We knew the revolution wouldn’t be televised, but many of us really hoped it might be on the Internet. Now we know these hopes were false. There was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution. We will stumble on in more or less exactly the way we did before massive computer networks infiltrated our daily lives …
Before the Web we were already used to sitting in front of electronic boxes for hour upon hour. The boxes have now changed, but they are still boxes. Of course the things we do on the Internet are different from those we did (and do) in front of the TV. But it’s important to remember that they are only different; they are not new. Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats. You buy things. Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods. As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them. You play games. There are many kinds of games on the Internet, but those we seem to like best all fall into two categories: the ones where we can kill things and the ones where we can cast spells. You look things up. The Web is like a bottomless well of information. You can find the answer to almost any question if you’re willing to look. But you generally don’t like to look, so you get your answers from Wikipedia. Last, you do things you know you shouldn’t. The Internet is great for indulging bad habits. It offers endless opportunities to steal electronic goods, look at dirty pictures, and lose your money playing poker. Moreover, it’s anonymous. On the Web, you can get what you want and be pretty sure you won’t get caught getting it. That’s terrifically useful.
But what exactly is new here? Not very much. Email is still mail. Online newspapers are still newspapers. YouTube videos are still videos. Virtual stores are still stores. MMORPGs are still variations on D&D. A user-built encyclopedia is still a reference book. Stealing mp3s is still theft. Cyber-porn is still porn. Internet poker is still gambling. In terms of content, the Internet gives us almost nothing that the much maligned “traditional media” did not. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one. Let’s be honest: that’s amazing. But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing—it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.
What you see depends on where you stand, and from one viewpoint – a high one – Poe is absolutely correct. He puts his finger on a tragicomic fundamental of human existence: Whenever we come upon a wild new frontier, we jump up and down and say we’re going to restart history, and then we proceed to do exactly what we always do: build houses, shops, brothels, bars, gaming emporiums, churches. And then more shops. Modern electronic media, from this view, simply allow us to do all the same stuff with less physical effort. Lots of big boxes collapse into one small box, but the contents of the box remains the same.
The problem with a high vantage point is that you can’t see the details, and if you stand there long enough you begin to believe that the details don’t matter. But the details do matter. The texture of our lives is determined not only by what we do but by how we do it. And that’s where media play such an important part: they change the how. Which is what Poe misses. Just as the dishwasher (along with the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, and all manner of other electrified household appliance) altered in profound ways the rhythms and roles of home life during the last century, so the internet changes, in ways small and large, everything it subsumes. The same shit, when routed through a different medium, becomes new shit.