You Think This Is a Revolution
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Katherine Phelps
Glass Wings
PO Box 477 Blackburn VIC 3130 Australia Glass Wings
With the discovery of the Internet by commercial interests, the Internet has come into the public eye. It's mere existence has been a revelation to people, not a revolution. The revolution is yet to come. What the Internet offers is a medium whereby people can freely express themselves and have their ideas delivered to a large international audience. So far in order to use this network people are trying to force old systems onto it and sell their version of the Internet as the future. The future is slipping from these people and other paradigms are still to be applied.
Freedom, Broadband Services, Video-on-Demand, Computer Games, Interactive TV, Content, Transclusion, LETS


With the discovery of the Internet by commercial interests, the Internet has come more and more in the public eye. As such people want to get rid of it, own it, make a million dollars on it or control it. It's mere existence has been a revelation to people, not a revolution. The expanding of its revolutionary qualities is yet to come.

What the Internet has offered so far is a medium whereby people can freely express themselves and have their ideas swiftly delivered to a large international audience. This is because it was built for the purposes of scholarly research. However, the resulting network was just so handy for general communication and commerce, especially with the addition of graphical elements, that the rest of the world wanted on as well. Yet the rest of the world has not been prepared to deal with diversity, openness and freedom. In your own physical community, usually the numbers are relatively small and you can be confident that most people you meet are going to mostly share your viewpoint of the world. It is afterall why you selected to live and work in that geographical space. On the Internet this comfortable community is gone because now your community is the whole world.

So how are we going to sensibly work and play on something with so much scope? In order to use this network many people are trying to force old systems of entertainment, commerce, copyright, economics and social interaction onto it and sell their handicapped version of the Internet as the future. It's as if they are saying, "I only understand a certain sort of lifestyle and a certain sort of commerce, so I am going to enforce it upon other people worldwide, whether or not it is in my or anyone else's best interest." This was the solution of the Spanish Conquistadors when they entered South America. Hierarchies and paradigms of control and domination are not what have made the Internet great; freedom, communication, cooperation and a focus on individual responsibility have been the primary factors in its growth. Of the 30 million people who are using the Internet an estimated 21.5 million participate in the Usenet Newsgroups (Brian Reid, "Usenet Readership Report", July 1995), as compared to the 13.5 million who merely have access to Web whether or not they use it, and whether or not they have access to a graphical interface (Matrix News, July 1995). In fact most students who form the majority of Internet users still can only make use of Lynx for their Web exploring. People who are now doing all they can to find reasons why the Internet should be controlled are too late. This would include for commercial reasons such as the Microsoft network. The future is slipping out from under these people and other paradigms are still to be applied or even considered. We all need to open ourselves to the wondrousness of the unexpected, the untried and the unknown, such that the future becomes a gift and not something to be feared.

The Bad Ideas

The most disappointing aspect of the Web right now is that it is becoming a vast billboard wasteland, carrying an enormous amount of soulless information. I would have thought the most obvious model for businesses to make effective use of the Internet is that of free-to-air TV. The Internet and Web in particular is a pull model and not a push one, therefore people have to choose to see your material. As such it makes a lot of sense for businesses to sponsor the most popular sites in order to gain vicarious visibility, thus developing product recognition and goodwill amongst customers for supporting something they enjoy. This is what happens when companies like Coca Cola become the advertising sponsors for shows such as The Simpsons, The Footy Show or Star Trek. These are not deeply informative or serious shows, but they have large and/or dedicated audiences.

Television advertising is expensive, though. Companies have discovered that putting up alot of information about themselves on the Internet is cheap by comparison with a larger potential audience. What has completely by-passed many business's considerations is how to make use of the Internet such that it generates more business, not just massages their corporate egos. I remember speaking with Lisa Mitchell, a reporter for the Age, about the sort of access rates different businesses were receiving for their sites. She had gone out to report on an online business and they had proudly stated that they received one to two people a day looking at their site. She politely upped the number to two to three accesses a day in her article. My Glass Wings site receives two to three accesses within a second. It pays as a company not to over-estimate the popular interest of your product or services. What we don't want is for the Web to be so devoid of meaningful content that people become less and less interested in bothering with it. We are still early days yet as far as business usage online and it shows, for soon businesses will be discovering the degree to which they have been wasting their money. It is very easy to get enamoured with cutting edge technology and dreams of extracting money from large audiences, but until you can offer people something real in the way of interesting content that technology is not going to help you much.

