Future Tense: The Internet Is Made Of Acid

Alex Castle

Some people think that science fiction writers predict the future.

No, we don’t.

We warn against it.

Badly.

It doesn’t take a lot of smarts to predict a technological advance.  Most are evolutionary.  It’s easy to predict more powerful this and faster that.  The research is already going on in the labs.  It’s a little bit harder to predict a technological breakthrough—that’s revolutionary, not evolutionary.  The internal combustion engine, cars, airplanes, radio, television, transistors, integated circuits, lasers—all of those are revolutionary technologies.

But the almost-impossible thing to predict is the transformative effect of both evolutionary and revolutionary advances in tech.  It’s not that hard to predict the growth of computer technology, science fiction writers did it routinely in the golden age stories of the fifties.  What was beyond the event-horizon of the time was the shift in human thinking that would occur when computers are incorporated into the common environment.

Robert A. Heinlein predicted the Internet in For Us, The Living, a novel he wrote in 1938, but not published until 2003.  In that book, the heroine is shown using a global communications network for shopping and phone calls, as well as for rehearsing a dance performance which will eventually have music and visuals added and sold to viewers worldwide.

Murray Leinster wrote A Logic Named Joe, which was even more prescient.  That story, first published in the March 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, predicted personal computers called ‘logics,’ all connected to a world wide web of servers that could provide access to all human information.  The drawback of the system was that when the system (the ‘Joe’ of the title) starts to develop sentience, it disables its own filtering and starts handing out information on how to make psychelics, how to commit the perfect murder, and sexual content to anyone who asks for it, regardless of age.  Hm.

John Brunner published The Shockwave Rider in 1975.  The hero was a computer hacker who wrote and released worms into the global network to protect himself from various government agents.  Brunner is generally credited with creating the term ‘worm’ as a descriptor of a specific kind of malware.  (The concept of the ‘computer virus’ was first demonstrated in my own 1972 novel, When Harlie Was One, for which I remain profoundly sorry.)

Prior to the Internet, we had Usenet and BBS systems like FIDO-net and for-pay systems like CompuServe and AOL.  At its prime, CompuServe had more than eight million subscribers and was the single best online information resource a computer user could tap into.  CompuServe had email and chat rooms and large libraries of files in every forum.  But it was the forums that were the major attraction (and cash cow).  The Sci-Fi forum was populated with many writers and artists, the Consumer Electronics Forum had technical experts from major companies and magazines, the Aviation Forum was filled with amateur and professional pilots and engineers, the Turbo Pascal Forum was run by Borland employees—and the Political Issues forum was filled with amateurs and Libertarians.   (I’ll explain that joke another time.)

By the mid-eighties, it was already evident that an unfettered global communications network would rapidly create a tectonic shift in human interactions.  SF fans were one of the first communities to network themselves.  Example:  rumors about the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation were a particular nuisance for several of the show’s producers who weren’t quite ready for the future.  Fan-boys who wanted to show how much they were in-the-know would leak daily rumors and speculations to CompuServe and AOL and various other BBS systems.  (And a lot of it was ugly gossip specifically intended to damage the reputations of people who had been designated as enemies of the show.)

Not attracting as much attention, but far more important, was the ever increasing dissemination of copyrighted materials through Usenet.  One of the first authors to take arms against this rising tide was Harlan Ellison, who successfully sued AOL because even after they were informed, they continued to provide access to his copyrighted materials.  Too many observers saw this lawsuit as just another tantrum by SF’s perennial bad-boy.  Too bad.  They missed the real significance of the event.

By the mid-nineties, the Internet had finally finished pupating.  It shed its ARPANET skin, stretched itself in the sun, patiently dried out its wings, and took its first tentative flight.

No, Al Gore did not invent the Internet.  And he never said he did.  What he actually did was push through several important pieces of legislation to create competitive markets in all communications sectors.  The 1996 Telecommunications Act and new regulations for the FCC made the Internet possible as we know it today—that is, one of the single most subversive forces on the planet.

Remember that thing from chaos theory?  The butterfly effect?  The butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and ultimately triggers a tornado in California?

Right.  Welcome to the eye of the tornado.

CompuServe was one of the first victims of the Internet.  But that was obvious.  Who needed to pay for a monthly subscription to CompuServe or AOL when the Internet was essentially free?   When AOL bought CompuServe, it wasn’t for the user-base, it was for the network, the in-place hardware.  What was lost, unfortunately, were the communities of experts.
Along about the same time, Mom-and-Pop bookstores began to disappear, unable to survive the Amazon juggernaut.  Specialty bookstores like Dangerous Visions and Scene Of The Crime lost too much income to the convenience of online sales.

Music outlets began to vanish too.  Remember Wherehouse, Sam Goody, Tower Records, Virgin?  All gone.  Video stores too.  Today, CDs and DVDs are mostly found in bookstores and electronics stores and warehouse stores like Target and Costco and Wal-Mart. The independent stores are gone.

Do you still buy CD’s?  Or do you download music from iTunes and Amazon and Zune marketplace?

Do you rent DVD’s?  Do you go to Blockbuster or do you get them sent to you from Netflix?  Or do you stream movies from Netflix and TV shows from Hulu?

Have you been to a newsstand lately?  A lot of familiar magazines have disappeared, abandoning their newsstand distribution in favor of their online presence.   Starlog is gone.  PC-Magazine is gone.  (And have you noticed how thin Wired has gotten lately?  The advertising dollars are going elsewhere.)  A whole bunch of fashion magazines have disappeared too, and that suggests that the female demographic is also shifting their attention away from magazines and to the web.
An accountant I know, who used to manage the books for an adult-film company, says that the porn industry is hurting too.  Why buy DVD’s when you can download?  And why pay for downloads when there are so many amateurs and free sites?  (I’ll have to take his word for it.)

Do you still buy books?  Or do you download them to your Kindle or your iPad or your Nook?  Maybe not yet, but you will.  It’s inevitable.

Do you subscribe to a newspaper?  Probably not.  Newspapers and other news outlets are hurting badly too.  Why read a newspaper when you can get an aggregate of news content from all over the world at news.google.com?  You can also go to The Nation, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, Salon, Slate, Huffingtonpost. and others for aggregates of commentary and opinion.    And if all you want are the daily comics…well, iGoogle has a gadget that will let you create your own comic page with most of the best comics represented.  Do you need to check the movie listings?  Go to Google and type ‘movies <your zipcode>.’   So why buy a newspaper?  (For me, it’s the full page ad from Fry’s Electronics on the back page of the sports section, but that’s only an occasional pleasure.)

The Internet is fifteen years old.  It’s a teenager.  Whatever it touches, it eats.  When it reaches adulthood, it will be the Blob.  It will roll over its victims, surrounding and absorbing and devouring everything.  It will be the universal solvent.

Whatever information technology exists today or gets invented tomorrow, the Internet will become its primary method of transmission, making all other forms of access ancillary, or simply irrelevant.

We have already seen the beginnings of the cultural transformation that the Internet represents.  But what we have seen in the fifteen years since it began is still only the warmup.

David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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