Questioning Technology: Getting What We Deserve

As I paced the carpeted aisles of the Javits Convention Center in New York City last week, I was saddened by the sorry spectacle that the Internet World trade show has become.A few years back -- when the show was small and flush with hungry young media mavericks -- one could sense some real possibilities for a revolution in electronic communications. Now, with the world's largest media and technology companies joining the Internet fray, the promise of meaningful change has all but evaporated.Internet World has become a carnival of corporate hucksters, most of them hawking electronic commerce, TV-style junk entertainment and private networks for large global corporations. There are few aggressive mainstream voices, if any, that still promote the Internet as a vehicle for participatory democratic communications."Free food, free booze," shouted a PR executive to a reporter. It was the most potent weapon he had to lure the press to a mind numbing lecture on his company's new electronic commerce software. Others used magicians, tap dancers, costumed robots and even guitar-playing actors to generate maximum noise about their flavor of the day products.It struck me that many of the Internet salesmen are now barely distinguishable from the aggressive used car dealers that send me up the wall. They are loud, pushy and in-your-face. Sometimes it's impossible to cut through their lingo to even understand what product they are selling.But then it's not hard to guess. This is the year of electronic commerce. Dozens of companies are parading various schemes to sell consumer goods and services over the Internet. A parallel theme is "safety," a term that in reality means censoring out as much information as possible that might scare away shoppers.Steve Case, the chief pitchman at America Online, was a keynote speaker at Internet World. He was also a major participant in an earlier conference in Washington, D.C. that focused on making the Internet "safe for children." Case's very involvement in these high profile public events should be enough to make supporters of a free and open Internet very wary.Perhaps no single individual has done more to bring the worst of our celebrity-worshipping consumer culture to the Internet than Steve Case. From his earliest days at America Online, he's been unabashedly open and honest about his vision for the Net. He sees endless online shopping, Disneyesque entertainment and well-filtered, inoffensive "information" as the core of the online future.The sad thing is that the mass of Americans who use electronic communications have let Case have his way. In fact, he's now been elevated -- along with Bill Gates -- to one of the most respected figures in the cyber community. Rather than being questioned for his actions, Case is being celebrated as a visionary and rewarded with great wealth.Much of my despair at Internet World came from the stark realization that the most promising technology of our time now reflects the worst of human nature. The cheap, crass hucksterism that pervaded the exhibit hall in New York City is representative of what America has become in the 1990s. From the celebrity theme restaurants drawing huge crowds to Times Square this holiday season to the entertainment messages now billed as "news and information" on television, we Americans are getting exactly what we deserve.

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