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The End of the Internet?

Dave Renton

FOR AT least twenty-five years, people have been predicting the imminent demise of the internet.1 Indeed, these predictions could be said to have followed the life-history of the net itself. First, they were the preserve of a few isolated academics, then they were taken up by the conspiracy theorists. Next, the gloomy predictions moved from the arena of tragedy to farce, becoming a set of implausible pages from which to observe the end-point of the web.2 Finally, they became a reality, but not in the ways that people had expected. The assumed story was that growing numbers of internet users would clog up the web. According to one journalist, Kevin Savetz, writing in 1996, "the Internet is on the brink of becoming too big. The problem is too many people sucking too much bandwidth. Too much noise and a dwindling amount of signal".3 But these gloomier critics underestimated the potential of technology. Moore’s Law stated that computing power doubles every 18 months, and if anything this figure has proved too low. The technology failed to break down under the pressure of its own use.4

So what might it mean to suggest that the internet is now dead? It is worth remembering what the internet meant. In the second half of the 1990s, a "myth" of the internet took hold. At that time the argument did not refer merely to a new form of communications technology, but to a very different social and political future. An optimistic vision of the spread of new technology fused with other ideas about how people should live. After the miserable years of Cold War tension, a New World was being born. The internet offered a different path for humanity, a new means of communication, which would revolutionise the entire way people lived. On closer inspection, it appears that there was not simply one image of how this process would develop. Properly speaking, there was not one but at least two diverse myths, working away at almost exactly the same time. For businesses, the internet was an extraordinary new opportunity to make money. Meanwhile, for radicals, the rise of the internet seemed to herald a democratic culture that would enable human beings to interact freely, without any limits of legislation or oppression, and across vast space.

The classic statement of the business model was Bill Gates’ book, Looking Ahead. Here, Gates argued that a peaceful revolution had taken place, associated with the spread of computer technology. "Computers have shrunk in size and grown in power as they’ve dropped dramatically in price." Now microtechnology was everywhere. The next step was more profound still. "All the computers will join together to communicate with us and for us. Interconnected globally, they’ll form a large interactive network, which is sometimes called the information superhighway."

Gates continued: "All sorts of individuals and companies are betting their futures on building components for the interactive network. I call it the Internet Gold Rush. At Microsoft we’re working hard to figure out how to evolve from where we are today to the point at which we can realize the full potential of numerous new advances in technology. These are exciting times, not only for the companies involved, but for everyone who will enjoy the benefits of this revolution."5

Other commentators, with perhaps less of a personal stake in the new technology, were equally upbeat. Keynesian economist Victor Keegan predicted that one consequence of the rise of the web and associated new technologies would be an end to inflation: "It is a function of the products of the digital revolution – whether music, films, data, software or whatever – that once the first one has been produced it costs virtually nothing to manufacture and deliver millions more. Instead of diminishing returns to scale as the text books teach us, there will be increasing returns."6

Many socialists, meanwhile, were every bit as optimistic as the businessmen and their strategists. One suggestion was that the style of the new technology was inherently more interactive than older electronic forms – such as radio or television. A radical generation raised on the new styles of communication would therefore be less deferential than its predecessors. Another idea focused less on the process of internet technology and more on its outcome. Lots of people around the world could now communicate directly. Israeli trade unionist Eric Lee described labour organising on the web as "the new internationalism". Lee suggested that the new technology allowed activists all over the world to take a lively interest in disputes which were based outside their own nation. "Thanks to the Internet", he wrote, "a century-long decline in internationalism has already been reversed. For thousands of trade unionists who log on every day, the International has already been reborn."7

In Britain one of the most important voices arguing for the importance of the world wide web was the Guardian. Early in the boom of media interest in the web, the paper’s editor Alan Rusbridger wrote an article praising the new technology. The tone was laudatory, deliberately naive. The internet was praised as the ideal means for making vast quantities of information available to millions at a time:

