Eyes on the Prize

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 October 2000

Those of you who have followed my work for any length of time know I resent the way business has taken over the Internet. Since 1994, when the international research communications infrastructure was officially opened to business, I’ve watched what has appeared to me to be a degradation of the content, spirit, and mission of the interactive space.

Well, I’m done complaining.

Don’t worry – I’m still as anti-corporate as the next guy. If anything, I’ve become so anti-corporate that I don’t mind exploiting them as much as they think they’re exploiting us. They mean to take as much as they can get from us, so what’s so terrible about our taking whatever we can get from them? In other words: Why not let big business build our Internet?

They won’t make any money off it, in the long run. In fact, no one has yet developed a truly profitable business plan for the Internet. Not the online magazines of the mid-nineties (no revenue), the e-commerce companies of the late nineties (no margins), or the streaming media sites of the early “broadband” 2000’s (no one cares). The only people who have taken home any profits are the speculators who buy stock in these schemes – and then sell it to less crafty speculators before the schemes crash. The other folks who make money, of course, are the legions of advisors, brokers and consultants, who are busy leading everyone else to their doom. And a couple of monopolies.

In the meantime, at least some portion of the countless investment dollars pouring into the Internet are going towards building the infrastructure itself. Telephone companies are developing faster, cheaper ways of increasing data rates, while cable TV companies work to expand bandwidth. Others are laying fiber-optic, launching satellites, miniaturizing cell phones, and integrating databases.

For the past five years or so, those of us who were aware of how little money could actually be made on truly interactive experiences have attempted to pop the stock market bubble that has formed around it. We know that Internet investing is essentially a pyramid scheme, and that there are not enough eyeball-hours in a day to justify even today’s, slightly deflated, dot-com valuations.

So we whine on about how big business doesn’t belong online, won’t really make any money, and should leave us all alone to play and interact in our publicly owned, civil-minded datasphere. What are we, crazy?

I remember a time, not so long ago, when we were begging for big business to come onboard. In the early 90’s, before the World Wide Web even existed, Internet enthusiasts would get laughed out of conference rooms for suggesting that any real companies might want to get involved in the interactive age. My first book on the Internet was canceled before it hit the press in 1993, because the publisher feared the “fad” would be over before the ink had dried. (The book came out a year later.)

Once big business came online, most of us early proselytizers changed our tune to gloom and doom. True enough, the Internet was pillaged. It became a strip mall of epic proportions, and many people logging on today get no sense of the opportunity a communications infrastructure might offer for the formation of a global society.

But maybe we should keep our eyes on that prize. Thanks to the short-sighted, profit-driven motives of mindless corporations, the Internet is cheaper to use, more widely available, and spreading faster than ever before. “Developing” regions and former Soviet-bloc nations are the next target market, and we can only imagine the sorts of incentives being formulated to turn folks who have never even made a phone call into Internet users.

Our tragic error has been to resent the people who have made money off the Internet so far. Who cares if they get extremely wealthy? So what if the real estate prices in New York, San Francisco and London go up? This is a decentralized society we’re building, anyway. The dotcom investors’ belief in the false scarcity of urban real estate is no different than their allegiance to the finite dotcom naming scheme. It’s competition that dominates their thinking, which is why they’ll never really understand their holy grail of “online community.”

We want to crash the market and pop the bubble because we hate the poor fools who have seemingly taken over the digital landscape and gotten rich off a set of technologies they only mean to misuse. The recent correction in stock values is a clear indication that our message has been heard. Well, aren’t we the kind ones?

I propose we chart a different course. Let’s encourage business to invest in the Internet, and to build an open infrastructure that will someday allow the whole world to play a glorious networked game with itself or, better, find ways to interact other than through money or munitions. Let’s milk every last drop from the corporate cows before they figure out they’ve been nourishing an infant who means to swallow them whole.