"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 December 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Retrogressive Behavior


[Technical Stuff]

Remember when the web inspired

the kind of


idealism not heard since the

days of Jobs and his band of

inanely grating apostles? Just

as the fondly remembered

Macintosh midwifed enough

newsletters and zines to cover

the free world's every corporate

bulletin board and slacker

coffee table, the web -

according to the myoptimistic

dream-cleavers - would also

radically extend individuals'

publishing power. With a modem

and an Internet connection,

anyone could become the next

multimedia Murdoch. Worldwide

distribution, beer-money

production costs, and perhaps

most inspiring, micropayment

mechanisms that would facilitate

hard currency return on the

metaphorical two cents one cast

into the global discourse: These

visions danced in every obscure

auteur's head. Sure, there were

some obstacles to overcome, but

solutions would eventually

manifest themselves.



However enchanting that

decentralized self-publisher's

Elysium seemed in theory, in

practice it bore an unfortunate

resemblance to the poetry

industry: too many producers,

not enough consumers. While 99.9

percent of the content on the

web that doesn't feature limber

coeds in various degrees of

sexual contortion remains freer

than the verse of even the most

improvisational Swarthmore

undergrad, at least the medium

now aspires to emulate TV

instead of foolishly hoping to

transcend it. True to its

visionary nature, HotWired

kicked off the digital

devolution by insisting with

deadpan earnestness that its

various sections were, in fact,

channels. PointCast pushed the

conceit from metaphor to

TV-style newzak, and then, for

the idiot-box loyalists, those

with insatiable appetites for

any new riddle wrapped in an

enigma wrapped in a Magnavox,

the devolutionaries rolled out



If WebTV had publicized its

corporate mission of making the

Internet "as accessible and

compelling for consumers as

broadcast television" two years

ago, the response from the web

community would have ranged from

pleasant dismissal to vicious

derision. But in today's shaky

web climate, where almost every

site is one underwhelmed

advertiser away from a Flux

obit-slap, WebTV's retrogressive

take on what viewers really want

has the high-tech critics

cheering with a fervor usually

reserved for the latest

Microsoft-killer. And why not?

With its kitschy ad campaign and

postcomputer vision of the

online world, WebTV may indeed

take the web back to that

obscenely prosperous future it

has long been imagining for



[Header for TV Net]

Using thoroughly familiar

consumer appliances to deliver

Internet access to the

browser-challenged is WebTV's

ostensible breakthrough

achievement, but from the

perspective of the average

American cable zombie, the

product is even more valuable

for what it withholds: the

ability for users to actually

create a personal homepage.

While this leave-content-

creation-to-the-pros approach

boldly contradicts the web's

basic many-to-many philosophy,

you can't help but marvel at the

candid genius of it.



Indeed, as any cubicle sloth

knows, the web's for when you

don't want to work - the desire

to self-publish, or to engage in

any form of interactivity more

taxing than the click of a

button or the keyjerk flaming of

a favorite bulletin board foe,

is the medium's great myth,

bigger even than Flight 800 or

crack conspiracy theories. A

simple scan of personal home

pages will quickly confirm this.

Only slightly less prevalent

than poorly scanned

fiancée photos and

lottery-ticket resumes - has

anyone ever actually gotten a

job from one of those? - are the

embarrassed apologies for the

page's half-finished status and

infrequent updates.


By so successfully promoting the

notion that old-fashioned

passive consumption is actually

the coolest way to view the web,

the way new TV pioneers at WebTV

have created a win-win situation

for everyone. Because WebTV

users don't have the capacity

for creating home pages, they're

not subject to any nagging sense

of guilt that they ought be

making at least a half-hearted

attempt to do so. In turn, fewer

personal pages means less

bandwidth strain and

search-directory clutter, and a

higher eyeballs-to-content

ratio. Had WebTV come out two

years ago, before early adopter

hobbyists started using all that

spare PC processing power to

clutter the web with

sub-Siegel-quality pages, the

web would undoubtedly be much

closer to profitability right




As it is, WebTV promises greater

functionality in future

versions, which, frankly, is a

terrible idea. Instead, the

company would do well to extend

its less-is-more development

strategy: By eliminating email

capabilities, WebTV would

further encourage viewers to

engage solely in the passive

consumption of its own network

of SurfWatch-friendly

programming. Any truly necessary

interactivity - like making

purchases or completing customer

service surveys - can easily be

handled through forms. The fact

that WebTV's undersized wireless

keyboard makes typing more

difficult than using toothpicks

as chopsticks is an encouraging

step in the right direction.


[Feature Title]

With the broadcast TV model

gaining such favor amongst

consumers, the only thing

remaining between producers and

Seinfeld-style revenues is a

decent home connection. By the

time the penalty for cable-modem

access is reduced from residence

in Fremont to a standard monthly

fee, things should really take


courtesy of St. Huck