Internet optimism lives!

At a conference to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first U.S. Web page, even the dot-com bust doesn't ruin the party.

Published December 5, 2001 7:49PM (EST)

Silicon Valley's love for the Web didn't die with all those flamed-out dot-coms. It just went into hiding -- and can still be found in places where true geeks hang out. Case in point: a two-day symposium devoted to the "Once and Future Web" this week at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Conference sessions with names like "Using the Web to Benefit Humanity" were enough to make you think you'd hitched a ride on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine back to a time before anyone imagined the Internet as a vehicle for adding zeroes to their personal net worth.

"We need to work to ensure that the original values of the Web endure," said an evangelical Jim Fruchterman, leader of the Benefit Humanity session, and the president and CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit that makes books accessible online to the disabled.

The futurists, computer scientists and robotics professors who gathered at SLAC to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first U.S. Web site were, of course, aware of that whole ugly dot-com bubble business. But they were able to shrug it off with some black humor. As one speaker joshed:

Q: What's the new venture capital buzzword? A: No.

Q: What's the new status symbol in Silicon Valley? A: A job.

The pervasive sentiment at SLAC, which happens to be located on Sand Hill Road, the street where all those V.C.s are so busy saying no, was that the vagaries of the boom-bust, boom-bust business cycle shouldn't really vex those truly devoted to the big picture of where technology will take us next.

With the Internet economy in shambles, "There's never been a better time to think about where the Web is going, and everybody has a lot of time to think about it," said Paul Saffo, the director of the Institute for the Future.

"Most ideas in Silicon Valley take 20 years to become an overnight success," said Saffo, who describes himself as "a historian of technology who happens to spend most of his time looking at technologies that don't exist yet."

Even Nathaniel Borenstein, a geek's geek who wrote the MIME format for transmitting multimedia across the Web and dabbled in dot-com adventures as the chief scientist at First Virtual, found reason for hope, after cautioning that his own remarks would be "curmudgeonly." While he lectured about "the sad history of Internet overcommercialization" and how the Web experience of the Internet was "almost as passive as TV," he still dared to wonder if "from the burned fields left behind by the Web's wildfire, will the pre-Web Internet reemerge?"

"Once, the Net was a genuine commons," said Borenstein. "No commons survive a horde of refugees! I think that we have to acknowledge that the commons has been destroyed. That doesn't mean that we can't rebuild it."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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