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issue: 01/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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The Microsoft Decision
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

The aftermath of the antitrust decision.

AOL Time Warner

The AOL Time Warner Merger
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

It's been an exciting week in technology news. Tuesday morning, I sit down to my Washington Post and a scone and discover that AOL, who recently gobbled up Netscape, is now eyeing Time Warner. Wednesday morning, I sit down to my Washington Post and toast and a grapefruit and discover that AOL's stock, the asset they were planning to use to buy Time Warner, has taken a dive. Thursday morning, I sit down to my Washington Post and a bowl of granola and discover that aspects of the Justice Department proposed settlement offer for Microsoft have been leaked - and everyone was scooped by USA Today (the shame!). Then Friday, I sit down to my Washington Post and a fruit shake and discover that Bill Gates has resigned as CEO of the Evil Empire...oops, I meant favor of his good buddy Steve Ballmer. My head is spinning! What's going to arrive tomorrow morning over crepes - an Apple/Sun merger? Linus Torvalds buys IBM? A joint Steve Case-Bob Vila commercial for Time-Life's home improvement series?

So what does it all mean? I haven't a clue. Why did Bill Gates choose now to step down? Shot in the dark, but I'm guessing it has something to do with whatever is in that proposed Justice Department settlement that wasn't leaked. But what? I don't even have a good guess. Although I think breaking up Microsoft is starting to look inevitable. But the rest seems to be a crap shoot at the moment.

But I do know that the AOL Time Warner thing worries me. The business types are trumpeting a new era of partnership between old and new media, with new media providing the delivery-means-of-the-moment of old media's high quality, reputable content. The hot trend online is portal sites, but so far the big drawback has been that there's no there there. Portal sites have been mostly lists of links, which the average person is quite capable of generating for herself. To get those eyeballs back, you need to add some value beyond the standard Geocities homepage list o' links. After all, hasn't lack of quality content always been the main problem with the web?

Well, no. I would argue that lack of "approved" content has always been the web's greatest strength. Remember the bad old days of communism and the cold war? One of the perpetual pieces of Evil Empire (I'm talking Russia during the Regan era here) evidence was the state- controlled press. Nobody could get any news the government didn't approve, and if there's one thing the Communist Party didn't have going for it, it was strong enforcement of full disclosure. Sure, I know that the US government isn't buying up the web. But big media business, the same small group of people who already control our purportedly free press, is.

The web has been the last bastion of the disgruntled, the odd, the angry, the lovesick, the alternative, the left wing nuts, the right wing nuts, the losers, the certifiable geniuses, and the certifiably insane. No, it did not make for a good footnote in your term paper. Yes, it did make for an excellent source of free wheeling discussion about everything under the sun. I know, I know. People have been decrying the end of the pure web, the web of geeks, the web where people interacted without regard for class, gender, race, color, or creed, the web of the free flow of ideas, almost since it started seeping into public consciousness in the early 1990's (do note that the early free interaction without regard for color, race, gender, class, yadda, yadda, was taking place mostly between upper middle-class white geek men. Not exactly a shining example of diversity.). But the insidious influence of big media really could be the death knell of the web as those of us who've been around for a few years know it.

The web has been one place where any yahoo with a modem could put up a site saying anything she wanted. Yeah, sure, much of it is horrible - bigoted, racist, exploitative - or just bad - sappy, ignorant, embarrassing, dumb, dull, pointless - or some combination of the above. But the possibility of flashes of brilliance, humor, insight, and profound social, economic, and political commentary was always there, and was even occasionally actualized.

Do we really want to lose that to the people who brought us Instant Messaging, People magazine, a Warner Brothers store in Times Square, the WB, and You've Got Mail?

Elizabeth Weaver Engel welcomes your comments on this article.


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