"I remember the early thrill of being let loose in the Cambridge University Library – one of the three copyright libraries in England and the only one with open access to most of the shelves. I went to the library every day for weeks on end, but I did virtually no academic work. I just ferreted my way through the stacks – miles and miles of them – like a dog in a rabbit warren. That, cubed, is the Internet. Except you never have to leave your seat, there’s no closing time and there’s three times as much fun to be had."8

There were many difference between these two myths of the internet, but one point they shared was a belief that new technology alone would transform the world. The proponents of the myth tended to argue that one new form of communication would surpass all others. Yet one of the interesting things about human communication is precisely our tendency to use different forms of media. There are two long-term trends at work – one suggests that media converge, the other suggests that media diverge.9 Even critical voices, in the mid-1990s, tended to share the assumption that the new technology would have revolutionary consequences. Those voices that stood apart from the consensus were not sceptical but pessimistic, arguing that new technology could accentuate global inequalities. James Wilsdon, senior policy adviser at Forum for the Future, was quoted saying: "The jury is still out on whether the digital economy will evolve into a powerful ally of sustainable development, or a spur to greater social exclusion and environmental destruction."10 What nobody seemed to consider was the possibility that new media (alone) might not change our lives very much at all.

The champions of the dominant paradigm relentlessly insisted that information technology would transform everything. The most elaborate academic expression of this claim came in Manuel Castells’ book, The Rise of the Network Society. This was an elaborate, pessimistic work which offered something to the supporters of both labour and capital. Castells suggested that many economies could survive quite happily without a third or more of their people. He indicated that the effect of the network would probably be an increase in extreme forms of flexible working, and, in consequence, a highly stratified social structure. But although the detail was complex, the book’s basic claim was simple – that the development from an industrial to an information-based economy was as significant a change as the shift from agriculture to industry.11

Associated with the idea of the internet was a technologically-determinist vision of the future. The word which distinguished a warm welcome from an exaggerated confidence was "revolution". Mythologists spoke of an internet revolution or a communications revolution, the rise of a network society, in which information would be the single currency. If Castells was pessimistic, the majority of commentators were much more upbeat, predicting that the net would create a really-existing utopia – run as a form of socialism, or by the free market, but a free society all the same.

Eventually, three processes killed this idea of the internet. The first was the end of a massively overhyped economic boom. The second was the production of internet-associated technology, including notably mobile phone technology, which simply failed to deliver what had been promised. The third process was the growing accumulation of evidence that computer work itself was not liberating, but repetitive and mundane, and little different in character from other forms of white-collar work.

The Internet as Business Plan
The first and most often-cited myth associated with the internet was the belief that simply by going on-line business would be able to communicate with their customers in new ways. Old conflicts of interest between producers and consumers would soon be relegated to the history books. At exactly the same moment that the myth was at its height, the American economy underwent an impressive boom. The most obvious sign of this success was the growth in values of shares on the American stock market. For most of the past twenty years, the stock markets have grown by around five or ten per cent each year. Between 1995 and 2000, this general rise in stocks was supplanted by a gold rush in high technology shares. Bill Gates’ personal wealth approached 100 trillion dollars. America Online’s business as an internet portal (the largest in the US, but only one player in a crowded market place) was deemed valuable enough for it to achieve a takeover of the global entertainment business, Time Warner.

Within this stock market rush, an especially important role was played by high-technology shares, quoted on the NASDAQ exchange. The value of shares reached figures sometimes a thousand times greater than their annual earnings. Plenty of highly valued, publicly-quoted businesses had no sales whatsoever. Still their value boomed. In April 1999, for example, the market value of Amazon.com peaked at more than $30bn. Yet, at that time, Amazon had never made a profit. Its 1998 accounts showed a loss of $124.5m on revenue of just $610m.12 It seemed that share values were held up by little more than good will. The underlying business plan was thin.

