Big Ideas

It's been a quiet time for the Internet this last year, with only the likes of Big Brother and the occasional paedophile scare bringing the Web into the mainstream media's eye. Cast your mind back to two or three years ago, when the dot com revolution was in full swing and suddenly every TV advert had a www affixed firmly beneath the slogan and logo. The boundaries between the Internet/World Wide Web and more traditional forms of media, most notably television, were increasingly blurred. The opportunities offered by the Web, we were told, were to change our lives in the same way that television changed the lives of a generation before.

When they said the Internet would change lives what they really meant was the Internet would change the way we do business. And when they said 'we' they really meant a few of us, because to the majority the dot com revolution was about as tangible as cyberspace itself; a 'consensual hallucination', a whole lot of nothing and actually a bit of a pain in the ass. Banner ads slowed down sites, get rich quick spam proliferated and everyone you met had a naff idea for a website that was going to make them money.

But mostly it's gone now. Like cyberspace, the stock market to me has always seemed like a hallucination, a fabrication, something dreamed up by a hive mind. So if you link two hallucinations together and somebody blinks you're going to burst that bubble. The Web has had its hey-day, its fifteen minutes of fame and very few people now believe that it only takes a pc, modem and telephone line to become a multi-millionaire.

So what are we left with? Internet connection throughout the world is continuing to rise despite business turning its back on the Web. What we're left with is what we had from the very start, the thing that really attracts people to log on. We're left with the big ideas. It's these big ideas that Phaidon seek to remind us of in their recently published Cyber Reader: Critical writings for the digital era.

Published in 2002, some might say that Phaidon, and the book's editor Neil Spiller have missed the boat, that no one wants to hear about the Internet and the Web anymore now that business has all but disembarked. On the contrary, I believe now is an excellent time for the release of this book which thoroughly traces the roots of Cyber-culture and Cyber-theory from its very beginnings (which Neil Spiller seems to suggest began with Charles Babbage's work on the Analytical Engine and Difference Engine back in 1864). There are extracts here from an astonishing forty-three different sources making the book only marginally easier to curl up with than your average pc. But the extracts come from all the right places, touching base with the likes of Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, Douglas Engelbart and Paul Virilio. The (often mercifully) brief extracts from essays by these founders of Cyberspace detail the big ideas that those who invented the concept of the Internet nurtured. These were scientists, not businessmen, who really believed that this technology would deliver a revolution, that it would improve our lives in a variety of ways, not just in business and work, but in play and creativity too.

But Neil Spiller's selection of extracts about Cyberspace isn't restricted solely to the scientific. Interspersed throughout the brilliant but usually dry scientific writing there are extracts from short stories and novels, from EM Forster as well as the more to be expected cyber-punk authors William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Jeff Noon. The compilation of extracts shows a constant link throughout this century between the scientific minds who created the technology, and the creative minds who dreamt of its potential. Creativity and the Internet always ran hand in hand, the vastness of Cyberspace allowed ideas to grow large and grandiose. Interestingly, none of Spiller's selected extracts detail in any depth the money-making potential of the technology. The gist of all this thinking and creating was about how to make the world a better place, enriched in more ways than one.

With business and its accompanying media frenzy virtually out of the equation we need to ask what we are left with on the Internet. Those interested in discovering what Web users knew all along about the potential of the Internet could do worse than thumb through the big ideas in Phaidon's Cyber Reader.

© Carrie McMillan 2002