Future Schlock

Monday, June 15: Martin Nisenholtz, president of The New York Times electronic publishing division, turns to the perky PR handler and asks, "Do I have vegetable in my teeth?" She shakes her head, and he glides into a conference room at 1675 Broadway to unveil the company's new online city guide NYToday.com. A small crowd of journalists sits waiting, munching on melon slices. This is how "news" is created in the Internet industry: first bagels, fruit, and coffee on the house, then show-and-tell.

By last week's debut, the announcement of NYToday's launch had been well masticated. The Times has been postponing and rescheduling the launch date since January. With Microsoft (sidewalk.com) and CitySearch NY (citysearch.com) already bickering over the yet unproven audience for their online city guides, it's hard to see the pressing need for another. Nisenholtz wants to convince us--usual Alley reporters like the dogged Nathaniel Wice of Netly News (in a silk jacket--the benefits of working for Time Warner's Pathfinder) and Mary Huhn from the New York Post--that the site's a "win for New Yorkers." But is it really the future of city guides--what Nisenholtz flacks as "groupware for New York City"?

The Times, evidently, fancies itself a software company. Instead of trumpeting the 1200 minireviews of restaurants by Ruth Reichl and Eric Asimov (more info-nuggets is exactly what the Net does not need), general manager Dan Donaghy steps through NYToday's impressive calendar technology, which lets people create a personal datebook on their servers. Nonprofit organizations can use NYToday to list their exhibitions, then notify their members through e-mail (the American Museum of Natural History is one of 20 charter groups). It's like having your DayRunner chez the Times.

The only catch is that the technology running the show is not the Times's own but from a California start-up called Zip2 (the 26-year-old CEO, Elon Musk, is the only one on the Times team without a tie). For its part, what the Timeshas done is create 300 microsites for local merchants (read: advertising culs-de-sac) and snuggle them right up against the breezy editorial. Sure, this "value-added content" is marked under a column called "related advertisers." But it's hard to make the distinction between the Times and the ad copy--and you can bet the advertisers are damn happy about any confusion.

LOOT: NYToday clock, cap, yellow pad, and a red pen.

TUESDAY, JUNE 16: Crowds drift about the Roseland Ballroom, restless for the future. But the folks behind the "Next 20 Years" symposium--a "sneak preview" of 2019--are running late, so we're trapped in the present moment, milling around while technology companies hawk their wares from tables. Comet Systems is licensing the technology that it canuse to turn the arrow mouse icon into whatever a company wants--a tiny, waving Ronald McDonald, a pair of M&M's. Antonio Arellanes hands out brochures of his "virtual chronoholographic illusions of reality" ("Arellanes brings symbols of unity to canvas in the fourth dimension of spacetime," blurbs Phaedre Greenwood, The Taos News). People descend like eagles on the sushi tray that circles irregularly. NYToday's Donaghy is smart--he's relaxing at the bar.

The evening kicks off with the typical narcotic of new media conventions: a short movie. An ominous figure in an overcoat stands in a field of open books and intones: "We believe in the teleportation of matter... Just not next week." As usual, there's a wide-eyed kid ready to teleport. The elder figure returns: "We believe moments of sheer jaw-dropping amazement will be a daily phenomenon." The kid says, "Wow." This is the year 2019, brought to you by magazine conglomerate Ziff-Davis (one of the sponsors of the evening)--David Foster Wallace would be proud.

Moments later, the first oracle arrives--the sprightly Alley personality Douglas Rushkoff, author of Cyberia, Media Virus, and The Ecstasy Club, who calls himself both a "utopian" and a "techno-realist." In the future, you can have it both ways. The audience cheers his forecast: all UFO abductions will be revealed as paranoia; there will be no advertising, just positioning (Donaghy must be smiling); there will be a global labor movement; and we should expect the first "nano or robotic Chernobyl." ("A guy in a lab will make a molecule that makes things gray, then it'll turn the guy gray, then Paris will be gray," says Rushkoff. "It will be stopped, but it will give us pause.")

He's followed by the quirky IBM Fellow Ted Selker, who invented the trackball device in the IBM notebook. Selker's so jazzed on "embedded technology" in our clothing that he comes on wearing a keyboard like a fanny pack. It doesn't, however, keep the TelePrompTer from freezing midspeech.

During the panel discussion, the guests drift quickly into tautology territory. "Teachers won't grade things--they'll be graded by the act of doing itself," Selker says, bewilderingly. "Taking the tools out of the task--those are the kind of tools we want to create." The evening's silliness reaches crescendo when an audience member asks the panelists, "Are computers good or evil?" Selker answers, "The computer is." Rushkoff counters, "There is only good and the absence of good." ABC News tech correspondent Gina Smith, the third panelist and the least remarkable, says resolutely, "Evil."

LOOT: A free copy of Upside magazine.

LATER THE SAME day: What if the future happened and nobody showed? At the opening night of the jam-packed film funhouse Ret.Inevitable (staged beneath the Brooklyn Bridge), the only empty room is one with computers--the "Absolut Panushka" chamber, a showcase of an online animation software. Last year's "Art in the Anchorage" show in the same space by the same Creative Time group was a stunning example of handsome interactive art. But this year the crowds were in the cinema showcase, transfixed by a future more difficult to comprehend: Sofia Coppola as filmmaker.

The other two digital installations in the exhibition seem caught in recursive loops. Set up in the "e: Res" room (sponsored by the digital-filmmaking magazine Res),the first machine is having an outright seizure. A couple plays with the second terminal, but the woman gets trapped in a mystifying editing interface. Her boyfriend says gently, "Sweetie, I think you broke it."

Omar Wasow, MSNBC pundit and CEO of the scaled-down Web shop New York Online, hangs outside the fray. He's abuzz about the fully functional, 100-CDplayer he nabbed through the new online auction company Onsale.com. "I went in ostensibly to write a story about [onsale.com], but I stuck around," he says. And after a just few minutes of talking, it's apparent that this live rapport is just about the most vital "groupware" we've got. The software and spectacle won't mean much in 20 years, that's for sure. But conversations will continue.

LOOT: Free popcorn.


Signal and Noise

44 Per Cent Online: Riding the coattails of the hugely popular Silicon Alley '98 confab this spring, "cybergrrl" Aliza Sherman (www.cybergrrl.com) hosts her own technology conference "for women, by women," on Thursday, June 25, at the AT&T Auditorium. Though it's not entirely clear just what her company does, the sharp and articulate Sherman herself has become a fixture on the speaking tour circuit. For info about the $90 full-day series check http://www.webgrrls.com/awed.

E-mail: abunn@villagevoice.com

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