Andrew Sullivan has posted a youtube of the old AT&T "You Will" ads about all the things AT&T would make possible through the Internet. I think these are the most emblematic advertisements of the era, defining the way that big companies totally
missed the point of the Internet. They were like Thomas Edison declaring that the phone would bring opera to America's living rooms -- AT&T posited that the Internet would just amplify our normal, everyday lives, so you could "tuck your kid in from a phonebooth."
What they missed was that for all the normalcy that the Internet could enable, it would be much, much better at enabling deviance -- all the behaviors that were suppressed by society, or impossible to engage in given social constraints. Instead of "Have you checked a book out from thousands of miles away?" they might have asked, "Have you ever ripped an 18th-century book and sent it to a Gutenberg pal in another country to be OCRed?" or "Have you ever used a global mapping service to track down mercenary armies in distant lands" or "Have you ever discovered that your secret kink has an actual name, a newsgroup, an IRC channel and a monthly convention?"
I think we're still fighting this fight. People talk about ebooks, a phrase reminiscent of "horseless carriage," or "digital music rentals," or "Internet telephony," as though all of these things are just like their analog counterparts, but moreso. It's true that Expedia is like an automated travel-agent, but that's the beginning of the story, not the end. Google is like a library catalog, but it's more. Amazon is like a bookstore, but it's more. These things are sui generis -- they're not mere "Internet libraries" and "Internet bookstores" and "Internet travel agents."
Before I dropped out of the University of Waterloo, I proposed a thesis project about these AT&T ads -- about all the nascent ways that the Internet was way better at letting us be weird than it was at helping us be normal. I dropped out instead -- and followed the weird online.
(via Global Nerdy)
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