The Internet is a text based environment and will remain primarily a text based environment for the next five to ten years until many homes have access to broadband networks. Despite how fast the software is moving, it will take time for streets to be torn up and cabling to be laid down worldwide. We are very fortunate in Australia in this respect since we are able to do so more quickly. This is not such a handicap because people still invest their time and money in books, magazines and newspapers. However, I agree that what the future holds in potential content is very exciting. But it's not what most corporations think.

I would have to say I roll my eyes and cringe everytime I see the Telecom advertisement about how they are bringing the future to people's homes. The ad portrays all of the usual cliches around the information superhighway of home shopping, home banking, war games and video on demand. Nothing in this is remotely revolutionary. If I want to interactively purchase a pizza. I can pick up the phone and dial. It takes no more time or effort than using a computer and I am more likely to be able to order exactly what I want, such as: I want mushrooms, but not a lot and can you put some extra cheese on instead? Home shopping means that companies will have to have a national and international delivery infrastructure. Besides, most people find shopping a form of entertainment, hence shopping malls. They like the sensuality of experiencing the taste, smell and touch of the items they are about to buy as well as the look. You cannot expect home shopping to become a selling bonanza. My customer PolyEster Music and Books find that their advertising on the Glass Wings site brings people directly into the shop as often as actually making sales online.

Delivering computer games over the Internet is not such a bad idea, though it will be a bandwidth hog, and I will explain some of the exciting possibilities in a moment. However, Telecom portrayed war games, and many industry people keep on thinking in terms of Doom, a shoot-em-up computer game. This is a bad idea because on the Internet, as it stands right now, it is estimated that 36% of the users are female (Matrix News, July 1995). With the increase of available Internet services this number is growing. The Internet is not just a boy's toy. The industry leaders in this field are going to be those people who can figure out how to gain access to the female market as well. That will require more thought and imagination than has previously gone into game manufacture.

Finally, the whole video on demand thing has had numerous people leaping in without thinking very hard about how it will work. I have heard the numbers of companies working on video-on-demand set-top boxes is into the hundreds. Since each box is proprietary, how many boxes do you think people are going to buy and string across the top of the TV set? It really seems to work against the whole idea of media convergence. Why would I want to buy set top boxes when I could buy a TV that is also a computer (or vice versa) and has standard ways of dealing with a whole range of content providers? Also, I have no reason to want video-on-demand unless it is cheaper than renting from the video store; I can fast forward pause or rewind; I can watch pieces of a movie instead of the whole thing and movies are hyperlinked so I can get more information about the movie or parts of it as it is playing.

Interactive TV shows are a mixed bag. I have seen one brain dead version whereby people are given a set-top box and a two button remote with which they can play game shows and win gift vouchers that their box prints out. The company that produced this system claimed that your average user couldn't handle more than a choice of yes or no on their remotes. My jaw dropped at such a suggestion. The people who are most likely to buy extra TV services are those who already use VCRs or play Nintendo. I have to admit that I find my VCR more difficult to cope with than my computer. I also smirked at the idea of how fast it would take some enterprising youth to fiddle with the equipment and get it to always print out winning coupons. On the other hand Australian comic writer, Ian McFayden, pioneered truly creative interactive TV when he produced Let the Blood Run Free, a show where people called in with their preferences of what was to happen by the end of the episode. No one, not even the actors, knew what the outcome of their story would be until they got there. New York University have for the last five to ten years been experimenting with Yorb which David Cox is now recreating here in Australia as EMU. In EMU people can watch as four individuals at a time have a chance to use their telephone buttons to navigate through a TV world, interact and socialise. During the week people can upload to an electronic bulletin board graphics which can be added to this world for others to explore on the next episode of EMU.

The Revolutionary Ideas

It's about time I speak of some of the revolutionary ideas that are percolating over the Internet.

Though home shopping is a limited idea in actual fact we are seeing a form of home shopping when people are reading their favourite magazines and newspapers online. What people feel they most want and need in our present society is information, and so many countries are shifting to information based economies. Delivery of this information on paper, CD, CD ROM, video tape, cassette tape, etc. is costly, takes up space and uses up natural resources. As soon as the kinks are worked out for making information chargeable on the Internet a whole swathe of industries could go online to directly sell their products to consumers. It sounds great and I believe it is great. However, it is going to have a bigger impact on society than most people are yet imagining. If we can get all of this information on one machine as well as send mail, do our banking, pay bills, etc., what is going to happen to the newsagent, the bookstore, the music store, the post office, office suppliers, etc.? Many retailers and manufacturers are going to either find themselves seriously reduced in size or out of business. I don't really believe that the Internet is going to replace the book, but think about how much of our reading, listening and watching is disposable, then you start to get an idea of how big this will be.

