By Derek Winkler
Malaise. Defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a vague sense of unease.” To sit behind the broken pencil Internet Desk is to have an excellent vantage point from which to track the developing malaise which is enfolding the Net like a toxic fog. There are creepy things happening out there, and if you watch them too closely for too long, your sense of unease will creep steadily from “vague” to “nausea-inducing”. Taken separately the following event-scenes may not seem like much, but blur them together and they begin to inspire some serious malaise. Behold.
1) Let us begin with the Internet event which cut closest to the bone for us at broken pencil, the tragic death-by-hobnail-boot of our late service provider,Internex Online, the oldest, coolest, most community-oriented ISP in Toronto, possibly in the nation. The precise circumstances of its death are too convoluted to go into here (to explore them in all their grisly detail, try the IO Refugees page), but suffice it to say that once Internex had been bought by a phone company, ACCTel, we knew it would just be a matter of time before we got royally screwed. The command to bend over came just as we (and the other 30,000 users at IO) were recovering from various Christmas and New Year’s indulgences, and we found ourselves with just under two weeks to move our site to another provider. The ham-fisted indifference with which ACCTel handled its decision to shut down IO stunned everybody on-line who heard it. It was a wake-up call to the reality that the big companies maneuvering to buy the ISP market don’t give a damn about Internet culture or community. Buyer beware, and if you’re looking for us, we’re now here.
2) .tiff, chronicle of lo-tech distractions from urban living, finest street-level-tech zine in the nation, once described as possibly the best zine in Canada of any kind by this very publication, is dead. The last issue seen was 3.3, which came out something like eight months ago by my rough recollection. Both its posted website addresses come back 404 and no search engine can turn up a living trace of it. Your intrepid reporter has received confirmation from a source close to the action that .tiff is toast, but requests for more details have so far gone unanswered. Does this mean we have to start reading Shift?
3) Check out this direct lift from the press release of the Campus Cafe, a website targeted at Canadian post-secondary students:
“The Campus Cafe Web Site provides a wide variety of comprehensive information and interactive entertainment with the incorporation of sponsors in mind, through several value-added marketing initiatives: banner advertising, embedded editorial, section sponsorship, couponing, contests and promotions.”
Embedded editorial? You mean like this (taken from the Campus Cafe site)?
“eye.net – A COOL CANADIAN WEB SITE…In my quest for some quality Canadian content, I came across eye.NET, Canada’s first online magazine. The last time I looked at eye.NET was over a year ago and my, how things have changed. eye.NET has had a wonderful makeover!”
What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Connect these dots:
a) Campus Cafe’s “interactive agency of record” is, according to the press release, a usage-tracking outfit called ClickThrough.
b) ClickThrough in Canada has a very tight relationship with an advertising agency called Genesis Media Inc. (In fact, this press release is printed on Genesis Media letterhead.)
c) Genesis Media has a web design division called Planet Genesis.
d) Guess who did that wonderful makeover at eye.NET? You guessed it. Planet Genesis.
bonus!) One more step to come full circle-jerk: If you would care to scroll down the master list of eye.SITE of the Day winners, yes, there it is. November 22, 1996: Campus Cafe.
4) Witness the legions of website designers who can’t sell $50,000 sites on hype anymore uneasily watching their RRSPs dribble away. This has given rise to a conspiracy of pro designers to push Java as the one and only possible future of the Net: a seriously Byzantine mongrel programming language which not many happy amateurs will be able to master. If it catches on the way its boosters hope it will, it will mean the removal of the Web to a professional arena in which only highly trained priests can supply content, and the only input available to the passive masses will be pushing a button to choose which “channel” they want to look at next. Sound like any other medium you know?
5) “Push Media” is the other buzzword you see everywhere these days. The content comes to you unbidden, and you don’t have to do anything but sit back and stare. Check out Pointcast Canada. According to its press bumpf, this news-as-screensaver service is sucking up 1000 new users a day, despite the fact that it delivers nothing Canadian except cut-and-paste Globe and Mail stories, rip-and-read press releases and extraordinarily annoying animated advertisements. Its the Internet as Musak basically, but the folks who are desperate to see some cash out of the Net get down on their knees and worship before this thing because it offers two features no website has yet provided: a passive audience and ads that catch your eye like a fishhook. Don’t believe the hype.
6) I cruised by the online version of Hansard, the written record of everything that gets said in Parliament, the high forum wherein our wise leaders articulate their lofty goals for the nation. I searched Hansard for the word “Internet,” and this is the first reference that came up:
Private Members’ Business, Thursday, February 13, 1997. Mr. Dennis J. Mills (Broadview-Greenwood, Lib.) said:
“I have to go back to an experience I had last summer. It was August. I decided to take a weekend off. I travelled to the beautiful island of Antigua. I have a friend that has a place down there, Sheikh Amin Al-Dahlawi from Jeddah, a man that I had met a few years ago. While I was relaxing in his beautiful resort in Antigua one evening I attended a presentation from a company in California, World Wide Web Casinos, Mr. Peter Michaels and Mr. Peter Demos. They gave a presentation to our group on this whole realm of Internet casino gaming which is emerging as a very strong force…I was absolutely blown away to see how people could actually turn on their lap top or their home based PC, and all of a sudden they could participate in the entertainment of gaming from wherever they were. It was just like being involved in a real casino, just as if you were visiting a land based casino. I had never seen anything like it. I then proceeded to sell Canada to them. I thought that if this concept was emerging and it was going to be so strong in its business activity, I asked if they would consider putting a land base Internet casino in Canada. They certainly obliged me in the sense that they thought it was interesting that we would consider it. That was the end of the discussion at that time.”
7) At the Internet World Canada ’97 show held in Toronto in January, the first annual Internet IMPACT awards were doled out. According to the press bumpf, “The awards were given to Canadian Web sites that used innovation, imagination and determination to better the lives of Canadians.” Awards were given out in seven categories, with one of these seven being named overall Site of the Year. Up for the honour were some pretty good sites, including OWLKIDS Online and the Jarvis Collegiate Institute. You know who won? The Sports Network. The Friggin Sports Network was judged to be “the Web site having the most impact on the lives of Canadians.” I’m not sure what that says about us as a nation, but we should probably raise our standards.
When people talk about the problems facing the Internet today, they usually talk about a short-list of usual suspects: censorship, privacy, porn, hate. The Net will probably be able to survive these minor controversies easily. It’s my fondest dream that the Internet, legendary in its ability to withstand nuclear war, will prove itself capable of withstanding a far more insidious attack: the twin trends of passivity and commercialization.
Maybe, 18 months from now, the merchant adventurers will just give up and pull out. If that happens, big media and the government will quickly lose interest in this show as the flashy business celebrities move on to the Next Thing. Phone companies might even stop buying up service providers, so users may actually stand a chance of talking to somebody who knows what PPP stands for when they call tech support. The Internet may go back to being the way it was two years ago, glimpses of which you can still see today between the ad banners; a place where people who were interested enough to make the effort to get involved were rewarded by contact with a group of people who were also interested enough to get involved. The Push-Button Plug N Play Net is rapidly removing the current minimal bar to entry: the willingness to experiment a bit to find out how things work. And what are we getting in return for our commitment to follow the path of least resistance? Pointcast and mBanx. If that’s all we’re getting, we have good reason to be uneasy.