The Suburbanized Soul

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in The Silicon Alley Reporter
September, 1998

What price technology?


"The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th Century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Over our lives preside the twin leitmotifs of the 20th century: sex and paranoia...The century's most terrifying casualty (is) the death of affect."

--JG Ballard, from the Introduction to the French Edition of "Crash," 1974

For the past century, with pneumatic regularity, each promise offered by technology has left us with a resonant and foreboding image burnt into the retinas of the collective consciousness.

From atom-splitting, and the dream of clean, safe, unlimited power--a satanic cloud over Hiroshima. From the promise of a car in every garage, we inherit Los Angeles' permanent brown ceiling of smog. From Serling and Chayevsky's dream of television as a town hall and community theater for the elevation of our democracy: a solitary child listlessly slumped on a couch channel-surfs across inane talk shows. From the 2nd Industrial Revolution of an information-automated workplace: skilled career professionals rendered "obsolete" standing on unemployment lines. And from the cracked code of DNA, the eerie promises of a future where identity dissolves into the digital.

How is that technology's silvery clouds seem always lined with darkness?

The pattern is clear: in every case, the free market and its goverment have co-opted the promise of these technologies--short term corporate interest has conflicted with long term public interest. A small number of people have made a great deal of money in the process, and Joe Citizen has lost--in health, vitality, employment, personal freedom--again and again.

As the cycle begins again, what is the promise made by our "new technologies," specifically the Internet and the new paradigms of networked computers? A smaller world? A friendly, egalitarian, efficient and accessible global village ruled by nothing but a shared ethic of mutual respect?

What backlash might await us? Candidates are lining up: a surveillance society where privacy dissolves into the matrix? A news media compromised by the interactive power of a million short-attention spans into tabloid irrelevance?

Or perhaps, as Ballard says, a more banal form of evil awaits us: "the future is going to be boring. The suburbanization of the planet will continue, followed closely by the suburbanization of the soul..."

* * *

As little as five years ago, a fledgling community of people who hadn't even had their first opportunity to laugh about the term "content provider" were rolling out of bed early, waking up the the "thwaaangg" of Mac 5200s, and starting small media businesses. Some of us loved these projects so much that we'd work night jobs to be able to go to work in the daytime. A lot of us knew each other, and we'd meet for hurried, excited lunches, planning out our little "strategic alliances." It was a heady time of possibility.

My project was a small national print + web magazine called KGB (subtitled "Crime, Style + the End of the World.") There were other magazines like Might; independent web zines of all kinds; Bulletin Board Services like New York Online, CD-ROM journals like Blender. Our power to invent and reinvent our respective media seemed unlimited. If the ad dollars kept coming, there was nothing we couldn't DIY.

Five years later, the economy of scale had won out. Lazy media buyers decided to go exclusively with the biggest volume titles, and the majority of the entrepreneurial media ventures of the early '90s are now gravestones. The ad-driven sites themselves are giving way to storefronts and interactive junk-mail, strip-mining the vast audience which is still out there looking for something. The web (and the newsstand) looks increasingly like a suburban shopping center, anchored by a few banal or utilitarian powerbrands, with the surviving independent titles skulking about like teenage mall rats. It's slouching, allright, right on schedule.

Will anyone want to be on the web if this continues? It's a question of sustainable development. If the air is going to be breathable on the Internet in 10 years, the medium itself--however it evolves--must be planted with some little green trees. If the net is to regain any legitimacy as a tool for communicating real meanings, it will have to find a way to subsidize and promote internally-motivated projects like the ones that died in the first shakedown. PBS showed the way for dozens of cable channels; it was good for television as a whole. Like any society, without a few voices speaking simply because they have something to say, the sounds of Babel will become deafening, and once again, a great chance will be missed.