Vital Signs

New Media Savants Check the Pulse of Silicon Alley

With the new year smoothly under way, the Voice asked leading experts to weigh in on the best and worst recent developments of the tech revolution—and to envision the shape of things to come. Here's a sampling of their responses.

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ANDREW SHAPIRO, author of The Control Revolution and a senior adviser to the Markle Foundation

One thing that's missing [from the Web today] is great local gateway sites where people can find not just movie listings but real conversations among neighbors about issues they care about: local politics, community issues, sports, schools. I'm also surprised that we haven'treally figured out what the equivalent of NPR or PBS is on the Web—some kind of aggregator of high-quality noncommercial content. With AOL Time Warner and the TV-ization of the Web generally, it's more important than ever that people be able to find smaller voices that might be out there but essentially lost in cyberspace. A site that collected and organized those perspectives in an intelligent way would be valuable.

Niche portals are in right now, targeting women (iVillage), teens (Bolt), Boomers (ThirdAge), and African Americans (BlackPlanet). But I think the next big thing might be values-based portals—sites that appeal to us not because of our gender or age, but because of what we believe in. In such an environment, I think we might find more organic, loyal, and bottom-up community building—not the ersatz online communities of today where features get imposed upon consumers, but sites that really respond to their users' needs and desires.

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REBECCA ODES, cofounder of Gurl.com and coauthor of Deal With It!

The Internet simultaneously expands on and explodes the image of the teenybopper with a phone welded to her ear, giving teenage girls an open forum to talk to anyone about anything. With her personally crafted identity, a Web-wise girl can be free from the judgment she feels in real life and find out what she needs to know without worrying about whispers of her dilemma leaking out in gym class the next day. Girls no longer have to wait until they are 27 (and drunk) to admit to a girlfriend that they masturbate. Now they can go online and get advice on how to get the most out of the showerhead technique.

In the ideal future, people will be watching teenage girls represent their own realities instead of Hollywood versions of teenage life. Girls who have grown up being exposed to differences and challenging their beliefs won't waste half their lives trying to figure out what they believe in. Cyberflirtation will take the pressure off high school dating, and girls will be able to develop their brains instead of worrying about how their bodies are developing.

MARISA BOWE, editor in chief of Word

My ideal content of the future is sort of like the worlds in William Gibson and Neal Stephenson novels. I want 3-D virtual worlds with full synch sound, elaborate landscapes and buildings, complex human avatar-and-bot social worlds, all able to be changed and customized by the users. I want there to be all sorts of different worlds, for all different tastes and types.

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ANDREW RASIEJ, founder and president of the nonprofit organization MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education)

About 80 percent of New York public schools have Internet access in one or two rooms, and about 50 percent have a computer network of some sort. The Board of Education seems somewhat helpless in implementing the elements that need to come together for technology to flourish as an education tool. Schools need networks, systems administrators to run them, staffdevelopment programs to help teachers understand how to use technology as a tool, and a process that has students helping manage and build the informational infrastructure. To this day, there is not one school with a systems administrator. The position doesn't even exist.

Once these foundations are laid, the education process become accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once high-speed networks are in place, the need for the actual school building and the classroom itself will change. Social interaction will still need to happen, but not in a structured classroom environment. The teacher will be transformed from someone who supposedly knows all the information and delivers it from the front of a class to someone who will act as a guide to the massive amounts of information and the sources for it. The success of the future students will not depend on their ability to memorize and perform on tests, but will be based on their ability to apply all the information which will be available to them in a meaningful way.

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DR. STEPHEN COHEN, director of minimal access surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital

Laproscopic tools enable minimal-access surgery that requires little to no incisions. In gynecology we've been using scopes since the '70s, but the instruments have . . . exponentially improved in the last decade and there's been a rapid escalation of what can be done through minimal-access surgery. For example, endometrial oblation, where we actually destroy the lining of the uterus, is entirely new, enabled by the tools. There are 200,000 hysterectomies a year done for abnormal bleeding alone. These are procedures that could in most cases be eliminated by a 15-minute endometrial oblation procedure.

Robotics [let] you control the room. We can light the scope by just saying "light up," we can move the scope by saying "scope to the right," or we can change whatever we want just by talking to the system, which makes it easier and quicker and safer because you don't have to play that old game telephone. Repetitive procedures such as suturing or tying will very shortly be controlled by the robot. If we put the suture in and we say to "tie that knot," it will. Right now we're operating off a TV set, but screens are coming that float above the operating table, or that appear in a set of goggles. We also see robotics coming where we actually control the instruments from a console: I can move my fingers from my desk and move instruments in the operating room.

BOB GREENE, managing partner of Flatiron Partners

We still look for a few basic things: a great leader and visionary for the company. But the volume of ideas coming to us just keeps growing. Early on you saw a wave of things like ISPs, because you had to build the foundation of the business first. Then you saw a lot of interesting content plays. We're still seeing content, but now you are also seeing convergence plays.

One of our hottest areas is pervasivecomputing—Internet everywhere you want it all the time, e-mail on your cell phone, Kozmo to your door. Sometimes they are hardware-based and more often they are software- and content-based. We're still very interested in online media. In the future you are going to see a melding: You used to know what was offline, what was online; they'll integrate. You won't differentiate online and offline brands anymore. Therefore you don't want to be tethered to your desktop to do anything. I want it anywhere I want it: e-mail or Web surfing in the Gap, in my living room, not just a box in your office.

We're not necessarily investing in companies that are trying to cover everything in one fell swoop, which AOL Time Warner might be able to do someday. We'll just invest in companies that will bring one part of it to you everywhere.

