeptics stepped back and noticed that considering how the human contextualized content of conversation scales, they made little sense. Some of those images did have a profoundly mythic quality. One of your chapters is called "The Psychopathology of Online Life." To what degree did you feel that time was dangerous? What do you offer those who found insight and valued spiritual metaphors in that grab bag of connections? And do you see that cultural mythology of the spiritual aspect of connectivity thriving, mutating or is it in decline now?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 7 Mar 00 13:57
Does the chapter called "The Psychopathology of Online Life" include any juicy stories about the WELL? Seems like a perfect place for it!
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Tue 7 Mar 00 14:19
Can you say more about the range and variety of "gated" communities generally, Tom?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Tue 7 Mar 00 18:27
There is this numinous, "wholly other" quality about cyberspace which seems to beg for interpretation. It's a complicated subject. I'm both fascinated and puzzled by the notion that the Internet can somehow be related to religious experience. Mostly it strikes me as a convenient fiction. For some reason, there is a tendency to idealize the larger-than-all-of-us entity that is the Internet. First comes the attempt to anthropomorphize it but that's not possible because the Net easily runs beyond attempts at reductionism; or we can't because it's beyond our ability to circumscribe it intellectually. So then there's a shift to the notion that there must somehow be a spiritual dimension involved. Linda, most of the Well-related essays are in the third section entitled "The Electronic Polity". I'm hoping we'll get to those in due course....
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Tue 7 Mar 00 18:35
Hi Mike, nice to see you here. By "gated communities" I mean the Net's inevitable partitioning into less visible and more private communities of interest. I'm not suggesting anything nefarious by way of a direct analogy here or any kind of deliberate exclusion; but rather that continuing commercialization and privatization have in some ways made the Net a less open place than it was at an earlier time. We also saw this happen with the Well when private conferences were introduced.
Cyber Villages?? (neil-freake) Wed 8 Mar 00 06:12
Herbert Gans coined the phrase "Urban Villages" - where cities have become massive and alien to the individual and as a result people gravitate toward other familiar/socially comfortable people, forming communities (i.e. New York and the Hispanic community, and so on). Do you see any similarity with how communities evolve (through natural cyber lifecycles)on the Internet? How do you define community?
Richard Smoley (smoley) Wed 8 Mar 00 09:00
Very interesting discussion. I read some statistic not so long ago that said AOL manages to keep its subscribers for 80% of the time they are on the Internet, so I suppose that would be a classic instance of a gated community. I suppose what will tend to happen is that, people being creatures of habit, they will go to the same big sites that supply all their needs and that there will be less interest in exploring all the odd little sites that are out there (and probably will continue to be). Would you agree, Tom?
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Wed 8 Mar 00 09:36
I think the WELL and ECHO may qualify as gated communities (where the login prompt is a kind of gate, and in which the content is not widely available to non-members). But what I'm wondering is if there are a lot of other communities like those two (albeit perhaps with different cultures and interests).
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 8 Mar 00 14:05
[Let me just step in for a moment with a hostly reminder to our non-WELL-member readers, that you, too can participate in this discussion via e-mail addressed to email@example.com.]
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Wed 8 Mar 00 17:12
There has been a strain of Net idealism that has existed for some time and it defines a quasi-utopian view of the Net. I don't particularly subscribe to it but I admire the thinking behind it and agree with a lot of its tenets. The CPSR has done some great work in defining the kinds of qualities that might be found in an ideal Internet. Some of this can be found in their "One Planet/One Net" declaration (www.cpsr.org). In the book I also try to argue for the thoughtful evolution of the Internet but that and $2.80 will buy you the coffee of the day at Starbucks. I believe in the last analysis that the Net will probably do a great deal of good despite our best efforts to mess it up. That said, one of its greatest features is the "many to many" model and we've all heard its praises sung interminably: communities, free association, the right of free assembly writ large --- access and more access. But it's no secret to anyone in this conference that the traditional media's influence is slowly morphing much of the Net into something else entirely, at least the Net that most people will eventually come to know. Old patterns have a way of pretending that they're new ones. This is to your comment Richard about the shrinking of the vastness of the Net into a couple of well-worn portals or other virtual habituations --- an exaggeration of course, but you get the drift. In the last analysis, I think the Internet is resilient enough that various kinds of cultural transformation will still be possible. Most likely, it will happen at certain levels --- wheels within wheels and all that --- and ironically enough, most likely in enclaves. So the kicker is that enclaves can keep the wrong kind of commercialism in but they can also keep it out. When compared against the yardstick of aboriginal cyber-idealism, it seems to me that as a mass medium, a lot of the Net's potential has indeed fallen by the wayside. (But, hey, now we all have our own personal Internet so how can we possibly dislike that?) Here again, I'll confess that my own expectations weren't all that high, although I still try to argue, as I do in the book, for some way to reconcile ever more urgent social concerns with the great entrepreneurial expansiveness we see in the .com realm. Look at the history of television: how many years went by before something as absurdly simple and useful as C-Span came into existence. It's just that given the nature of our planetary distress, I think the need for that integration is more pressing than ever. <Apologies if I haven't answered any question directly enough. I will gladly correct that in e-mail if necessary: firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 8 Mar 00 18:46
