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"This stuff is still great."
February 27, 2001 7:00 PM   Subscribe

"This stuff is still great." Paul Ford reminds us, as ever, why we're here, and thinks smart about the downturn: "We thought that Metcalfe's law on networks and Moore's law on processor power would change everything. But people don't change every 18 months; cultures don't start moving faster than processors. People don't increase their value with the increase in value."
posted by holgate (18 comments total)

Great post! I don't really have anything to add at the moment, but I wanted to show my appreciation for this post.
posted by fiery at 7:48 PM on February 27, 2001

I wish I could be so optimistic. I don't think the downturn is over. The big money is still consolidating its hold, and the regulations are only beginning. Those aspects of the 'net that have the potential for real social change are beginning to seem more like accidental relics left over from a naive age, design flaws that have yet to be fixed, and less like the driving forces behind the whole system.

I think we're going to end up with a 'net that is better than nothing, but - like television - falls so far short of what could have been achieved that it looks pathetic by comparison. We're already halfway there.

Really, now - electronic catalog shopping? Banner ads? Hypertext movie trailers? Is this crap really changing anybody's life? Does it really matter if a few hundred thousand of us conspire and subvert, if all the money and most of the eyeballs go to reinforcing the consumerist nightmare?

Fourth, this stuff is still great. There is still enormous opportunity for anyone who wants to create a truly great text editor, a truly great network publishing tool, artificial intelligence, genomic analysis, media, etc.

I don't see any such opportunity. Application development is pretty much stagnant and has been for several years. The web browser was the last killer app, and the limits of that category are already showing.

Artificial intelligence and genome analysis don't count, because they're hard scientific problems with little or no connection to cyberland.

There is lots of good work for smart people out there.


Third, the Web is a way to "opt out."

This I agree with. For now, anyway. With the relentless onslaught of banner ads, sponsorship, buyouts, patents, and lawsuits, "commercial culture" is going to get increasingly difficult to avoid.

posted by Mars Saxman at 8:04 PM on February 27, 2001

Are they any less great net resources out there now? Or are there just more commercial sites? I don't see and of the truly great things that first attracted me to online world going away. It's easier than ever to put up a web page and publish to an audience that is larger and more distributed than anything before in history.

Yes we have more advertising, more catalogs and more movie trailer sites. But that doesn't follow that we have less of the good stuff.
posted by captaincursor at 12:00 AM on February 28, 2001

I don't see any of the truly great things that first attracted me to online world going away.

It reminds me of the recent discussion which went along the lines of "where is all the good music, when all I can see on MTV/hear on FM radio/buy in Barnes and Noble is shitty pop?" It's all out there, you just have to look a little harder.

Perhaps it's harder to "opt out" now than before: but it's easier to "co-opt out": indymedia has shown that you can challenge the mass media smokescreen by emulating (and improving upon) its tactics. To good effect.
posted by holgate at 1:44 AM on February 28, 2001

I find the comparison to T.V. to be unfounded. maybe if we all threw up our hands now and stopped posting, only to become consumers of information rather than contributors would the web end up like T.V..

The web has something that T.V. could never have:constant public access! We're here, we're not going away, we publish, we chat, we post, we interact. And if we don't like it, we change the channel, only now we have billions of channels to choose from.

Sure theres ads everywhere and sell outs and corporate
*brainwashing*. Did we really think that was going to change so fast? Wether we like it or not, the world is changing with technology, and just because its not going the way we planned doesn't mean its all bad.
posted by fiery at 1:49 AM on February 28, 2001

I wonder if opinions on this issue vary wildly among age groups... Did everyone read the Salon piece about what the writers called "the new slackers"? It really resonated with me. Especially how burned out my peers are from six years of working in overdrive.

But the young kids just out of high school have only seen the plusses of the new technologies. The young are often more optimistic, anyway.

Just musing here.

PS Paul Ford is my hero.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:40 AM on February 28, 2001

Mars, I surely do admire and appreciate comments from you, but sometimes I worry about how utterly jaded you seem to be. Now, I understand it, and can feel that way myself, but yow . . .

