Public Net Enemy #1

Technorealism had its 15 minutes of fame last year when various would-be visionaries got a craving for such Net gravy-train side dishes as speaking gigs and fat book contracts. They put forth a list of such deep thoughts as "government has an important role to play" and "information is not knowledge." ("Bunnies are soft" and "Santa Claus is a nice man" were unaccountably left off the final list.) Now one of the main perpetrators of this palaver, Andrew L. Shapiro, has taken the obvious next step and cashed in with a book deal.

More broad than deep, and not that broad, Shapiro's The Control Revolution is best read by extraterrestrials who just reached our planet and need to learn about that Internet stuff. However, if you're reading this column, you're already past this; The Control Revolution is only going to vex you.

The reason I bring it to your attention at all is to remind you that even such shallow Net-futurism as Shapiro's depends on a rosy picture of the Net now—particularly, of our ability to find whatever we want on it and to add whatever we want to it. If you've been following the news lately, though, you know it ain't necessarily so.

Take free speech. Shapiro spends a lot of time (justifiably) wringing his hands about how Netizens can avoid hearing opinions they don't like, since they're likely to get their information only from online sources that share their interests and worldview. His proposed solution involves creating "PublicNet," which would aggregate various opinionated Web sites under one button to be included in IE and Netscape. (Mr. Shapiro has, I believe, just invented the online public access television channel. What next, the wheel?)

But to tap into an online source, you've got to find that source. And a recent study reveals that most of the Net is hidden from the average user—as reported in Nature this month, the percentage of Web sites indexed by even the most comprehensive search sites is less than 17 percent.

That doesn't affect anyone's right to put up a Web site. It does, however, affect one's ability to reach an audience. It's the equivalent of allowing a person to print up leaflets but forbidding her to hand them out to passersby. Worse, the Nature study shows that big-name sites—the Time-Warners and Go.coms of the world—are much more likely to get their stuff indexed. As anyone who's gone to a magazine rack in search of an obscure title knows, availability is key. The coolest magazine in the world can't compete if all the merchant stocks is People Living in Style and TimeWeek Report.

And then there's the portal, which lets sites regurgitate cookie-cutter news headlines, horoscopes, and stock data. (When I was a child, we called that the Associated Press newswire.) Before the portal, when browser home pages were set by default to the browser company's main page, most users simply ignored the first screen and clicked away. However, there's money in them there eyeballs, and for the past couple of years we've watched formerly useful sites slather on content partnerships and sponsored links and synergy and god knows what-all else until most users never leave the sites they're led to. Once upon a time Net users sneered at AOL for its limited horizons; no one's sneering now. And Shapiro wants to add another button to the morass, one that would spit up a random free-speech site when clicked? At best it's a cute toy that'll get lost in the melee—again, much like public access television.

I suppose Shapiro's mostly harmless—judging by this bout of navel-gazing, he probably doesn't get out much. (Actually, he runs with a crowd of similarly fabulous New York folk, all of whom tend to reflect each other's opinions like a hall of mirrors. Fortunately for the Net, few people walk down that hall besides book agents and the occasional NPR reporter.) While he's busy jockeying for foundation grants for his magic public access button, those of us who know the real score need to look hard at how the Net can overcome the limitations of its gatekeepers.

 
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