They Called Me Cyberboy

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Time Digital on 1 January 1997

Not so long ago, I could freak people out by talking about cyberculture. It was fun. They’d laugh nervously when I’d say they’d be using email someday. They’d call me “cyberboy” and mean it as an insult. I felt like a renegade.

However frustrating it was to be an Internet evangelist in the late 1980’s, it beat what I’m feeling now having won the battle. A journey into cyberspace is about as paradigm-threatening as an afternoon at the mall. The Internet is better, bigger, faster, and brighter, but the buzz is gone.

I remember when following Internet culture or, better, actually participating in it, meant witnessing the birth of a movement as radically novel as psychedelia, punk, or, I liked to imagine, the Renaissance itself.

Here was a ragtag collection of idealistic Californians, bent on wiring up the global brain, one node at a time. Every new account on the WELL - the Bay Area’s pre-eminent online bulletin board, Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link - meant another convert to the great digital hot tub. The struggle of obtaining the computer, the modem, the software, the phone number and the appropriate protocol was a journey of Arthurian proportion. The community you’d find when you’d got there was as political, high-minded, and tightly knit as the Round Table. No wonder “universal access” became our Holy Grail.

Conceived on the bongwater-stained rugs of Reid College dorm rooms, the Apple personal computer bent over backwards to bring even the most stoned of us into the mix. The Macintosh soon became the central metaphor for our collective challenge to God himself. We held more than a forbidden fruit: we had the whole world in our hands. Access was power.

Our arrogance was only matched by our naivete. Like hippies scheming to dose the city’s reservoir with LSD, Internet enthusiasts took a by-any-means-necessary attitude towards digital enlightenment. Getting a friend to participate in a USENET group was as rewarding to us as scoring a convert is to a Mormon.

And the beauty of it was that we were the freaks! Not just nerds, but deeply and beautifully twisted people from the very fringes of culture had finally found a home. We all had the sense that we were the first settlers of a remote frontier. We had migrated online together in order to create a new society from the ground up.

Cyberculture was hard to describe - and a good number of us got book contracts paying us to try - but it was undeniably real when experienced first hand. It was characterized by Californian idealism, do-it-yourselfer ingenuity, and an ethic of tolerance above all else. You couldn’t go to a hip party in San Francisco without someone switching on a computer and demonstrating the brand new Mosaic browser for the fledgling World Wide Web. The patience with which experienced hackers walked newbies through their virgin hypertext voyages would make a sexual surrogate ashamed.

Coaxing businesses online was simply an extension of this need to share. It was less an act of profiteering than an effort to acquire some long-awaited credibility. Somehow it seemed like the revolution was taking too long; so our best-spoken advocates loaded up their laptops and made presentations to the Fortune 500. Then something happened on NASDAQ, and cyberculture was turned upside down.

It should have come as no surprise that big corporations, whose bottom line depends on public relations, direct selling, and “staying ahead of the curve,” would eventually become the driving force behind cyberculture’s evolution. Once the conversation itself was no longer the highest priority, marketing took its place. Though the diehards protested with the fervor of Christ ejecting moneychangers from the temple, the Internet became the domain of businessmen.

To be sure, commercial interests have taken this technology a long way. Thanks to Internet Explorer 4.0, America Online, and banner advertisements, the holy grail of universal access is within our reach. But universal access to what? Direct marketing, movies-on-demand, and up-to-the-second stock quotes?

Even if the Internet has not yet been rendered ubiquitous, it has certainly been absorbed the same mainstream culture that denied its existence and resisted its ethos for an awfully long time. True, cyberculture has inalterably changed its co-opter, but in the process has become indistinguishable from it as well.

Every day, more people conduct their daily business online. The Internet makes their lives more convenient.

I can’t bring myself to see mere convenience as a victory. Sadly, cyberspace has become just another place to do business. The question is no longer how browsing the Internet changes the way we look at the world; it’s which browser we’ll be using to buy products from the same old world.

The only way I can soothe myself is to imagine that the essentially individualistic and countercultural vibe of the Internet I once knew has simply gone into remission. Corporate money is needed to build the infrastructure that will allow the real world to get access to networking technology. By the time Microsoft and the others learn that the Web is not the direct marketing paradise they’re envisioning, it will be too late. They’ll have put the tools in our hands that allow us to create the interactive world we were dreaming of.

In the meantime, I now get paid for saying the same sorts of things that got me teased before. But I preferred tweaking people for free. That’s why they called me cyberboy.