In a market economy, all areas of economic life become fetishised. Products are exchanged according to their cash value, not their intrinsic worth. But, for America in the mid-1990s, the symbolic power of the internet share became exaggerated. Share prices became a barometer of the economy, an indicator of social trends. And all the signs pointed up. Even the counter-culture believed the hype. Punk hero Joey Ramone published a stock-tips newsletter.13 In these conditions, internet companies took on new layers of represented meaning. In any country, there are always two stories of how things are, depending on whether you look from above or from below. America was either strong or weak. Either it was a land of opportunities, in which the rich had received their incomes as a reward for talent – or it was a corrupt gerontocracy, in which profit was the gain of fraud. When the East Asian Tigers went into recession in 1997, the success of the stock market in the US seemed to demonstrate mathematically the justice of US prosperity, the truth of the middle class world view.

It was in this context that people began to talk of a new economic paradigm. The more serious commentators maintained that the strength of Wall Street indicated that "reality" was out of tune with perception. Clearly, there must have been some invisible process of productivity-growth going on beneath the surface, associated with investment in computers, which explained the extraordinary character of the boom. The economy must have been stronger than the figures suggested. People just needed to check their sums, and soon the whole affair would make sense.

The dot.com opinion-formers, the businessmen and their hangers-on, took a different line, arguing that soon the entire world would be buying on-line. Everything could be bought and sold more cheaply there. In the new economy, all the rules could be broken. No workers were needed to staff the boutiques. Therefore costs could be dramatically reduced. The internet was like a perpetual motion machine. With only a minimal first-push encouragement, infinite energy 0would be produced. According to Michael Kwatinetz of Credit Suisse First Boston: "There are some situations where it’s hard to value on this metric because there is an explosion to come."

When the crisis in the dot.com sector began, the trigger was a series of profit warnings. The source of the problem was that people were not buying products like computers or mobile phones in sufficient quantities. The banks became wary about bad debts, and placed pressure on the start-ups to meet their targets. Internet sites like Amazon, that linked together buyers and sellers, found they did not have the volume of customers that they had predicted. The first sign that the slow-down was spreading to Britain, came when GM announced the closure of their Vauxhall factory in Luton. The problem the company faced was that people simply were not buying enough of their cars, in America or elsewhere. In January, General Motors announced that it was planning to cut its product range by 20 per cent. Factories would be closed all over Europe and the US, and up to 25,000 jobs could go. The reasons for the crisis were the oldest one in the book, overproduction and underconsumption. People were not buying the goods that were produced. The government’s solution was to reduce interest rates, hoping to soften the economic cycle. The weaknesses of the new economy were felt in the most old-fashioned of ways.

From spring 2000, the money began to run out, and since then the atmosphere has changed markedly. One casualty was the contact-firm First Tuesday. Purchased for £33m by an Israeli technology firm in August 2000, the business was sold back to members for just £1m. As of May 2001, it no longer existed.14 Another high profile loss was boo.com. Bob Brand explained their problem: "A first year economic major could have predicted this train wreck. Attempting to sell expensive clothing on a website loaded down with sluggish graphics coupled with impossible navigation would be the recipe for a slow death."15 By spring 2001, the value of technology shares in the US had fallen by 40 per cent. That face of the internet has gone.

The fact that many of the most visible dot.coms have become dot.bombs does not mean – of course – that in future no business will be conducted on-line. The net’s principal advantage for consumers appears to be the opportunity it gives for people to deal directly and immediately and to buy more cheaply by cutting out the middleman.16 Some early gurus seemed to think that, once gambling firms and rail or flight booking companies had moved on-line, they would no longer need to employ shopworkers on the high street. Yet, rather than the abolition of labour, what has happened is the creation of new jobs, associated with managing sites and processing transactions. The work has changed, but the need for labour – and the cost of labour – continued.

The Happy Drone?
The problems have not merely been economic. Part of the crisis facing the internet has also been the contradiction between early claims made for the revolution in technology, and the "slowing down" of technological advance which seemed to take place in the late 1990s. The real problem was not so much that technology failed to deliver, but rather that companies produced business-models based on growth rates that were impossible to sustain. The easiest way to "resolve" this gap, in the short term, was to produce goods that failed to fulfil the promises made only months earlier. Products came to the market prematurely, and when they failed to live up to the hype, consumers became dubious about the usefulness of the technology itself. Now businesses were selling goods and services that people did not want, and an attitude of popular cynicism spread.

