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<The Once and Future Web>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

This was not my idea of the future. When I grew up, the year 2000 meant colonies on the moon and flying cars and jet packs and four-day work weeks. In my future, there was giant 3-D TV and no one worried about money. The world was all white and silver and everyone had robots that actually did the housework so you could sleep late or eat breakfast while sitting in the pool.

I’m not saying I’m disappointed that things are basically as they were when I was a child 30 years ago, with the addition of more TV channels and the web. I’m just saying it’s not what I expected, and maybe that’s for the best.

Which is why, when looking forward 30 years, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a whole lot like it is now, except unexpectedly different.

I’m sitting here, outside on a warm sunny day in December 1999, at 8 a.m., an unnatural time for me to be awake. I’m typing on a tiny laptop computer, watching two kids. Inside a large cardboard box. Pretending they’re in a space ship. The little girl, about six, is the captain. Her little brother, about four, is the stewardess. At least that’s what he said.

So my prediction for the year 2030 is that kids will still love to play in cardboard boxes, some of the best toys in the world, because they can be anything.

To me, the web is like a big cardboard box. It can be anything. It can be your spaceship or your storefront. It can be where you see the world, or meet friends. It’s the place we can all be six years old and as happy as if we were in a giant cardboard box.

And that’s how I hope we will all view the web. Not as some giant printing press for money. Not as some machine for putting people into little demographic boxes and trying to “upsell” them.

I like money as much as the next guy or gal, but I don’t think the web should just be about money. I love the fact that I get work from around the world through my web site, but I also love that I can write and distribute anything I want there, that I can use my site to show designs I like, that it’s my place in cyberspace.

Maybe it’s naïve of me, but I don’t think so. I think the web is the true personification of freedom in its truest form.

Well, the two kids have managed to destroy the box. So are they thinking outside the box? No, they’ve just folded themselves up in it. Apparently, a box doesn’t have to be a cube, it can be a triangle, with open ends. Just as much fun.

So here’s to your cardboard box, and whatever shape you want to make it. Make the future fit you. You can, you know. Other people make their futures, but you make your own.

>Your web in the new century

A few years ago, none of us had ever heard of the web. Despite all the predictions about the future, almost no one saw this coming. And here it is.

When the web started, I don’t believe anyone, including the people who invented it, could foresee what it’s become. What people thought would become a global library of thoughts and ideas, has become a global shopping mall.

It’s all about money, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t.

While I think e-commerce is great, and wish everyone involved with it all the very best (especially the individual artists and craftspeople who use it to show the world their work), it would be a huge loss if the web became nothing more than the home shopping internetwork.

The problem with all this commercialization is not that it’s commercial. Commerce is as basic as humanity, we’ve always had it and despite what they show in Star Trek, we always will. I also have no problem with people wanting material things—this is also ingrained in us as mammals. There are mice on my deck which have amassed incredible collections of stuff, really beautiful collections.

>But where are you?

The problem is that that amid all this e-commerce noise, something is getting lost. You.

Sure, there are still millions of personal pages, but they just aren’t what they used to be. I know, it’s weird to be nostalgic about three years ago, but I do remember a time when a personal page was just that. It had pictures of the person behind it, and all sorts stuff about what they found interesting. It was about people and their passions, and as banal as it sometimes was, it was also very human and very interesting.

Now when I run into a lot of new personal pages, someone has stuck up a page with a lot of affiliate links to Amazon and every other affiliate group they can find. They have a few links to a few other sites, but these could be done by robots. There’s often nothing personal or human or real about them.

The most powerful, interesting and useful thing the web can do is let anyone and everyone have their say. Say who you are. Say what you care about. Tell what you know about. If part of that is your love for something you do you can sell, that’s great.

>The web is about People, not machines

You’ve surely seen some sci-fi movie where computers take over the world. Colossus: The Forbin Project was the first I remember. The Matrix was the latest in this genre. It could happen that way, but it’s more likely that what will happen is that people won’t be able to reach real people at e-commerce sites, and only be able to communicate with machines.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve made a lot of friends on the web. I think it’s an unbelievably wonderful way for people to connect. Even eBay lets people with similar interests find each other—and they do this without the need for chat rooms or online forums (which they have but which also don’t seem very busy).