I think the TV analogy is instructive (and it not coincidentally allows me to go off on a rant that's been simmering for a while). The web and TV share one trait (this is assuming access to web technology): ubiquity. Every time someone dares to put up a post about TV on MeFi, there is inevitably a number of people who feel the need to point out that all TV sucks, period. That this is stupid and condescending and reductive doesn't seem to enter into things. TV is piped into our house, free, 24/7. Does 90-95% percent of it suck? Sure. But do you have people parading the Fine Arts in front of your face 24/7, free? If you did, you'd soon learn that 90-95% of all that sucks, too, but we assume that Art is All Good Stuff because we only see what we choose to seek out and pay for. I act in live theater as a sideline, but find it sometimes hard to go see plays. Most of them suck. Check out a few art galleries sometime; you'll find a whole lot of baffling horseshit cheek by jowl with some gems. As cable pipes in more movies over cable for free, lo and behold, they all fucking suck too, right? Listen to the radio much? How much of that fucking sucks? About 90-95% or so? (I realize I get to make up these subjective percentages and opinions, but hey, what fun. And don't we all do this?)

And so the web. Do most weblogs and commercial sites and dumbass porn shops and Slashdot posts suck? Sure. They suck hard. The challenge, to me anyway, lies in sifting through it, finding the gold amongst the dross. Stuff like that incredible Christian-lyrics-to-popular-songs site, or Suck's Wednesday Filler, or MetaFilter. We suffer from ubiquity, from overload, from So Much Stuff That Sucks. But I don't think that means we should give up. Cultivate the good stuff, patronize the places that you treasure, and when you're just fucking sick of it all, ready to call it quits, go back to that hilarious website and sing the lyrics to "Hey Hey We're Not Monkeys." It might cheer you up.

(This was written at work between bites of bagel and trips to the bathroom. Incoherence submitted apologetically.)
posted by Skot at 10:03 AM on February 28, 2001

How many trips to the bathroom did it take you to write that post?

(Ford is my hero, too.)
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:10 AM on February 28, 2001

That Christian lyrics site was pretty far out. So were the Jesus action figures.

As far as the article goes, I think most of what Ford said makes sense, but it shouldn't exactly come as a surprise to anyone. Kevin Kelly and the dotcoms went completely overboard over the internet. This was obvious before the crash. And the internet is still cool even if it hasn't yet lived up to it's most outrageous expectations. We knew that already.

On another note, I also agree that the internet is great for fostering community activism, but disrupting the WTO meeting is activism of the most ignorant sort. Globalism is here to stay, another side benefit of the internet. The alternative to the World Trade Organization is world trade disorganization, which means more sweatshops, more oppression, more harm to consumers as well as laborers and more harm to the environment.
posted by Loudmax at 10:48 AM on February 28, 2001

Go Skot Go!

(Just my little contribution to the poorly-thought-out-and-incoherent-high-noise-to-signal-ratio of Metafilter.)
posted by daveadams at 11:58 AM on February 28, 2001

Paul Ford is my hero too. Really. I'm a little worried about him. I hope he's OK out there on the road. (As long as we're on the subject, his "replacement," Scott Rahin (Paul handed the keys to Scott and went walkabout) has written a really lovely piece, I think. Not about the web, so not really on topic, but lovely nonetheless.)

Skot's posting makes me think it would be nice to have a "best things found on MeFi" thread. Kind of an internal Oscars.

posted by rodii at 2:45 PM on February 28, 2001

disrupting the WTO meeting is activism of the most ignorant sort

It must be “ignorant” to you because you don’t understand either side of the argument. Protestors aren’t out fighting globalization, as they are fighting against corporate managed trade and the erosion of national and community soverignty. The WTO can change laws in any member country, beside the fact that no trade representative is elected by the countries they represent.

You are either committed to democracy and show it by active participation, or you are a spectator, letting institutional actions wash over you.

As for Ford’s piece:

“All value on earth was now in information and knowledge. Networks would have the ultimate power, governments would crumble, gender differences would vanish, Africa and India would rise, no one would know if you were a dog or a skink. The poor would be rich with knowledge. ”

Anyone who thinks technological innovation that is co-opted by the business world is going to change the economic situtation of oppressed third world countries has absolutely no understanding of development and international trade.

This post-modern idea of information uber alles was a fantastic way to make people believe that ownership doesn’t matter and that if people worked hard enough in a narrow field — new media — they could change the world. They only changed one aspect of modern life: the internet is now viable to be corporatized.

The internet is certainly a viable avenue for indepedent publishers, but they will be mostly drowned out by big money media publishers, as is currently the case. Do not believe business world hype, people. They are looking to make limited fiscal gains. They could care less about chaging the world.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 5:15 PM on February 28, 2001

As far as the article goes, I think most of what Ford said makes sense, but it shouldn't exactly come as a surprise to anyone.

Agreed - but I think his main point was to draw the connection between the nascent "Cyberculture" subculture of the early 1990's and the later emergence of the "New Economy" ideology, and to point out that the metaphors of Cyberculture, when tranformed and remixed to become the New Economy, still didn't apply to human reality. He drew this connection to show how he, and many others, got duped into thinking the New Economy was a real change in human culture.

I read the piece as a personal essay, rather than social criticism. It would take many more facts and references to current theory to make it a valid piece of social criticism.

It's valid on its own terms, though. It should just be taken with a grain.

At the end of the piece, Ford essentially says that he wants to use the networks to save the world. I think he's right that the Internet has a much better chance of bringing people together to stop ecological damage than, for instance, network news does, because network news can't afford to be too depressing or to screw too much with its advertisers, and the Internet can encourage people to take direct action - petitions, email campaigns, etc.

But what would be nice is if Ford actually outlined what the steps were to make this happen; I think he wrote a feel-good ending for a thoughtful piece, and it could almost be interpreted as a an apologia for the sad state of affairs of the highly corporatized network, without a genuine "call to action" for his readers.

BTW, the best Ftrain piece ever is:

posted by lucius at 5:26 PM on February 28, 2001

Anyone who thinks technological innovation that is co-opted by the
business world is going to change the economic situtation of oppressed
third world countries has absolutely no understanding of development
and international trade.

I probably didn't make it clear in the piece on Ftrain - that's a
summary of what I thought a few years ago, not what I think now. I've
always been on the left of things, but it was very easy to brainwash
myself into believing much of the New Economy rhetoric, particularly
because it had co-opted leftist ideology so efficiently. The Tom Frank
book describes this co-option very well, but doesn't explain why it
was so easy for us rubes on the "digital left" to fall for it and
trade in our berets for laptops. Hence my essay.

As for having "absolutely no understanding of development and
international trade," it's not an easy subject in which to become
conversant, especially without some backing in economic theory. We
need to have a lot of sympathy for people (like me, 3 years ago) who
are getting their news from the papers and aren't up on world trade
issues. It took me a great deal of reading time to figure out that
some aspects of the boom were based on some sketchy, sketchy theories.

I've had a hard time finding objective, unbiased introductory works on
economics in general, especially with regards to the modern
world-trade situation. Anyone have any suggestions? I like the clear
style of Galbraith, but I lack the wisdom to assess his
economics. With him, I'm trusting the person who sounds the
best to me. Which is dangerous, but you have to start somewhere.

As for the WTO-protests, there's so much misinformation on both sides
that it's hard to sort things through. My take: I think it's good to
respect the anger of the protesters, not simply dismiss them, and
listen to them with at least as much respect as we listen to the
frequently biased "traditional" news sources like TV and print media.

Disregarding whether the WTO protests made sense or not, we can
look closely at issues like 3rd world debt relief, especially when
debt payback in African countries outweighs social spending. We can
assess the enormously out-of-sync way the U.S. treats the environment,
and discuss the way workers are treated by global corporations (like
in the U.S. protected territory of Saipan, Tom Delay's favorite vacation spot.) Sidenote: The Economist has a lot to say
about Africa this week, if you don't mind a fiscal-conservative spin.

As for Lucius' statement that my piece could be interpreted as an
"apologia for the sad state of affairs of the highly corporatized
network," he's right, and I should back up my dramatic statements with
actual proposals.

Must try harder.

Thanks for chewing over my little essay.


posted by ftrain at 6:20 PM on February 28, 2001

Sorry, meant
posted by lucius at 6:23 PM on February 28, 2001

Paul, do you go to Smiley’s often? That place on 7th and 9th? Best goddamn pizza in the Slope. I wish the brewery was closer.

Anyway, there is no such thing as an unbiased look at economics. Of all the social sciences it is responsible for most of the bad voodoo. You have two choices:

1) Believe the equitable distribution of wealth (and therefore power) is beneficial to societies

2) Believe individuals should be able to amass vast fortunes, and that those individuals know what’s best for everyone who is not independently wealthy

Some economists want to keep the status quo (as described by option 2), and others want the first option. There really isn't much of a way to say “a little bit from both” in this instance. Once you believe money is power, and that people should have at least some say in how they live their lives, you cannot have private tyrannies commiserating behind close doors with government. If the two mix, democracy and freedom lose everytime. This is plainly obvious to anyone who follows NAFTA, FTAA, G8, WTO, WEF, etc.

