Why cyberspace is an empty place
Technologies that matter make daily life less obnoxious, and you can leverage them all the time. The Net is going to start mattering in a significant way when it relieves people of the burden of dealing with the garbage inherent in the information flow of everyday life. The Net is going to matter when I can rely on it to store the information I now keep on disk, and the computer is a completely transparent object. I plug in one computer, I see through it to the object that matters to me, and I have my entire information life on-line, in chronological order, searchable from my electronic birth certificate onward. All the documents important to me are maintained by the Net with sufficient reliability that I can unplug my computer and smash it with a hammer without affecting anything. I can walk up to any computer anywhere and focus it on my own life stream, my own information object. A laptop will begin to look like a Winnebago; it will be a little eccentric to carry one around.
The Net is going to matter when all of my information transactions with the outside world go through it. I buy an object of some sort and can find the owner's manual on it; all my bills and correspondence go through it; I can save snapshots and videos on it; and it serves as my appointment calendar and electronic diary. At that point the Net isn't going to look glitzy. It's going to be transparent, like central heating: You can easily forget it, but it will be hard to picture life without it.
The most important way people are going to make money on the Net is on the model of utility companies, by providing a service that you pay for monthly. I'm going to hire a server to manage all my documents, and I'll be happy to pay $12.50 a month for an absolutely reliable storage facility. This company will store my documents, support all sorts of fancy searches, and make my documents available anywhere.
We aren't moving in that direction now. A big transition has to happen: People need to get over their childish excitement, stop playing games, and get serious.
A lot of work has been done on electronic newspapers. But they've failed to attract a large audience because they haven't given the public anything that's worth money compared with paper newspapers. An electronic newspaper has to be designed by someone who grasps why a paper newspaper is a great technology: it's cheap, it's portable, and it fits in my briefcase. I can spread it out on a table and read it while I drink coffee and eat a doughnut. A company that's going to make money on electronic newspapers will have to come up with something completely different.
I'd like to see an electronic newspaper that has multiple translucent layers, each layer evolving at a different rate. The top layer is late-breaking stuff, and as I delve down into the layers, I'd get more detailed information. I wouldn't have to read it for days or weeks because I could rewind and fast-forward through everything I've missed. And I could read it with my eyes closed: If I'd had a hard day in the office, I could lie down on the couch, close my eyes, and listen to audio versions of the stories I select. Maybe these features are not the ones that will make a billion dollars for a new company, but whatever it is, someone is going to have to have an idea different from the product out there now.
What kind of people use the Net and what are their activities doing to the country, the world, the culture? It may sound like a parochial issue that women don't much like computers, but they don't, and the issue is a tremendously important one. It's a fact that there are not many women majoring in computer science, and people are doing handstands to get more women in the field. An article in Time magazine 15 years ago about the first wave of video games observed that boys played them and girls didn't, and experts were asking how we can get girls more involved. My response is, Why should they want to be? They're not attracted to this world, certainly not to the extent that men are, and that's one of the reasons why it's such a spiritually impoverished world. Most reasonably sophisticated men are happier in an environment that includes women. One of the problems with the computer society is that not only is it an almost all-male society, but it's a little-boy society, part of an ongoing infantilization of the society over the past half century.
Temperamentally conservative people don't like machines and never will. These may be very bright people for whom the computer world is never going to be a completely satisfactory world. In addition to this 35 percent, there's another 35 percent who might be great computer users but now realize that computer software stinks. They realize that the whole computer world is set up on a primitive basis: They shouldn't have to worry about compatibility; they shouldn't have to worry about backing up disks or about the format of a floppy disk. Consumers wouldn't put up with any of this if they were serious.
Excerpted from a chapter in Digerati: Encounter with the Cyber Elite(Hardwired, 1996.) In this chapter David Gelertner, a Yale University computer scientist, comments on the net.