Bruce Sterling: We're getting the "web culture" we deserve.

Interview from September 1, 2014. Also archived here.


Hi Bruce,

I noticed you joined the webcultures listserv, and was wondering if you might help us get started with a post that puts the list’s mission - to help organize and promote web history and related research - into a larger perspective.

*Who, me? I lurk on discussion lists, I never discuss anything much.

*On the other hand, I rarely lack for some "larger perspectives."

If you’re willing, here are some questions you could use (but also feel free to ignore them):

Is there a distinction between dead media that can be reanimated and those that can’t, and which category will the web go into?

*It belongs in the category of the dead. The "web" isn't a single gizmo or a protocol. The web a host of small pieces loosely joined that continually flake off the imaginary central mass and irrevocably decay.

*Imagine that you miraculously had the entire World Wide Web from 2004, preserved on a single server. You could boot that "web" up, hook up some modern wireless broadband and tell the population to have at it. Would it "live" again, would it be "re-animated"? No. It would be just as dead as Olia Lialina's replica of GeoCities.

*One can build a kerosene-fired magic lantern that works identically to the old dead pre-cinematic devices, but the Web was already built on a compost of earlier dead stuff: ARPANET, gopher, Wais, Web 1.0 with its static web pages, etc etc. They won't come back even if the machinery functions -- the social ecosystem around the tech is gone, so it's like trying to revive the dead 8 track tape.

Wired once ran a “The Web is Dead” article and it was lampooned, but is there some truth to the idea that the open, collaborative, mildly subversive medium many believed we were dealing with from the early-90s to about 2008 (say, up to the launch of the App store) is pretty much gone, killed off by the neat separation of content providers (netflix, kindle, verified users, etc) and communication apps where public discussion is limited to one-liners?

*Everybody likes to lampoon Wired, but somehow Wired is still an existent paper magazine when legions of its rivals are long dead.

*I agree that the 90s web of functional anarchy and go-along, get-along little websites is now a historical relic. I'd be inclined to blame Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon for all their disruptive embracing-and-extending. However, there were plenty of other factors dooming the 90s web: wireless broadband, an explosion in mobiles, a militarization of the Net, the NSA, the Chinese, rampant online criminality, the popular love for television rather than boring discussion lists on desktop machines. You could see from a glance at the 90s web that the thing was changing with catastrophic speed. It was the picture of hectic instability.

Is the dream alive on Facebook and Facebook Messenger, or is the best we can hope for that contributing to Wikipedia and Reddit becomes as cool as collecting LPs?

*The dream isn't alive. The best hope is some new social invention we haven't heard of yet. Facebook is quite boring. Facebook is more tedious than old-school broadcast network television, even. Big budget media with millions of captive viewers isn't "cool" by definition.

*One shouldn't cry in one's beer when formerly cool stuff becomes a pillar of society. That attitude smacks of bohemian naiveté. No social phenomenon embraced by a million people remains the same in the hands of a billion people. Complaining that the 90s web is gone is like complaining that the Mongols got too popular.

*Another (grander and vaguer) way of putting this is: what will the last 20 years or so of web history ultimately look like? A blip? A transformation? A missed opportunity? *

*A twenty-year blip. In retrospect, the early web will look like the silent film period. It'll look like the twenty-year frenzy around radio technology before television arrived. Of course there were plenty of missed opportunities, and radio itself was indeed a transformation.

*The next twenty years will also be a blip of sorts. The web's present regime won't last. It's uglier, greedier and more intrusive than the older web, but it's no more stable.

*We're getting the "web culture" we deserve for this glum historic period. Our web today looks quite like other major aspects of our culture, our finance, our military situation, our religions, our law, our environment. That's because the web permeated all those things.

*This too shall pass. Web culture is a subset of culture, and culture for better or worse is profoundly ductile. I think web history is great, but history is full of surprises. The Web itself was a big surprise. When you can't imagine how things will change, it means that things will change in ways that are unimaginable.

Bruce Sterling