Life on the edge

The geek-driven world of new "decentralized" technologies like Wi-Fi, blogging and Web services is more about cutting out the middleman than finding a business model.

Published December 13, 2002 8:30PM (EST)

The technology industry has long been shaped by the creative tension between technologists and businesspeople, otherwise known as geeks and suits. Geeks make new stuff primarily because it's fun, because it's useful, and because they can. Suits make new stuff primarily because they hope to earn a profit. Yes, that is an oversimplification, and there's overlap between the two types -- there are plenty of profit-seeking geeks and geeky business folks. Still, the distinction is real.

You'd think that, today, with the tech industry in its worst downturn in memory, jobs scarce and funding scarcer, bottom-line thinking would dominate. Instead, the recent cratering of so many companies seems to have chastened the suits -- and the very absence of get-rich-quick opportunities has cleared a space for geek enthusiasms to flourish.

That was certainly the feeling I got from this week's Supernova conference on decentralization -- a gathering in Palo Alto, Calif., for which the über-geeks of Silicon Valley and beyond (to use the label suggested by one of the software-industry legends in attendance) turned out in full force.

There was Bob Frankston, who'd coded VisiCalc, the personal computer's first "killer app," and a row behind him sat Mitch Kapor, whose Lotus 1-2-3 replaced VisiCalc as the spreadsheet of choice in the early '80s. There were Marc Canter (creator of Director and other multimedia tools) and Dave Winer (creator of Radio and other blogging and outlining tools), double-teaming a Microsoft exec on the issue of patents.

Prominent bloggers swarmed the place, keeping up a keyboard-click chorus as they logged speakers' comments in real time. (Mitch Ratcliffe offers a good list here.) The blogging was so thorough that, though my Salon duties kept me in the office on the conference's second day, I could keep up with the event pretty well. Thank you, decentralization!

Conference organizer Kevin Werbach admitted that his "decentralization" label was "ugly," but suggested that its very awkwardness was a sign that we were dealing with an underlying trend rather than a "marketing-concocted theme." And he was right: The phenomena this event focused on, a grab bag of new technologies that have bubbled up from the humbled high-tech world in the post-crash era, are mostly geek driven and grassroots spread: Wi-Fi (802.11b), the wireless high-speed Net access method; blogs; and "Web services," a fuzzy term to describe new methods of directly and quickly connecting software applications and data across the Net.

These disparate boomlets share an "end to end" design: They rely on the power of individual users' computers -- there's no big, centrally operated piece of software or hardware mediating. The users connect across an open, "stupid" network -- the Internet itself, today -- that simply moves information without worrying about what it is. The resulting software is ad hoc, impromptu, flexible, "lightweight." Empowered individuals at the ends of the network try out new ideas and build myriad new services. It's geek heaven.

What's missing from this picture? Dollars and cents. That's not to say there are no business models in the land of decentralization: Nick Denton talked about his Gizmodo weblog, which tracks new technogadgets, as an already profitable niche media enterprise. And Dave Sifry's Technorati -- which keeps bloggers au courant on who's linking to them -- has a $5-a-year-premium mode that's a good deal and that, given the operation's low overhead, is likely to earn Sifry some spare change.

But, as their creators readily admit, those are not the kinds of enterprises to make venture capitalists salivate. By any rational view, the decentralized technology world Supernova envisioned is one in which small operators can make a living, but nobody is going to make a killing.

That sounds all right to me. But it doesn't mean the venture capital money will stay away. (Talk about "stupid networks"!) There are alarming indications here and there that some of the technologies championed at Supernova are already heading down the same path that the Web itself traveled in the mid-'90s -- as investors began to pile in, claiming market share today and putting off till tomorrow figuring out how to earn money. Cometa, the Wi-Fi provider that plans to sell a nationwide network as a wholesaler to ISPs, is one venture whose recent launch certainly had a "build first, improvise a revenue model later" feeling.

Should the geeks care? After all, the Web got built, even if the landscape is littered with defunct Web companies. If investors throw money at good technologies, does it matter whether the companies that are the money's conduit flame out?

I think it does. When a technology begins small and has time to evolve, find its uses and build a following, it has staying power. (Look at the Net itself, whose protocols were two decades old before it became popular. Or look at how Linux, which had spent most of a decade emerging, was able to survive the hurricane of an infatuated Wall Street that swept over it two years ago and then abandoned it just as fast.)

The danger here is that the dynamo of the Silicon Valley boom-bust cycle, in its hunger for Next Big Thing fuel, will seize upon Wi-Fi, blogs and Web services and then spit them out, chewed-up and spent -- before they've ever had a chance to mature and show off their potential. At Supernova, Microsoft's Dan'l Lewin described the near future as "a massive build-out opportunity," and in many areas Microsoft is barreling ahead with that construction project. Just remember that the last "massive build-out opportunity" was the telecommunications industry's optical-fiber boom, whose backers are now largely bankrupt and whose byproducts lie fallow.

Still, whether we do it intelligently or through market-crashing overkill, sooner or later we're likely to be living in the kind of world Supernova's agenda envisioned -- full of portable wireless devices supercharged by smart software.

Howard Rheingold, whose new book, "Smart Mobs," crystal-balls the impact of many of these trends, asked the central question: "What happens when we have billions of these mobile devices, thousands of times more powerful than what we have now, connected at far faster speeds?" Rheingold is fascinated by the "new possibilities for social action" in such a future -- both positive and negative -- and indeed they're captivating. Equally important are the new probabilities of government action that such waves of change are likely to evoke.

Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation reminded the conference that, while we sat there envisioning decentralized utopia, the Federal Communications Commission was rolling forward with a plan called the Broadcast Flag Initiative that, under an anti-piracy banner, would enforce a technology-crippling video copyright-control scheme. The sputtering war between Hollywood's "content industry" and the Internet's peer-to-peer-loving masses loomed over nearly every discussion at Supernova. The "end to end" freedoms of expression and innovation that this crowd cherishes can't survive if there's a hulking legal troll squatting at the center of the network, demanding tolls and blocking new experiments.

Appropriately, then, Werbach has pitched the tent of his next conference, planned for next summer, in Washington -- ground zero for the battle for the Net's heart and soul.

By Scott Rosenberg

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

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