You don’t really need to know much economics to make this decision. It is purely political. Economics — development economics, specifically, the branch that created the theories behind neoliberal trade institutions — is the only field that the theories are universally refuted by history. The first world developed slowly with public works schemes, the third world got privatization and liberalization rammed down their throats. Which is why we have the third world in resource rich countries like India and Brazil.

The best you can hope to do is be especially conversant in both sides of the issue. So read everybody, then believe what you want. I happen to think Shiva, Henwood, Chomsky et. al.; understand the issue better than anyone at, say, the CATO Institute.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 10:01 PM on February 28, 2001

Having seen the economic status quo from inside, and having met way too many millionares/billionares for my taste, I've got to go with option 1.

I've never been to Smiley's. But it cannot, cannot be better than Patsy Grimaldi's, under the Brooklyn Bridge, which is a transcendent experience, if you don't mind the line out the door. Large pie with garlic and sausage, with a bottle of Fetzer wine. Friendly waiters. Big Sinatra shrine. The first slice, things haven't congealed yet, but the second slice is a kind of rapture.

Thanks for the economics intro! The more I learn about the field the more I realize I need to back up and make a plan of study, so I'll use this post to get moving. You should create a Web page/site based on that post; most of the economics links I've seen want to jump straight into theory without clear background.
posted by ftrain at 11:46 PM on February 28, 2001

This stuff is still great. There is still enormous opportunity for anyone who wants to create a truly great text editor, a truly great network publishing tool, artificial intelligence, genomic analysis, media, etc.

(Yes we love ftrain!)

Re: the optimistic closing note, with (re: the dismal science of economics) a call to "ATTAC" --

I too inhaled Barlow and Kelly and St. McLuhan; I still hold out some hope that the web/internet can be an instrument for positive change-in-the-world. Bruce Sterling's Viridian Green mailing list slash design movement is a good place to get a glimmer about just how bad things are now and how very much worse they could get, but also about certain good things being done to help prevent the worst of preventable disasters and maybe even make things a bit nicer for everyone all round.

Bruce's Net-cred goes way back, and he still seems to see a place for enlightened web designers to be a force for the good. E.g., recalling the WorldRun online game in "Islands in the Net" (speaking of science fiction, this was 1988): a couple of years ago I was part of a small informal circle of e-pals concerned with environmentalism and systems ecology sorts of things, where we'd toss around ideas for putting together a web interface to remote sensing databases, GIS mapping software, the CIA World Handbook of Statistics, dynamic systems simulations, etc. etc. -- which might, we felt, help people to "get the big picture" of this very large, but finite, and to an unknowable extent fragile, dynamical system that we meddling monkeys are an increasingly disruptive (but in the Great Big Picture, pretty small) part of. (Shades of the Club of Rome, c. 1970, if anyone remembers that far back ...)

Nothing concrete emerged from this (I moved, got a job, fell out of the loop) but there were seeds planted there that could yet germinate into something useful. Yes it's indeed hard to relate the urgencies and exigencies of "internet time" and (alas!) having to pay the rent, with the incremental accrual of scientific facts and theories that (in theory if not always in fact) the academic milieu is meant to nurture and civilization at large to benefit from. And which the internet (a) was in the first place intended to facilitate, and (b) still can, and does.

And as for genomic analysis and artificial intelligence and what these might possibly have to do with (a) the internet, and (b) saving us from ourselves ...

Well, strange you should mention that -- the stuff I felt I could contribute to our informal ecosystems colloquium was this sublinear-time data mining algorithm I developed back in '93 with a friend who was doing neural nets for protein structure prediction at the time. Without going into detail, this was a method for discovering higher-order correlations in any number of (e.g., environmental) variables in databases of completely outlandish size (as, for example, the SwissProt protein database). It'd find all interactions, which is to say all the "information" (in Shannon's sense), between 100s of 1000s of attributes, cross-validate them and measure the statistical significance of the correlations into the bargain. Right now it's being flogged to (a certain amount of moral anguish here, although I'm not profiting, I only invented the blame thing) big-league pharmaceutical companies for analysing gene expression data. However, the point of this story is that the same AI algorithm could as well be put to work analysing the vast databases (some 5 terabytes a day coming in from remote sensing satellites last time I looked) of environmental measurements, finding the critical needles lost in those haystacks. And/or for that matter, it could be applied equally to the growing terabytes of texts on the internet, to connect people to facts, facts to facts, people to people, and in the connections facilitated thereby to engender new knowledge, and possibly even the knowledge (latently there already, but unconnected) that could be just be what's needed to extricate ourselves and our world from the technologically-precipitated pickles we find ourselves in. (So speaks the technological optimist in me.)

