Remember when we had no e-mail?

James Gleick, author of "What Just Happened," explains what he got right, and wrong, over the last 10 years.

Published June 25, 2002 6:01PM (EDT)

Dot-com psychodrama or stock market machinations make most of the new books about the recent boom and bust a kind of he-said, she-said about what went wrong.

But in "What Just Happened: A Chronicle From the Information Frontier," James Gleick is less concerned with who's to blame for the hoopla and its implosion than with the real changes technology has brought about in the last 10 years. During this period, Gleick covered technology for the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, but he also experienced the migration online as a kind of host; he founded one of the early Internet service providers, Pipeline. Gleick's new book, which collects his magazine pieces from the past decade, is a kind of techie the-way-we-were, with Gleick poking fun at his own misfires.

Remember when Congress was actually considering legislation that would make it illegal to send a lewd e-mail to your lover? We were so young then! But for every archaic flash from the past, there are plenty of stories whose subject matter is very much relevant -- such as the folly of the American patent system when applied to the Net.

Gleick talked to Salon about what's to be gained from looking back at the last 10 years.

In 1994 you wrote: "I have seen the future, and it's still in the future." Do you still feel that way about technology today? Or does it just always seem this way with technology?

Something happened starting 10 years ago that was really exceptional. The speed of change of technology is different now. It's qualitatively different. It's disturbing. We can't always appreciate that because our memories are unreliable. Our attention spans seem to be shorter. We all feel this.

But something very much like it happened a century ago, when the world suddenly got electricity and telephones, and underwent a sudden and dramatic change in the size and topology of the globe. So, it's happened before.

So, is that how you would characterize what just happened?

If I had to, and, of course, it's still happening.

What are some of the ways that people forget how different things were just 10 years ago?

It's still slightly surprising to people to remember that as recently as 1994 most people not only didn't have e-mail, but they didn't really know what e-mail was, and it didn't occur to them that they were ever going to have it.

I remember it all vividly, because I started an Internet company in the summer of 1993. And I remember talking to my friends about it, and people thought I was nuts.

I would talk to lawyers, and I would say: I think it's possible that in a while, maybe in a few decades, every law firm will be able to send e-mail, just as now they use the fax machine. And my lawyer friends would roll their eyes and humor me.

Every profession operates differently now, because the online world exists. Every profession, and it's still just getting started.

You wrote in 1994 that it was amateur hour on the Internet. Do you think that in the last couple of years, since the burst of the dot-com bubble, amateur hour has returned? Or did it never really go away?

All of the tension that existed in 1994 between the amateurs and the professionals is still there. There were the grass-roots phenomena that nobody expected that just popped up everywhere, like soda machines online and pizza servers. On the other hand, corporations following their natural tendencies saw this rapid change and tumult as a starting bell for conglomeration and acquisitions and centralization of power.

Today, on the side of centralization is Microsoft and America Online, and even the smaller Internet service providers have tended to agglomerate into things like Earthlink, and the bigger they get the more they're like telephone companies.

One of the reasons that there's always going to be this tension is that the whole basis of the online world is the economics of positive feedback and network effects, where the things that thrive are the things that everybody does, and the things that everybody does thrive. Everybody drifts toward winners.

And so suddenly Napster, which one day was a strange grass-roots dormitory start-up, was the place where everybody was. And then it's dead, and you can see it as a victim of a different kind of centralized force, the record industry. In each of these domains, there's just as much tension caused by grass-roots disorganized amateurs as there ever was, and we can only hope that that's going to continue. There's always something new: weblogs or whatever the amateur flavor of the minute is.

Looking back, what were you really wrong about? Is there anything you read now that makes you wince?

I was pretty eager to predict back in 1994 and 1995 that America Online had no real future. Maybe that was wishful thinking. And then again maybe I will have turned out to have been right. In the meantime I didn't expect them to end up buying Time Warner.

Do you really still think that the Internet is a poor medium for the delivery of porn and the government should stop worrying about it? Why?

It doesn't work for me. It's still kind of slow and low-resolution, but I have to admit that this is like my prediction about America Online. This is one of the things that I might be most wrong about.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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