One potentially good idea which was ruined by the search for profits was the idea of instant web communication through broadband connections. The advantages of the system seemed obvious. Communication would be ten times faster (users would have access to 512 kilobytes of information per second instead of the current 56). On-line access would be continuous. There would be no dialling-up, no charges for going on-line. Yet such advantages only applied if you were going to carry out a limited range of tasks. If you wanted to run a homepage from your own machine, or take part in on-line gaming, there was some point to broadband. The people who just used email, or just browsed websites saw little advantage at all. So the companies resolved this problem by bringing out dozens of new services prematurely, which turned out to be much more expensive than the old modem-connections. The customers did not bite.

The web gurus were also wrong to think that web-based phones would take off, causing millions of people to live on-line. Some of the biggest companies in Britain and Germany gambled their entire future by paying huge sums to the central government for the right to own the new frequencies which would carry web access. Yet as soon as the companies had spent £20,000,000,000 just to own the frequencies, next they found with bad debts that required paying off. The idea grew up that the next generation of mobile phones (3G, the third generation) would redeem the debt. No-one asked the question, who would want to scroll through vast quantities of web pages, using a screen the size of a match box? With some thinking, and good design, new devices could be created that would get round this problem. But what actually happened was that the companies bombarded the market with more expensive devices that offered only marginal improvements on the gadgets that already existed. Once again, the idea that simply because something was web-based it would be better took an awful knock.

By summer 2002, the computer industry was calling on central government to build the broadband infrastructure for them. The level of investment that would be required was more than any combination of private business could sustain.17

Working Forwards or Looking Back?
This article has already described the demise of the myth that – for business – the internet would open up an era of unrivalled opportunity. But the mid-1990s also witnessed a series of predictions, in which labour would be the main beneficiary of the new communications systems. The change would take place directly as a consequence of computer technology: workers’ living conditions would improve as a result of the booming, new economy. Or the change would take place indirectly as a result of the new technology: trade unionists and other protesters would be able to use the technology to achieve significant gains that would have been impossible before.

In the mid-1990s, New Labour was strongly associated with the argument that new technology meant new opportunities. First, Tony Blair insisted that every school should go on-line. Then subsequent policy announcements included the idea that all government services should be electronically available by 2005. This emphasis on skills and training was practically the only evident philosophical difference between Conservative economic policy and New Labour’s – in the language of Gordon Brown and his associates, Labour seemed to have replaced America with Germany as the economic model to follow. By September 1999, Blair had even recognised the need to practice what he preached, allowing himself to be photographed in Cambridge learning to surf the net.18 In the very same month, he also wrote the foreword to a Financial Times collection praising the wonders of the new internet economy:

"In the next century, the source of sustainable competitiveness will be the ability to create, disseminate and rapidly exploit knowledge. Knowledge has, of course, always been of vital economic importance, but the scale of the knowledge revolution we are now witnessing marks out the new economy as something different in kind from anything that has gone before. That revolution is being fuelled by three key drivers. First, the explosion of scientific and technical knowledge. Second the success of the international economy is opening up the global market, allowing knowledge, and the capital and skills needed to exploit it, to flow freely across borders. Third the ability, through modern technologies, to codify that knowledge in a common digital language, that can be manipulated, assessed and communicated at high speed."19 We might assume that Blair was simply exhibiting the standard clichés of his age. But there seems to be more to this passage. We can observe the enthusiasm of someone new to a fad, and therefore basically ignorant of its dynamics. We also notice the verbs appropriate to knowledge – Blair tells his readers to "exploit" (twice) and "manipulate". These sort of words that other writers might use in different contexts as critique.