[Some such is the vision Tim Berners-Lee's been promoting for a while now with RDF and the Semantic Web -- though I gather he's counting on human beings to categorize and meta-tag and XML-ize all the words on the web (yeah well, NBL, IMO) -- viz., the latent knowledge discerned by people (and/or by machines) in connections between things not previously known to be connected. Seems to be what learning largely consists of, I think. Making grammars, lexicons, thesauri, dictionaries, encyclopedias ...]

And speaking of the power of words in the right place: this brief editorial published in the French international affairs journal Le Monde diplomatique, in December 1997, which spawned the global ATTAC ("Action for a Tobin Tax to Assist the Citizen") movement, increasingly an influence in European politics, which is all to the good.

Some background, lifted from here (and try a Google search for "ATTAC"):

--------------< quote >---------------

Prompted by the 1997-98 world economic crisis and after two years of rapid growth, the fledgling international movement for a “Tobin tax” -- a tax on currency transactions to help curb financial speculation -- is seeking to speed up its campaign, by pressing for the European parliament to formally investigate the tax's merits and feasibility.

A motion calling for such a study was put to a vote on January 20 but despite the support of 200 parliamentarians was narrowly defeated. Undeterred, the campaign is planning to table a revised resolution during the third quarter of the year.

Meanwhile, it has also launched a petition for the tax, with the goal to win the support of at least 1000 parliamentarians from around the world. By mid-July, it had already secured about 400 such signatures.

A proposal to use taxation to discourage currency speculation was first promoted by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin in 1972 but it's only in the last few years that a campaign has grown around the idea.

The movement's central goal is straightforward: institute a small basic tax, say 0.02-0.1%, on all currency transactions, and a much higher surcharge, say 100%, on speculative gains made on currency swings outside a predetermined range.

Given currency trading totals around US$450 trillion per annum, the proposed tax -- even allowing for some dampening of transactions due to thinner profit margins -- is estimated to collect well over $100 billion a year. (In comparison, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's “official development aid” to the Third World amounted to only US$48 billion in 1997.)

The campaign has also proposed putting the expected collection in the care of a “democratically organised institution” for poverty alleviation in poor countries. The essential details, such as how this body is to be constituted and what steps will be taken to ensure that the fund's distribution is consistent with its stated goal, are still being ironed out.

In April, Cuban leader Fidel Castro lent his support. During his formal address to the G77 summit in Havana, Castro called for a Tobin tax “to arrest unrestrained speculation” and to collect much-needed funds “to promote a real, sustainable and comprehensible development in the Third Word”. He, however, stressed that the tax rate must be at least 1% to be effective.

Hitherto, this worldwide campaign has enjoyed the support of a range of organisations from across the political spectrum and has pursued a strategy of popular action. Though aid, church and non-government organisations and politically non-affiliated individuals have the largest presence, many socialists are also active participants.

ATTAC, Action for a Tobin Tax to Assist the Citizen, is a driving force in Europe, with more than 100,000 members in over 100 French cities and associated “chapters” in fourteen other, mainly European, countries.

Other active bodies in Europe included War on Want in Britain, Caritas International and the Economic and Social Council in France. The Italian city of Genoa, where the 2001 G7 summit of rich nations will be held, in July declared itself a “Tobin town” to express its commitment to the campaign. Fifty French towns have made similar declarations, as part of a wider move to build “an international network of Tobin towns”.

A group in Canada, the Halifax Initiative, has attempted since 1995 to get its government's commitment to raise the idea at the G7. While the Canadian government has rejected such a proposal, the campaign has been growing in leaps and bounds.

In March 1999, groups such as Robin Round, Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice, Results Canada, the Council of Canadians and some labour unions succeeded in help pushing the passage of a motion -- by 164 to 83 -- through the Canadian lower house of parliament, which calls on the government to join other countries in investigating the feasibility of Tobin-type taxes.

In the United States, a new group, Tobin Tax Initiatives, has just been formed.

(Eva Cheng, Green Left Weekly #415, August 9, 2000)

--------------< end-quote >---------------

Good discussion, bless ftrain.
posted by drdee at 7:39 AM on March 7, 2001

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