Feeling a little cheated you child of the Internet generation? Thought Big Digital Momma would always be there for you? It's not that your shares are underwater — it's that the thrill of the Internet is gone. "Would you like to get that dotcom feeling?" an ad in the Harvard Business Review asked six months ago. Did the advertisers borrow that line from Escorts and Lonely Hearts Inc.? Funny thing, I haven't seen that ad since. Whether or not the markets rebound, the thrill may be gone for good. In the old days, when the markets went south, Warren Buffett would usually follow. He'd go to the beach until trading became fun again. So what is there to do now that the juice is gone from the Internet? Hold on to the dream at the end of those soggy shares? Look for the next new thing? Or stay the course, come what may? How can you decide whether it's time for a little Coppertone — or, more desperately, a few lit matches?
I hear a lot of blame attributed to the fact that the Internet is filled with awful, boring, generic content. And aren't the implications of that more profound than whether the merger of Time Warner and AOL is approved? How long can we go on believing that these are really just the early days of television? What if this is the short summer of the Internet? There may not be much to hang around for.
The problem is not about money or about the pipes not being fat yet. The problem is about billboards taking over. The commercial world has killed creativity and imagination. Can this crisis be fixed?
One of the best answers comes from a little-known but cherished prophet of the Internet who came to fame in the 1960s and then died in 1994, just as the Internet was becoming a social phenomenon — Guy Debord. If he were alive today, Debord might give us a warning: Don't get your hopes up that the Internet will ever be great.
Debord was a radical and a filmmaker with keen insight into how the information culture would take control of our lives. His book The Society of the Spectacle (Buchet-Chastel, 1967) makes The Cluetrain Manifesto look like cheap kitsch and watered-down pap. Debord foresaw the weakness of the information economy even before the Internet was born, as he peered into the soulless center of the information culture.
Debord's 221 theses reveal what the "spectacular market" will forbid and what it will permit. The spectacular market is spectacular. It's a gigantic growth engine based on "spectacles" — huge, mind-dulling stories that eventually kill off their audience. Thesis 59 reads, in part: "Behind the glitter of the spectacle's distractions, modern society lies in thrall to the global domination of a banalizing trend that also dominates it."
If Debord was such a guru, then why haven't you heard of him? Few people have. But among the green berets of the Internet avant-garde — La Cosa Nostra of the Web, or the "Interneta Nostra" — Debord is an iconic figure. The Interneta Nostra is a loose alliance that is made up not of geeks or of VCs, but of a potentially more powerful force: academics, big mouths, historians, and media junkies who try to suss out the next moves of our rapidly changing information culture. Followers of the Interneta Nostra have their own heroes — Debord is the latest — and they find his ideas to be truer than those of the quick-hit journalists who write about the Net.
Psychologist Douglass Carmichael, 62, a partner at BigMindMedia LLC, near Seattle, is part of the Interneta Nostra. After attending a recent conference held by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Carmichael's respect for Debord has only increased. "He took a position years ago on matters that we confront today," Carmichael says of Debord.
"We live in the very present pressure of the spectacle, in every nook and cranny of our bodies," Carmichael continues. "We are not just besieged by ads. Rather, we now feel that we are in a nonstop ad — with all of the soaps and razors and silk and rayon and cotton and cars and colors. It's inescapable. We are colonized by producers. The spectacle is owned — that's the real rub — and owners are not that socially minded."
Debord was a member of the Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists and intellectuals who were influenced by movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism. Debord and his friends had a motto: "To hell with work, to hell with boredom!" They wanted to create and construct an eternal festival. Debord became a key intellectual in the 1968 student revolution in France. His writing struck the match that fired up that movement — which, in turn, lit up the world, inspiring the uprising of the 1960s for freedom in the United States and eventually leading to perestroika in the Soviet Union. According to historian Peter Marshall, Debord's influence has since extended to feminist circles and has even inspired the style and the content of punk-rock music.
Debord looked to a worldwide revolution to bring about what he considered to be maximum pleasure: billions of people making photos, stories, music, tales of their creations — individual, unmediated creations — and freeing people's minds to do great work. Imagine how much art would be enriched when a girl in Helena, Montana could collaborate on a poem with someone in Madurai, India! More creative people would mean more creativity. And that would bring more Mozarts into the world.