Computer games are evolving through the Internet into a positive social force. When I did a talk back spot on 3AW radio and at other talks I have given, questions from parents had a consistent theme about their children no longer interacting socially with their parents or other children because they are too involved with the computer. Of course the same could be said for the TV, but mostly these parents were concerned about computer games. My recommendation was rather than taking away the computer to get their children onto the Internet so that computing becomes a social act in its own right. A number of Usenet newsgroups are specifically for children as are a couple of MUDs. MUDs are what I am most interested in. MUD used to stand for Multi-User Dungeon because in Britain someone got the bright idea of developing a program so that Dungeons and Dragons could be played using text online. How it works is that someone with programming skill will create a narrative environment whereby certain textual actions will yield certain textual results, such as by typing that you are going west you will receive text describing the foot of a mountain, to type going further west you will receive a description of your journey up a mountain path. This means that when you interact with other people you are doing so within a particular context. This has proved immensely useful for other applications such as virtual universities or worldwide conferences. My company Glass Wings organised the Australian end of a cybertour by the rock band Aerosmith in such an environment. Companies such as Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg), Lucas Arts, Viacom and MicroProse are all looking into ways of integrating realtime animation into MUD gaming as am I with my PhD research.

The most exciting aspect of the Internet for most people is that it is a democratic field for content provision. It's no wonder that a few big name corporations have started getting nervous, and so they should. In computer game stores some companies have started buying shelf space thus pushing out small contenders. This is not possible on the Internet since everyone can be seen and heard. And more than that, little companies can get the sort of international distribution that had previously been out of their grasp. This is great for Australia in its desire to compete equally on the world market with the likes of the US and Japan. What I am particularly looking forward to, and it will come, is the day when anyone can be a publisher, a radio announcer or TV producer. Soon a group of kids will be able to make their own amateur sci fi movie and make it available to people everywhere. Someone in the outback with connections to a number of garage bands can organise them into a radio show that could prove highly successful without the intervention of the entertainment industry. Niche groups will also be better served because even though in any one city they might not be numerous enough to produce something of interest for themselves, worldwide there might be enough people to support a professional magazine or even a TV show online. Skilled people will still be in demand such as editors and marketers, production will simply become decentralised.

Of course this brings us back to the questions of how people are going to make money doing these things and how is intellectual property going to be protected? Digital media is after all easily copied and used by more than the original creator. The only sensible solutions that I have seen to these questions have been those developed by Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext and hypermedia as well as founder of the ideas inherent in World Wide Web. Nelson as part of his Xanadu Project created a business solution whereby everyone who enters the Xanadu network must agree to let other people use their material, however users must also agree to only use material by transclusion. Transclusion is a form of hyperlinking whereby new works can be created by having windows to original independent pieces. These pieces can be reached directly from the new work thus preserving their context. This is then combined with a system in which people are charged only for the pieces they experience. So if you were to use one person's music and another's pictures in order to create a third combined work, somebody viewing the work would pay for your contribution, the piece of music they heard and the picture they saw. If you only used a piece of the picture such as an eye, the viewer could click on the piece to see a picture of an entire face.

Nelson deals with how people can make money, but he does not deal with how to cope with international commerce and so far I haven't seen anyone else come up with a sensible solution either. Since we have people trading worldwide, we now have to contend with foreign exchange. The most convenient solution has been to use credit cards and let the credit card companies deal with it. The problem is that they charge heavily for the privelege of letting you use your money to purchase things in this way. When commerce is moving largely onto the Internet this becomes a less and less attractive solution. Digicash have developed electronic currency good on the Internet alone, but it isn't exchangeable for real cash. I believe they are heading in the right direction, but I am still not satisfied with the solution. I believe the future lies in a modified version of the Local Economic Trading System (LETS) which was developed by Michael Linton in Canada. Only we need a Global Economic Trading System (GETS). LETS acknowledges that money is simply a form of information, so why not go the full length to making exchange an informational transaction? So whenever people make an exchange of goods or services, a tally is kept as to how much each person has agreed to be in commitment or acknowledgement to the community at large. This works well within an enclosed community; I'm not certain how it could be scaled well to an international community.


Businesses have been seeing the Internet as more of the same only more so. But until they grasp what the Internet is really all about and how people are really wanting to use it, they are going to find a new set of business moguls pulling the rug out from under them. The changes the Internet will cause to come about may at some point be traumatic for certain segments of the world market. Yet overall I do think it will be a positive change toward more egalitarian methods of social, cultural and economic exchange.


Matrix News
Usenet Readership Report