Billions were spent on establishing a network of on-line learning centres, where people would be able to access training programs like Learndirect. One journalist, Charles Leadbeater, described the "knowledge economy" as the social basis of Blair’s Third Way. "We are moving into a post-capitalist society", Leadbeater wrote. "We’re all in the thin-air business these days.... the real assets of the modern economy come out of our heads not out of the ground: ideas, knowledge, skills, talent and creativity." The flip-side of this argument was an associated claim, that in the internet age all anyone needed to prosper was education and a small dose of good luck.20

The World Bank and the US Peace Corps seem to have been motivated by a similar philosophy, in arguing that third world poverty could be reduced if only every school in the world could access the internet on-line.

Although the tenor of this article is sceptical of all web-based hype, there undoubtedly were times when the new technology contributed to the advance of radicalism. We can even speak of victories for internet-based organising. One of the main ways by which the Liverpool dockers were able to generate publicity for their 1995-97 strike was by placing regular news updates on-line. Out of this experience, a global information system, LabourNet, was established. Since then, this site has become an important resource for focusing international attention and action on labour struggles around the world. Meanwhile, the anti-capitalist protesters at Seattle in winter 1999 also found that one of the best ways to publicise their campaign was on-line. Information posted consisted not only of email and web pages, but also included live broadcasting of the demonstrations through webcams located in different areas of the city. Stefano Baldi describes the ways in which the internet was used:

"At the site World Trade Watch radio21 five daily radio programmes concerning the meeting were broadcast from Seattle. The programmes consisted of reports from the field, lively in-studio discussions, interviews and other materials. Therefore any Internet user with an acceptable connection could easily listen to these programmes through the PC.

"The Independent Media Center site was used by media activists to post breaking news stories. All they had to do was go to the site, retrieve reports, photos, audio and video, and pass them on. The website also allowed activists anywhere in the world to post their own reports about WTO actions happening in their communities using simple online forms."22

The optimism of early net-activists was not entirely unfounded. As late as summer 2001 – several months after the boom in internet stocks had come to an end – the New York free-sheet, the Village Voice, ran an article proclaiming that: "The real future of political protest lies on the Internet, where already storms are raging that will affect the economics and politics of the 21st century." The anonymous author of the piece went on to describe the decline of the radical press since the late 1970s. Yet this decline was not seen as fatal to the hopes of radicals: "The Web promises to breathe new life into advocacy journalism, with once ‘underground’ news now instantly available, from raw data on political contributions to information on lobbyists to details on environmental pollution." The strength of the internet was not to be found simply in the quantity of material available on-line, but in the quality of opportunities available to anti-market protesters: "the international community of hackers now chews right through the tangle of patents, copyrights, etc., utilized by those who are attempting to control intellectual property on the Web, pirating music, film, and books."23

So what undermined the idea that the internet would offer new opportunities for protest? If it is right that the most important strength of the medium, from the point of view of successful protest, was always the opportunities it provided to disseminate information, then this raised the question of what information would be produced. Logically, you might think that people working with computers would reflect on their own experiences. Given the time that most adults spend at work, this means that the internet communication was always likely to involve people talking about the problems they faced in their own work. Given the distinction made earlier between the net as utopia, and the net as a tool for activists, the second model would seem to work only provided that the first model had failed, and social oppression remained in place.

One thing which helped to puncture the original myth of the internet was the discovery that what you might call grab-and-get technology would not (by itself) destroy long-standing social inequalities. Instead, it became clear to people that the physical tasks associated with extended computer use – staring at a fixed screen, manipulating a mouse by bending your wrist sideways, typing until your arms ached – were themselves repetitive, even painful. The myth-makers forgot the bodies of the computer slaves.

From summer 2000, a number of surveys pointed to the declining popularity of computers. More people used these machines – 6.1 billion emails are sent worldwide every year. But it was no longer true that users wanted to extend their use indefinitely. In Britain, a June 2001 survey by the Consumers’ Association found that the desirability of email use had plummeted. Within a year, the number of respondents who named email as their favourite form of communication fell from fourteen to five per cent. Meanwhile the numbers who preferred face-to-face meetings jumped from thirty-nine to sixty-seven per cent. One psychologist, David Lewis, described an "information fatigue syndrome".24 Extended computer use was synonymous with intense stress.

