The Globe & Mail
Friday, January 9, 1998
The Middle Kingdom - Cyberia

Warnings along the superhighway

by Jack Kapica,

At this time of year many fashionable newspaper columnists assume that a change in calendar is excuse enough to predict the future, like the Greek seer Tiresias. It has become more fashionable for other columnists to condemn their fellows for this. Wary of the siren call of prophecy, Cyberia has decided to reject the role of Tiresias and play Cassandra instead, to issue dire warnings about the future of the Internet.

Beware of television.

So far, video has not amounted to much on the Net, mostly because it requires fast modems and fast computers. The Internet, however, is a natural medium for digital video, and it won't be long before we see superfast connections delivering reliable video signals. This can be a good thing; but it will also tempt on-line companies (especially cable-TV companies, which provide cable Internet access) to flood the Net with junk, like TV sitcoms. Marketing people, who know a profitable medium when they see one, will be unable to resist the temptation to chop the Net into tiny demographic bits and turn everything into one huge infomercial. The wasteland beckons.

Beware overestimating the Net's political power.

There are enough competing intellectual forces to balance the Net's ability to astonish, elucidate and edify the industrialized world. The Net's real power will lie in the increasingly wired Third World, where many people live under systems whose feudal understanding of information exchange does not include appreciating the Internet's peculiar ability to ignite information forest-fires. Many developing nations will soon be able to compare their own political systems with others. Just as television and radio, through glasnost, gave Soviet citizens a peek at the outside world and fax fuelled the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, the Net has the potential to revolutionize politics in countries where instant information is still a novelty. (Just last week, China introduced stiff laws governing the Net, reflecting a respect for of the Net's political power; if those laws prove as difficult to enforce as those recently tried in Germany and the United States, then China is in for a rough ride.)

Beware an obsession with Microsoft.

The giant can be beaten. Its weak spot is not its questionable monopolistic practices, but its "embrace-and-extend" strategy, which involves incorporating competitors' ideas and weaving them into its Windows operating system; the resulting software is fat and sluggish. The independent software industry colludes in this by making products so Microsoft-like that Microsoft will want to buy them. Solution: Create programs that are smaller and faster than Microsoft's and don't look like they were made in Redmond, Va.

Beware of casual content.

Leadership in the development of the Internet is still in the hands of software code-cutters, and so the means of delivery (created by software and hardware engineers) has become disproportionately more important than the product (created by writers, designers and artists). The software industry, therefore, limits itself to repackaging existing stuff (newspapers, TV and so on), a product politely dismissed as "repurposed content" and, more sneeringly, as "shovelware". Think what would have happened had radio been programmed by microphone makers and TV-camera manufacturers produced television shows. These people could never have imagined Frank Sinatra, The Twilight Zone, the Supremes or Monty Python. Ultimately, after the novelty of the Internet wears off (and it's wearing off now), people will be less obsessed with who makes the software than the content the software delivers.

Beware thinking that software will kick-start business.

The reason no working model has yet emerged for business on the Net is not because merchandise is being marketed poorly or that it is unsafe to buy it, but because business is built on trust, and trust can't be created overnight. A killer software application won't create it either.

Beware fearing the religious right.

The religious right is spending too much time trying to prove the Internet is the work of Satan and that we are helpless before his blandishments; efforts to apply this thinking to movies, magazines, rock and roll and Disney products all failed. But the real lesson of the religious right's activism is that its members, like many other people, don't yet trust the Net. So there must be some law in cyberspace if the Net is to earn people's trust. That will most likely happen when a U.S. court rules in some future legal case that the key issue at hand is that the Net is similar to, say, the telephone system or the TV system, and that the relevant laws apply.

Beware generational conflicts.

There is a very real and serious tendency among Generation Xers to believe that since they grew up wired, then most people outside their age bracket don't have the proper appreciation of the Internet. In fact, the Internet can't possibly develop further without older and younger people involved, either as active Web-content creators, retail customers or just plain users.

Yes, Cyberia is aware that Cassandra was cursed: No one believed her. But such is the price of being unfashionable.

Copyright © 1997 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.