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DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, author of Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say

The best [sociological effect of the IT revolution] has been the impact that the idea of interactive technology has had on humanity. We can now imagine what a complex, networked human society, functioning as a coordinated organism, might look and feel like. The worst effect, so far, has been computer-aided unconsciousness. We are using interactive technologies as marketing tools, applying our most powerful hypnosis and influence techniques to the World Wide Web. We are using the Internet to pace and lead ourselves into passive consumption. This is, most likely, because the only "value" we are programming into technology right now is monetary.

For now, both the utopian and the nightmare scenarios we're all familiar with can serve us: Our communications technologies give us ways to envision a future where cooperation and community rule—and may motivate us to work towards that reality. Meanwhile, the fear of dehumanized, computer-driven consumer fascism might just give us enough pause to reconsider what it is we're building here.

KEVIN WERBACH, managing editor of Release 1.0

We always think we're living in the time of greatest technological change. So the pundits may change, but punditry generally doesn't. Effective technology analysis focuses on the underlying, hidden trends, rather than being sucked into the surface waves of hype. Techno-punditry should use the technology itself; so far we're largely stuck in print and other traditional models.A good pundit should be like your first pair of glasses—you don't realize how much your eyes are missing until you put them on.

 

JAMES LEDBETTER, New York bureau chief of The Industry Standard

The best changes [in the media landscape] are essentially distribution-related. That is, an enormous volume of news and information that in a previous age would be almost impossible for any individual to gather personally is now available with ease. The worst changes involve concentrated ownership. The Internet, a theoretically democratic medium, is rapidly showing signs of being dominated by the same handful of conglomerates as the rest of the American media. Assuming the AOL Time Warner merger goes through, six of the 15 most trafficked news and information sites will be owned by the same company.

I think the next two big shifts will involve high-speed modem access and portability. If broadband becomes a reality, then we will see all sorts of possibilities that are today unimaginable for most consumers: video on demand, downloadable video, downloadable books. The Net will move away from a computer-based medium and become pervasive.

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STEVEN JOHNSON, editor in chief of FEED and author of Interface Culture

The most transformative interface innovation is not a graphical element, not a window or icon or menu. It's a simple piece of code written into the HTML spec, and recognized by every Web browser on the planet: . Without that elemental form of connectivity, the link, the last five years of dotcom insanity wouldn't have happened.

The worst thing would be for the Web industry to lose sight of the power of the link, under the illusory sway of "digital convergence." One of the most dangerous secondary effects of the media concentrations of late is the steady pushing of the Web towards television, moving us from the engaged pursuits of hypertext to the narcotic allure of images. The Web was supposed to be the antidote to television, and it was the link itself that made that promise conceivable. If we lose interest in the Web's linkages, we'll risk trashing the most extraordinary media revolution of the last century.

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MARK TRIBE, founder and executive director of Rhizome.org and founder and chairman of StockObjects.com

In the old media world, artists got day jobs as waiters. Today, they can make twice as much and get access to great equipment in the bargain. So there's a lot of cross-pollination between the art world and Silicon Alley. This is especially important for artists who use new media in their work. Most of the net.artists I know in New York have high-paying day jobs at places like Razorfish that help them support the high cost of living in this city. And organizations that support net.art, like Rhizome.org, are starting to get strong financial support from Silicon Alley companies. The IT revolution is also helping artists who work with traditional media like painting by creating new online markets for their work (Artnet.com is a good example of this).

Ask not what technology can do for artists; ask what artists can do for technology. Historically, artists have always been leading adopters of emerging technologies, from photography to the Web. Unlike engineers and entrepreneurs, who tend to use new technologies in obvious ways, artists tend to use them in ways that were never intended. In the process, artists find new applications and approaches that trickle up to science and industry. More importantly, artists help us understand the meanings of new technologies and their impact on our lives.

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J.J. GIFFORD, programmer at Funny Garbage at a leading interactive-media design studio

Today's programmers spend much of their time tracking bugs caused by subtle mistakes encouraged by the arcane syntax and structures common in today's most popular languages. Somebody someday will design a language whose truly simple but powerful syntax actually helps programmers avoid such mistakes so they can spend their time not chasing bugs but focusing on system architecture and well-designed feature sets. Development cycles will be radically shorter, more amenable to actual user feedback, and software will be genuinely easier to use.

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J.C. HERZ, video game columnist for The New York Times

There are a lot of talented game designers who would rather make bad movies than great games. They're jealous [of Hollywood], because they just get to play with busty virtual characters, whereas film directors get to screw aspiring starlets. They need to get over it. They're making more money than the Hollywood box office. They're creating the most powerful art form of the 21st century. And they have the best toys.

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NICHOLAS BUTTERWORTH, president and CEO of MTVi

The Internet has once again leveled the playing field, in the same way that the advent of inexpensive, easily accessible musical instruments fueled the growth of rock and roll in the '50s and '60s. Later, in the '70s and '80s, cheap home-recording equipment empowered a new generation of musicians to create the music they wanted on their own terms.

I see the Internet as the next and greatest leap in that continuing trend toward empowering both musicians and listeners because it puts more power to create at more people's fingertips. If I started a new band tomorrow, we would have to get a computer before we could afford a van.

The next coolest thing for music is wireless technology—it's going to make digital music ubiquitous in daily life. Digital audio is going mobile through handheld devices, cell phones, and other new technologies. We can deliver event-based data such as concert times and up-to-the-minute music news wirelessly. Wireless rules.

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