After a few months, then, the web pages that people put together to fire their hobbies and personal interests into cyberspace no longer seemed so new to their own authors. People learned just how much work it would take to keep their personal pages interesting and up-to-date. Many pages were closed, others slowly run down. The prospects of internet-based home-working – described by Gates and Leadbeater as providing new opportunities for women – came to represent in people’s heads another way for capital to cheat labour.25 Free sites began to charge their customers. The Wall Street Journal asked for either $29 or $59 a year, depending on whether electronic subscribers took the paper copy as well. The Financial Times increased its charges to £75 (for FT content) or £200 (for their database). According to one journalist, writing in July 2002: "With the drying up of funds from investors and a slump in the online advertising market, thousands of websites are either closing down or desperately trying to find new sources of income. Someone has to pay, so every week, more sites change from free to fee."26 Even as the experience of surfing the internet began to lose its élan, the word came out of a new generation of low-paid workers, producing the endless code that kept the whole structure afloat.

It is hard to reconcile the image of the internet – circa 1995 – with the accounts which have been published of long-hour, high-stress work. Two writers who deserve credit for helping to take away this veil were Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin. Their book Netslaves describes a sector typified by routine, low-paid and dispiriting work. As far as Lessard and Baldwin are concerned, computer programming meant McJobs. Contrary to the promise, the inhabitants of the brave new internet world found themselves fatigued by eyestrain and repetitive strain injuries. There was no sense of glamour or excitement through work, only a relentless litany of frustration and pain.27

Given the personal wealth of Bill Gates, and Gates’ willingness to defend the internet-utopia in print, it is no surprise that Microsoft has emerged as the chief symbol of the new order in practice. One text of the post-Seattle generation, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, describes Microsoft’s working-structure, in which a minority of workers (the core) enjoy extended benefits, while the majority of workers (the periphery) experience high stress and long hours, but without the high wages. "Microsoft openly admits that its reserve of temps exists to protect the core of permanent workers from the ravages of the free market. When a product line is discontinued, or costs are cut in ingenious ways, it’s the temps that absorb the blows. If you ask the agencies, they say that their clients don’t mind being treated like outdated software – after all, Bill Gates never promised them a thing." Klein is duly cynical about flexible-working, Microsoft-style. "Temp rage seethes there like nowhere else."28

One group of workers who have declared their unwillingness to become web-workers have been university lecturers in the US. Nine hundred professors at the University of Washington signed a letter to state Governor Gary Locke decrying education delivered over the Internet by technology companies. "While costly fantasies of this kind present a mouthwatering bonanza to software manufacturers and other corporate sponsors, what they bode for education is nothing short of disastrous", they wrote. "Education is not reducible to the downloading of information." Professors at Toronto’s York University went on strike to keep their courses off-line. And there were also protests at the University of California in Los Angeles.29

Part of the problem with the belief that the internet would be in itself a leveller was that – contrary to initial expectations – many of the new jobs being created were old-style, blue-collar and low-tech. At the start of the twenty-first century, the fastest growing professions in Britain and America included call-centre workers, packers and drivers. After all, someone had to be employed to ensure that the new goods purchased from on-line shops would arrive on time! In spring 2001, the paper Bread and Roses carried the following report of the conditions faced by packers working for Amazon’s British offshoot: "Fed up with working 11-hour shifts but only being paid for 10, workers at Amazon.com’s warehouse in Milton Keynes have been organising in the GPMU print and paper union. Other issues that the workers want redressing are that they regularly have to walk up to 20 miles per shift taking items around the warehouse, and that they have very strict (and far too tight) deadlines on processing items." Within a year, union membership had risen from 17 to 57 per cent of the 300-strong workforce.