I honestly believe that there will be a backlash to all this automation. Not just because it will eliminate a lot of jobs, but more because people will just get fed up with the systems which already don’t work very well. Take all that voice mail crap (please). Doesn’t it make you angry to get stuck into one of those “press 1 for support... please contact our website...” things?

But it will take a while for e-business to get even more automated, and then even more time for people to get so sick of it that some smart company will learn that employing real people is a selling feature. Right now, “people” are considered expensive. It’s like when air bags were introduced on cars. The car companies said, “People don’t want to pay $300 more for their car, if we’re forced to put them in cars, people will stop buying cars.” Yeah, sure. Now they are a huge selling feature, with upscale cars adding more and more air bags in more and more places. Service sells.

>The web is about people, not money

A friend recently gave me a new business magazine. It’s very well done, lots of articles about how to get ahead in business, lots of clever illustrations, and page after page of well dressed people (mostly men, unfortunately), all looking lean and mean and aggressive, as if they’d sell their grandmother for an IPO.

I’m not naïve. I know business is important, I know we all want to make a living so that our loved ones can live in a style to which they’d like to grow accustomed.

But enough already with the people who are only worth a few million who feel poor compared to the people who are worth a few billion who are jealous of the people who are worth many billion. Enough already with people who are only concerned with making money, not making good. This has gotten way out of hand.

As I was reading this business magazine, I felt myself getting sucked in. It started to seem really interesting. So glossy. So slick. So much better than the “real” world.

It was virtual success. Virtual happiness. Virtual lives. If you can’t really have a good time, at least you can look good to other people, so they think you’re having a good time, so they can wonder why they’re not.

And then it hit me—these “who wants to be a billionaire” magazines are really “financial porn.” OK, so you can’t understand women (much less other men), that’s fine, now you can just be rich enough to buy and sell them, or at least tell them you can buy and sell them.

There’s no “there” there

Now, look, I like money as much as the next guy (or gal!), but the scary part of this magazine was that there weren’t ads for fancy cars, complicated watches, or islands for sale in the south pacific. It was all business, as if that was somehow sexy and delicious and real enough to make up for spending all your time working and none of your time living.

I’m sorry, but a great stock portfolio is a poor substitute for having a life. As Thornton Wilder wrote in his play, The Matchmaker, “On those cold winter nights, you can snuggle up to your cash register.” Is that all there is?

Life is not all about money. And you and your web site and your success shouldn’t be all about money either.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a sermon, you should live your life however you think and feel is best. But you also need to step away from all the advertising, all the articles telling you how to get ahead, all the so-called experts who are trying to sell you a “lifestyle.”

I remember as a kid that “business” was considered to be dull. I see now that it isn’t, and yet I feel these magazines go too far in the other direction.

What should be liberating is the idea that you can create something on your own, you can start something and build it into something. That’s liberating. That’s the American Dream. What’s the opposite of that is that they only seem to talk about money—not why you’re doing it, not what you want to do for others.

I think the cash register has replaced human contact for a lot of people—but it’s nothing new. Read Jane Austen and you see it—everything was based on wealth and status and “marrying well,” not on love, not on being creative, not on helping people.

It’s just now—like everything else—it’s been amplified by too much media, 24 hours a day the stock ticker runs on CNNfn and msNBC. It’s become this facade that people can look at to avoid looking at each other.

It just makes people insecure, depressed and unappreciative of all they really have. I can’t see how this is good for you, or for society.

>You can change it

I honestly believe that the web can bring people closer together. I don’t know about you, but I’ve made friends all over the world using the web, and if you have friends somewhere, you’re less likely to view that place as an “enemy” and want to destroy it.

I also see the web helping people be more imaginative. The possibly negative is that virtual reality will replace reality, that reality won’t feel as real anymore (that’s already happening—I have to admit when I went to Europe I kept thinking, “Gee, this looks like Disneyland!”). But the positive side of this is that it encourages people to think—not just about what is, but what could be.

Call me young, call me foolish (just don’t call me late for dinner), but I believe you should use your web site to make people (including yourself) happy. Don’t just aim for money. That leads nowhere. Aim for happiness.

Happy new year, new century, new millennium. What an amazing time to be alive!

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and EsperFonto, the web’s only typeface selection system.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved