21st: The Web is falling! The Web is falling!

Let's Get This Straight: By Scott Rosenberg. When it comes to new media, the New Yorker remains hopelessly out of the loop.

Published January 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's becoming increasingly clear that, despite the speediest modern communications technology, there is a roughly 12- to 18-month news lag between Silicon Valley and New York City -- or at least that block of West 43rd Street that harbors the offices of the New Yorker.

The New Yorker has always had a hard time keeping up with developments in the world of technology and telecommunications, preferring the vapid corporate hagiography of Ken Auletta's profiles to more serious journalism. Every step the magazine takes in this field seems to go awry. For instance, when New Yorker writer John Cassidy tried recently to explain Microsoft's troubles with the Justice Department in terms of the economic theory of "increasing returns," he received a thorough drubbing from Slate's Paul Krugman, who persuasively argued that Cassidy had his economic history all wrong.

But the New Yorker hit a new nadir of sheer out-of-the-loop-ness with its Jan. 19 column by Kurt Andersen, headlined "The Digital Bubble: Waking up from the new-media pipe dream." Andersen's shocking thesis: Digital technology and the Internet now sit "at the center of a speculative frenzy of religious intensity, a financial mania, a bubble." Now, forgive us, but wasn't that a good description of Wall Street's infatuation with the new online world in 1995, when Netscape was flying high and the word "Internet" in a company name by itself seemed to guarantee IPO riches? We thought this particular bubble burst long ago -- but Andersen writes that it "may be bursting already" (the conditional "may," presumably, offers a hedge, just in case the Net really does turn out to be a Big Thing).

It's bad enough that the article essentially rehashes a collection of tropes about the digital world that became clichis long ago -- from the requisite comparison with 17th century tulip mania to overdrawn parallels between digital revolutionaries and their hippie forebears ("laptops and fax modems are the reefer and long hair of this overcaffeinated age").

But the real problem with "The Digital Bubble" lies deeper, in Andersen's confusion of the personal computer industry as a whole with the smaller and more immature Internet industry-- and also with the big media companies that have dipped their toes into the Net. Thus the fact that Microsoft and Intel's stocks have dipped in recent weeks becomes, in Andersen's view, evidence of a big bubble-burst -- when in fact these dips are most likely simply a reaction to the financial turmoil in Asia, which is assumed to have a disproportionate impact on technology stocks.

Andersen begins with the argument that journalists and Wall Street people are so infatuated with digital technology in their own work that they fail to see that "almost no one else finds computers and the Internet quite so essential." That statement is at once glaringly obvious and subtly misguided. Certainly we've all been bombarded with ridiculously overblown hype about the imminent transformation of our daily lives by technology (much of it spouted by corporate hucksters profiled by Ken Auletta in the pages of the New Yorker). But to maintain that computers are essential only to journalists and stock analysts is as absurd as to maintain that the Internet is already essential to everyone on the planet.

For better and worse, computers have deeply embedded themselves in every aspect of American business. While the digital industry has so far failed to reach the vast mass market of consumers, it has already won the battle for the corporate mind. Most computer companies still make most of their profits selling products and services to other businesses. If these products and services weren't "quite so essential," why would so many companies be quaking about the impact of a little problem like the Year 2000 bug?

I'd guess that Andersen makes these analytical errors because (ironically, given his thesis of journalistic myopia) he is himself so immersed in the media industry that he can't see beyond it. A good chunk of his article is devoted to castigating big media companies for dumping money into Web sites that don't have clear business models and aren't making any profits. Certainly, plenty of media mega-sites are a waste of cash. But companies aren't building them out of peer pressure, "because everybody else is doing it," as Andersen suggests; they're doing it out of desperation and fear, because they understand that the Net really is changing the rules of the media economy. As, for instance, classified ads disappear from newspapers and migrate online, the newspaper industry is due for some serious change. That's no bubble -- it's a tide.

Anyone who's serious about studying the rise of the Internet knows that it is a medium and an industry still in its infancy. This week alone brings news of new corporate alliances aimed at bringing much higher-speed connections into the home (we'll see how much they deliver this time) and multibillion-dollar investments in new fiber-optic backbones based on Internet protocols. This industry is still laying its tracks and building its pipelines; it's absurd to declare it dead already -- as we pointed out a year and a half ago, when the bubble-bursters who are now finally surfacing in New York first made their appearances in California.

In his final paragraph, Andersen looks for support from the unlikely direction of Wired publisher Louis Rossetto. Andersen praises Rossetto -- a one-time "avatar of the digital bubble" -- for "sensibly moving beyond it." And Rossetto gives Andersen just the quotes he's apparently looking for: "The Web is not about reading ... It's not about developing long ideas. It's about getting to mission-critical information." (Statements like this may explain why morale is so abysmal among the dozens of once-idealistic writers and editors Wired has hired for its online news operations at HotWired and Wired News.)

Obviously, here at Salon we disagree with Rossetto. But even if he were right, and the Web were only good for info-bits rather than in-depth writing, his view hardly supports Andersen's thesis that the Net is just a bubble. All it suggests is that the Net might not support traditional print-media-style businesses -- other kinds of enterprises could thrive. It's surely the ultimate act of journalistic hubris to assume that, if the Internet isn't going to support in-depth journalism, then it will wither and die.

Maybe "The Digital Bubble" is so confused and self-contradictory because it's so brief -- it delivers its obituary for the "new-media pipe dream" in a scant single page of text. That may be the biggest irony of all here: Though other New Yorker writers may not be adapting, Andersen is evidently quite ready to make the leap to the new medium -- where, Rossetto now tells us, the only good story is a short story.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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