Another problem facing the left face of the internet was the success of various schemes of corporate censorship. If it is true that people were using the web to broadcast anti-corporate information, then it is no surprise that they faced resistance from the entertainment and telecom companies who invested in the net. In May 1998, Corporate Watch reported that Biwater, a privately-owned, British transnational water corporation, was attempting to suppress public debate about utility privatisation in South Africa. GreenNet, the internet service provider for LabourNet, the UK labour news website, and SangoNet, the provider for the South African newspaper, the Weekly Mail and Guardian, were both threatened with legal action if they refused to take down offending stories. The problem was that Biwater appeared to have participated in sanction-busting arms for aid schemes in support of the old apartheid government, and in the new South Africa, such a history was bad for business. The press release from Corporate Watch which described this incident made clear its importance in terms of the future shape of the net , raising the question of whose values would dominate?

"Corporate Watch is committed to supporting the free flow of information over the Internet. In a climate of increasing free flow of capital, with correspondingly decreasing public mechanisms for corporate accountability, the Internet represents the potential of a public forum that transcends national borders. It is crucial that this space, where citizens across the globe can debate the role of corporations and take action, be protected. This is especially true at a time when a few transnational corporations control traditional mass media."30

In the original idealised world of the web, there would of course be no need to seek protection for the internet. The communicative process itself would guarantee a more democratic future. But technology without people is nothing. For the activists to gain from the new technology, they would have to get organised.

In the first myth of the internet, new technology would provide general prosperity, and an end to social conflict. One place where this model seem to be especially unsatisfying is in the Middle East. In October 2000, the ZNet press agency warned of a worsening "cyberconflict", that had the potential to spread out to infect the rest of the web. In one attack, Israeli hackers succeeded in defacing various pro-Palestinian sites including those of Islamic political groups Hizbullah and Hamas. The cyberwar intensified when Palestinian supporters stole and posted a database containing the personal information of 700 members of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. In December, the website of the Anti-Defamation League was taken over by hackers, describing themselves as the "World’s Fantabulous Defacers". The FBI warned that even US businesses could be pulled in: "Due to the credible threat of terrorist acts in the Middle East region, and the conduct of these web attacks, recipients should exercise increased vigilance to the possibility that US government and private sector Web sites may become potential targets."31 A strategy of "hack-tivism" emerged among Palestinian as among anti-corporate protesters, at least in part because of the failure of the new information-based economy to deliver that better society which was promised.

Finally, the disaster which befell the US on 11 September 2001 seems to demonstrate nothing so much as the futility of any dominance which is based not on an acceptance of shared values but rather on brute technology. The Pentagon and the Twin Towers were destroyed neither by nuclear missiles, nor biochemical war, but by the determined will of a few men armed with crude knives. The trappings of America’s IT-driven economy served to maximise the potential of low-tech horror.

Beyond the Internet?
The argument of this article has been that life itself has invalidated a myth. The internet is disappearing. Not the technology itself, neither the firms nor the people doing the work, but the argument. The idea of the internet was at least in part a critique of the narrow ways in which people live and interact. It ends with its champions defeated; the rhetoric has lost its appeal. The technology continues – once established, existing ways of working never die so fast. But the myth once claimed that this means of communication would revolutionise the world, and that idea has gone.

For those interested in the purpose and use of new communication technology, how can we understand the rise and fall of the internet myth? The end of the myth could serve to direct attention back to an older argument – that the impact of any technology will be decided not merely by the technical processes associated with that technology, but also by the social conditions surrounding its use. This was a point made by Karl Marx, in criticism of the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:

"M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning their living, they change all social relations."32

The question of the impact of the internet becomes itself a study of the social conditions around at the time. Any list of the important, external factors which shaped the actual experience of the first five years of mass access to the internet would include the economic processes of the mid- to late-1990s, the changing working patterns associated with globalisation, and the vagaries of the US boom. At least a part of the problem is that the opportunities associated with globalisation have not been well-spread. Armand and Michele Mattelart highlight the divide between first and third worlds. In their account of the new processes, computer-mediated communication takes place in a "Hanseatic mode", benefiting only the wealthiest regions.33 At all events, life intrudes on communication. Social inequality and conflict cannot be written out of the equation.

