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Duck & Cover

by Rod Amis

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I knew that it was only a matter of time before there would be a backlash against what we on the Internet were doing to the wider world. That's why I was not surprised when stickers started appearing on the streets with names like F--kYouandtheDotcomYouRodeInOn. In places like my former home, San Francisco, those of us working on the Internet are reviled.... What I didn't anticipate --- and many didn't --- was how quickly the (stock and venture capital) markets would turn on us.

If you are one of the people, like me, who took a lower salary in exchange for stock options, you are now looking at Confederate money. You get paid very little for what you do, and the company encourages you not to cash out your options as soon as they vest because you need to be a "team player." Uh-huh.

Well, let's see. The CEO has already cashed out a couplah million. His cronies have dumped to the tune of another five million or so. But it's a good idea for me not to unload any of my vested stock options because it will show I'm totally behind the company and I'm a team player.

I'm going to do the Right Thing. I'm going to go long.

"How about this? We'll pay you a lot less than you're worth, but we'll give you some stock options.
"If you hang in long enough, you could be another dot.com millionare. Doesn't that sound great, buddy?"



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One need look no farther than this chilling chart at The Industry Standard to see that we're not talking isolated incidents but about an environmental shift. The long awaited shake-out is upon us in the same year that WIRED magazine does a major story about dot-coms falling over each other to throw millions of dollars into Super Bowl advertising.

I'm sure historians will look back at that frenzied fiasco and ask "What were these people thinking? Were they thinking?"

And at struggling little enterprises like this one, where the annual promotional budget is counted in the hundreds of dollars, there is a certain justice to the new sobriety being forced on our profligate colleagues.

For all the celebratory words we have lavished on this medium about its freedom, openness, and low cost-of-entry, those are some of the very factors which make it so difficult to survive here. As I've mentioned, most of the Web sites that were around when G21 launched on the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link ("the WELL") at the beginning of 1996 are not around any longer. Meanwhile *millions* of new Web sites have flooded in.

To give you one example of the impact that type of development has here, G21 dropped from one of the topic 146,000 sites on the Web (as rated by Netscape's estimable services) to one of the top 214,000-odd sites in a three month period this year --- while our actual page-views continued to increase. Part of this metric has *everything* to do with the sheer number of new sites vying for your attention.

Because of my unique position of being both a Web columnist and a Web publisher, I look on the former environmental change (the shake-out) and the latter (continued introduction of new Web attractions) with a combination of fascination and dread.

As columnist, I'm fascinated with both the impact that more bandwidth is having for "power-users" like myself who could not imagine living without our digital subscriber lines(DSL/ADSL) or cable access and the way these have taken some of the "wait" out of the World Wide Wait experience. We're "always on" if we want to be and have a relatively reliable Internet Service Provider. We actually enjoy things like "rich media." For example, I wouldn't give up my feed from Silicon.com for the world. I love, too, being able to download MP3s and add them to my MusicMatch Jukebox playlist.

As a publisher, I already seeing some of my own tried-and-true design laws being eroded by this same increased bandwidth. The temptation to design for what I can "handle" is often greater than my desire to remain sleek for the 28.8 and 56k modem users. Succumbing to that temptation also directly impacts visitors abroad who are still suffering under metered telephony. This is bad.

All of these concerns lead to the larger one of permutations of "the Digital Divide." As the Internet continues to grow organically, these questions of
  • dot-com survival,
  • radical growth,
  • variations in processor and connection speed,
  • differing browser standards and usage,
cannot but help us come to the conclusion that there is not one Web any more, there are many Webs.

The Web which I surf every day is not the same Web used by my colleague in Germany, for example. His is more restricted and is frustrated by "rich media" presentations and the need to make expensive downloads of plug-ins. My pal up in the hills of Ukiah, California, who only uses Lynx to surf the Web and thus foregoes the glitzy graphics and banner advertising, has a completely different Web than either I or my German friend... and so on.

My writer friend, who only accesses Slashdot from his PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) while commuting to Palo Alto, works on another Web again from the other three of us.

Thus, for a medium so profoundly new, whose future shape no one today can grasp or envision, already there are signs that --- unlike other communications tools we have employed --- this one won't be a single entity but many different organisms following separate and constantly changing paths of development.

It is highly plausible that the Web(s) of the future, like biological organisms, will be different things to different users. To continue in the oceanic metaphor which I've employed, I can foresee a Web where you could be trapped in a gale of cascading and bombarding waves of information while I drift peacefully in a digital Sargasso. It's already starting to look that way to me.

By extrapolation, assuming that I continue to be an Information Worker for years into the future, the results of the dot-com shake-out of today could well mean that the price of doing business for me includes moving to a secluded community where access is my paramount concern, while you decide that sociability is the higher value and that you need to limit technological intrusions into your life...



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