Questioning Technology: Coney Island of the Net

Coney Island -- with its sword swallowers, bearded ladies and "giant killer rats" -- has survived throughout this century as a favorite New York attraction. The seedy, somewhat sleazy quality that permeates the grand old amusement park by the sea is just the anecdote to the squeaky clean, high-tech Disneyesque entertainment centers of the 90s. So its sad news that Coney Island's big boardwalk sideshow specializing in what is affectionately termed "Americano Bizarro" is in financial trouble and might be replaced by...oh no!...another McDonalds restaurant. The Coney Island situation, reports the New York Times, pits "McCulture," the homogenization of the American experience, against a "pithily individualistic celebration of a near-extinct part of American folklore." Hitting the nail on the head (so to speak) was Fred Kahl, a/k/a "The Great Fredini," who hammers five inch nails up his nose and "flosses his brain" by running a tube into his nose and out of his mouth. "Sadly, a lot of people won't miss this place," he said. "They'll eat at McDonald's and be totally happy. They live lives framed by TV and it doesn't make any difference." The same pressures that threaten the Coney Island sideshow also endanger the Internet (at least as we know it today). The Net is now all the things that make Coney Island so special. It's quirky, individualistic, difficult to control, a bit seedy and has anarchic tendencies. And, like the sideshow, it's not very profitable these days. On the Net, the equivalent to McDonald's is bandwidth. Very simply, bandwidth means increased data delivery capacity -- the auto transportation equivalent to adding more lanes to the freeway. And, interestingly enough, everyone seems to be for increasing bandwidth on the Net. It's automatically assumed to be good, like mom and apple pie. More bandwidth, of course, means the capacity to quickly access giant files containing video, audio, animation and graphics. No more waiting to download on-line movie trailers or a free McDonalds "multimedia kit." And since multimedia is expensive to produce, expect to pay for anything beyond blatant advertising. Yes, the arrival of multimedia means the big time commercialization (and eventual homogenization) of what is now an essentially populist communications network. Bandwidth, the enabler of multimedia, threatens to turn what is now a funky mom and pop information "dirt road" into the computer equivalent of interactive (or is it interpassive) commercial TV. And when that comes, something special -- the prickly soul of the Internet -- will be lost forever. This bandwidth boost may arrive sooner than many think. Even though the cable television operators and phone companies are still fumbling with their over-hyped interactive broadband networks, Hughes' DirecTV, the slick national direct-to-home satellite service, has big plans to offer an interactive broadband data pipe through existing consumer satellite receivers starting next spring. And that's just the tip of the big bandwidth iceberg. It's too bad we just can't leave the Internet alone. Almost by accident, what started as a U.S. military project blossomed into a great affordable, grassroots, non-profit global communications system. Wouldn't it be great if we could keep it non-profit and treat it as a sort of virtual wildlife preserve. Of course, that won't happen. These days, everything in this culture is judged by how much money it can make. Bandwidth expansion, unfortunately, is all that stands between today eclectic Net and one that tries to become a cash cow for the big commercial information providers. Though there is still great potential in the Net as a truly democratic communications infrastructure open to virtually everyone (the bastards haven't won yet), I have a queasy feeling about where the rapidly moving technological advancement is taking us. My fear is rooted in a simple observation. I've seen much of the glitzy "content" that bandwidth makes possible and find it about as satisfying as a steady diet of fast food. In fact, what I've seen could easily be called visual fast food. It's light on substance and usually doesn't take long -- after the initial luster wears off -- for the recognition to come that behind those slick corporate presentations is the same old consumer message. The soul of the Net, on the other hand, rests in its personal pages. Here are literally thousands of tiny examples of the First Amendment at work. It's here we get the passionate rants, raves and original insights of individuals with little to lose. It's here that intellectual fervor sometimes boils over and we get first-hand "news" unfiltered by advertiser supported media. Personal pages are the wild and woolly alternative to the AOLs, CompuServes, and Prodigys, who try to offer safe, mall-like creature comforts in virtual theme parks. These "branded" corporate information providers offer much appeal to a media-saturated generation who demands their data in easy-to-swallow, sugar-coated tablets. But like the broadening experience of world travel, there's much more out there for those who break away from the organized tour and get off the beaten path. Just as with the sideshows at Coney Island, the "Americano Bizarro" of today's Internet probably won't survive. Its demise looks inevitable in our restless, turbo-charged "sell me, sell me" society. But I suspect many of us soon will be looking back on today's primitive Net with some nostalgia. The Great Fredini was probably right. A generation whose lives have been framed by TV will probably embrace a new multimedia-lite Net. But I feel sorry for those who haven't tasted what's outside the fast food world of McDonald's. They don't know what they are missing.

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