NS Internet column
Written 02 September 1999 for the New Statesman
Philippe Khan is another of those millionaires who managed to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice by understanding the technology two years before anyone else did. His wealth predates the web: he made millions and then lost his company in the days when people were still trying to make money out of computers one at a time. But I recently came across a remark of his which suggests he understands more about the web than many of the people who did better than him on it.
What drives the growth of the Internet, he said, is really the hideous frustration of a modern knowledge worker's life. This is a Dilbert-type observation, but there are now millions of people for whom Dilbert describes their lives as accurately as Blondie did the lives of suburban couples in the Fifties. In the words of disillusioned stockbroker quoted once by Hamish McRae, they are just battery chickens playing computer games. People ask what computers have done for productivity, and the answer is that they have Taylorised a huge number of middle class occupations, reducing them from professions to something that can be done on an assembly line. Of course, the assembly line is no longer a moving conveyer belt of metal and but a pipeline of computer programs. But the fact remains that what computer enthusiasts call increased productivity really means that it is easier than ever before to be a hack, at any trade.
People spend their working lives in cubicles, with a screen and keyboard in front of them, and every attempt to stand up and walk around is interpreted as slacking. So their only escape, said Khan, comes from the screen in front of them. More to the point, it is the only form of communication with other human beings. If you compare a computer screen with face to face conversation, then it is missing a great deal. But perhaps the proper comparison is not between Ascii and speech but ascii and the codes that prisoners in solitary use to communicate with each other by tapping on the heating pipes, and here a computer is really superior.
The point of this observation is that it explains what exactly drives the entertainment bit of the web. It may look a little like television, but that's not what it is, since television is designed to be consumed, or intubated, at home. The "fun" things on the web are there for people at work to snatch an illusion of human contact from, since they are forbidden to find this in the normal intercourse of an office. I'm sure this explains the popularity of "communities". It is obvious what is in "communities" for the advertisers who fund them. They are meant to supply a readership which is, in the jargon, "sticky": it will return to the same site over and over again.
This is difficult to accomplish. I have about 800 bookmarks in my file, and there are only three or four sites I visit with any regularity. Most have been visited once or twice and never again. There's nothing unnatural about this: most of the books on my shelves have also been only read once, and returned to only when I need to look something up. But that's no use to advertisers; and it is only the oldest books in the house that have advertisements bound into the end papers. It's noticeable that advertisements lingered longest in encyclopaedias and similar fact-laden tomes, where people might be expected to read them over and over again.
Yet the net is not quite like that. Even the fact-dispensing sites, like search engines, like to advertise themselves as "communities", though no one ever talked about the "Pears Cyclopaedia Community". Nor are "Communities" answering to the general loneliness of modern life. I don't doubt that exists. But it is a problem that largely shows itself after work hours; and people trying to escape from it there tend to log into much smaller affinity groups, some small enough, like the Well, to function as a real sort of community. Khan is surely right to see them as the expression of a specific sort of work-driven loneliness, and the longing to interact with other people instead of sitting there just being the man who screws on the left-hand front grommet of a press release all day.
This, too, explains why so many are shopping sites. It is not a hunger for goods, but the fact that buying something is a way to interact with the outside world as well as to take time off from the job. Traditionally this need has been fed by the tea-trolley. But on the web, the right sort of tea lady can become a millionaire.