Given such a method, this article would argue that the end of the internet – or at least the death of the myths associated with the web at its birth – opens up the opportunity for a new, less grandiose but more practical study of what has actually happened to our working lives since the use of the internet became widespread. The technology itself is not going to disappear. The ways of living which have emerged are of course different from what went before. Without the myths, the boosting and the hype, it may actually be easier to understand the changes underway. And who knows? Out of this process of questioning, in the continuing light of the global protest movement born at Seattle in 1999, despite the uneven access and consequences of the new technology, the poor and the oppressed may one day take control of the machines.


1. J.S. Quarterman, "Imminent death of the Internet?", http://www.mids.org/mn/606/death.html.

2. See, for example, http://www.schaft.com/endofit.html, and http://www.instinct.org/~pgl/end.html.

3. K. Savetz and N. Randall, "Death of the Internet?", http://www.savetz.com/articles/nie24.html.

4. J.S. Quarterman, "Imminent death of the Internet?", http://www.mids.org/mn/606/death.html.

5. B. Gates, The Road Ahead (London: Penguin, 1996).

6. V. Keegan, "The world at your fingertips", Guardian, 23 November 1998.

7. E. Lee, The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism (London: Pluto, 1997), p.186.

8. A. Rusbridger, "How I fell in love with the Internet", Guardian, 11 January 1999.

9. For divergence, see J. van Dijk, The Network Society (London: Sage, 1999), pp.5-6 and passim.

10. R. Cowe, "Dark side of the web", Guardian, 24 February 2000.

11. M. Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

12. F. Islam, "Strategy supercedes e-uphoria", Observer, 13 June 1999.

13. "So who’s crying over spilt milk?", Guardian, 10 May 2001.

14. "Where are they now?", Guardian, 8 May 2001.

15. B. Brand, "Death of Boo", http://www.thebee.com/bweb/iinfo209.htm.

16. P. Collinson, "Seeking a Net profit", Guardian, 16 January 1999.

17. M. Hember, "The IT industry is at fault, not the government", Computing, 4 July 2002.

18. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_445000445995.stm.

19. T. Blair, "Foreword", in A. Leer (ed), Masters of the World: Cyberspace Speaks Out (London: Financial Times, 1998), pp.viii-ix.

20. Leadbeater’s work is criticised in A. Callinicos, Against the Third Way (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), pp.29-32.

21. http://www.corpwatch.org/.

22. The internet battle of Seattle is described in S. Baldi, "The internet for international political and social protest: the case of Seattle", http://hostings.diplomacy.edu/baldi/articles/protest2.htm.

23. "The future of protest: cyber storms", Village Voice, 19-25 July, 2001.

24. O. Burkeman, "Postmortem", Guardian, 20 June 2001.

25. K. Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997), pp.94-5.

26. J. Schofield, "Internet finds its fees", Guardian, 4 July 2002.

27. B. Lessard and S. Baldwin, NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), pp.43-57 and passim.

28. N. Klein, No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000), p.270.

29. See T. Woody, "Academics rebel against an online future", 12 June 1998, text accessible at http://www.cnn.com/TECH/computing/9806/15/academics.idg.

30. The Corporate Watch Editorial Board, Press Release, 6 May 1998, text accessible at http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/internet/biwater.

31. W. Knight, "Middle east cyberconflict could spread, says FBI", ZNet News, 31 Oct 2000; R. Lemos, "Middle east cyberwar heats up", ZNet News, 6 November 2000; S. Olsen, "Antiracism site target of cyberattack", ZNet News, 28 December 2000. I am grateful to Anne Alexander for these references.

32. Cited in H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), pp.10, 18

33. A. and M. Mattelart, Theories of Communication: A Short Introduction (London: Sage, 1998 edn), p.142.