Yes, that sense of cyberspace as one great commons was shortlived, but powerful. I remember great rants by Barlow about a constitution for cyberspace. You have to smile in retrospect, but the feelings were vivid. And I'd have to say they were also mythic in a good sense. The most exciting, wonderful outcome of that space madness was that people became motivated to fight for a free cyberspace and eventually figured out that that this can live within the same freedom of expression and association those sly old founding fathers had in mind in the US. In that sense there's one great datasphere or virtual commons the way there is a brotherhood of man, or a global village, for example. It's a sweeping, impossible construct, but not a bad myth if you know it isn't literally true. So long as we avoid being fundamentalists or feeling defrauded, I am generally in favor of shared delusions of this kind. There are few gated communities in terms of being on the subscription model, by the way. I would love to hear about others which are by invitation or subscription, other than corporate intranets. It seems to me that most of the balkanization is purely due to our modest scopes of attention and time. Limited human relationship bandwidth. I marked a line in your chapter about cyberpathologies... you said, "To opt for existance in the denial-laden pleasure dome that is cyberspace may constitute a kind of avoidance of the necessary and real Great Work..." Are you writing off any positive uses of this medium, for confronting one another in constructive ways, or for communicating in the course of taking on the Great Work?
Tom Valovic (tvacorn) Thu 9 Mar 00 10:06
Not at all. That quote needs to be seen in its full context. The reference to the "real Great Work", of course, was a friendly poke at Barlow. The point I'm trying to make is that working on developing and improving cyberspace is no substitute for involvement as (formally) national and (informally) planetary citizens. The real Great Work is the same as it always has been: that of becoming more fully aware as individuals but not in the facile personal growth sense that's so trendy today ("How enlightenment can add $15,000 a year to your paycheck"); and working on myriad issues in the physical world. Gurdjieff called this "the Work". Incidentally, Erik Davis talks about this a bit in "Techngnosis". In the "Psychopathology of Online Life" the subject of substitution psychology is raised: people believing that the Net is a superior "global space" (Barlow's term) to the physical realm. The question is, what's really going on with this kind of thinking beyond what the conventional wisdom indicates? There are lots of issues to be explored here including the inversion of true spirituality by opting for a kind of super-charged scientific materialism. In the essay, I posit at least the possibility that the flight into the virtual could constitute a kind of escapism in light of the fact that society is more or less in denial about the incredible damage being done to the planet. But even if that's the case, it still doesn't necessarily detract from the many positive things that the Net has to offer. Paradox, complexity.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 9 Mar 00 17:05
I'm paging through the book to the chapters grouped as The Electronic Polity. This is where you refer frequently to your time on The WELL. You start out by talking about identity, and noting that some readers know one another better than others. Some use their real name in the "pseud" filed and others use slogans, quotes and nicknames, and while it is possible for anyone who is logged in to look up a real name for the poster's login, some don't bother. These dynamics are sure exaggerated here in Inkwell, where many readers are not logged in, and will not know who <mnemonic> is from past conversation, nor even be able to look up his name without a password. I agree that reputation is mysterious and complex, but I don't think this particular element is far different than other parts of human life. Join any group of people, and it will take time to find out who is credible, and at what. There are many new wrinkles, but this one doesn't seem to me to be significantly novel. You say "conversations take place between the named and the nameless, and the reliable context of identity is no longer a constant." My sense is that there is so much constant identity on The WELL compared to so many online and offline environments that I'm astonished at your observation. You're here as <tvacorn> over time. Granted, some people only know you that way. How is this different than being known only by your first name, for example? I can think of many environments where I might know someone socially, and only later bother to find out their last name, or more about what they do. And identity and voice are huge issues in this environment. But I don't know how you could make people pay attention to who is who, in any environment.
Thomas Armagost (silly) Thu 9 Mar 00 17:12
<scribbled by silly Mon 9 Jul 12 16:01>
Thomas Armagost (silly) Fri 10 Mar 00 09:34
<scribbled by silly Mon 9 Jul 12 16:01>
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