But it didn't happen that way. Instead, the spectacle took over the tremendous promise of the Internet. The spectacle, driven by commercial interests, invariably makes us choose the smallest and safest experience over the most imaginative and pleasurable one. Debord complained, "Young people everywhere have been allowed to choose between love and a garbage disposal unit. Everywhere they have chosen the garbage disposal unit." The point is that we have lost our ability to appreciate the good over the bad. In the spectacle society, everything takes on a deadening evenness. Even the so-called adventure market is nothing more than Banana Republic under a new, inflated name. As Debord once said: "Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal."
The most dangerous thing about a spectacle is that when it starts, even the most creative people find less joy in creating. You have only to look at most Internet sites to see lethargy at work in what was once a very high-energy field. "The market tells us that consciousness is determined at the point of consumption, not at the point of creation — which is where it should be," argued Debord.
The spectacle molds us to its laws. We have very little freedom within its space to be ourselves. And we become totally dependent on sustaining the story for a long time, so that we can sell more shows, more ideas, more products. When the spectacle is Monica Lewinsky, we become party to adultery and to a marketplace that's safe for easy sex. So it's no big surprise when Viagra follows on Monica's heels as the next big story. More than a year later, the spectacle is Elián González, and we fall under the spell of this little Moses — an abandoned child washed up on shore. The spectacle makes him the savior of the United States, rather than a real little boy who has survived a crisis. A real-little-boy story doesn't encourage people to go to Latin clubs or to buy Latin music. The story may change, but the spectacle only gets bigger. Ironically, such spectacles end up making us less interested in media and more disgusted with ourselves. We all look. But the repetition, the suffocation of the spectacle, undermines us: We've seen it before.
So we begin to tell ourselves lies about what's working on the Web. In his book, Debord talks about how spectacles don't permit dialogue, suggesting that the idol of "community" is a false god, one that today's Internet companies worship at their peril. Internet communities aren't really good at dialogue. In the dotcom rush to build market share, we aren't even asking what kinds of connections we are making to one another.
But we're stuck with the Internet as a short summer romance. Or are we? Is there any way to free ourselves from the spectacle? Yes, Debord argued. His advice: Don't wait for a distant revolution — reinvent everyday life here and now! Transform your perception of the world, and you change the structure of society. By liberating yourself, you change power relations and transform society.
Saying no to crappy products is one sign of creativity. Another is realizing your true desires. Make pleasure, not profit, the result of labor. That's how work and play can become one. Debord's followers called themselves Situationists because they believed that all individuals should construct the situations of their own lives.
Debord observed that "workers do not produce themselves." But we must do exactly that. We spend too much time producing our products, growing our companies, and forgetting ourselves.
In the area of walking the talk, Debord was a dark incarnation of the Dalai Lama. Debord resisted the spectacle with his mind and his body — an act of a true saint. He felt the spectacle constantly waging war on him for his mind, body, soul, and wallet. And so he studied Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Sun Tzu to learn how to fight this battle. Debord put his body on the line like a soldier. Imagine Alan Greenspan selling real estate or flipping burgers, and you have a small hint of the sacrifices that Debord made for his ideas.
"I bow to his lifestyle as a drunk and as a criminal — a choice that he made in order to remain clear," says Carmichael.
Debord killed himself on November 30, 1994. He couldn't win with critique, so he won with martyrdom.
You can see why the Interneta Nostra studies Debord. The perspective that he gives is deep and rich. Compare Debord with his intellectual heir, Clayton Christensen — with Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) and with his theory of disruptive products. When you study Debord against Christensen, you see how far we've fallen in a deep appreciation for what works and what doesn't. Both men are on the side of the upstarts, the rebels who strive to cripple the established way of working. But Debord's views have a strong critical edge and social component.
Christensen is all about feeding the market and the spectacle, rather than getting distance from them. So how will we ever get anything better? The difference between Debord and Christensen is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: Lightning bugs just don't give you that old "dotcom feeling" anymore.
Harriet Rubin (Hrubin@aol.com) is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition (Harpercollins, 1999).
A version of this article appeared in the September 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.