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2002: The Carpetbaggers Go Home
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Welcome to the Involuntary Leisure Economy

In case it's escaped your notice, the economy is also circling the drain. Once-proud giants like Yahoo are shutting down weird little community-driven divisions like webrings.com. The traditional business press is full of gloating editorials from columnists who insist that they were never fooled for a second, they knew from Day One that the Internet was just hype and horseshit, a waffle-iron married to a fax machine, and here we are, the bubble burst, fortunes lost, hardy-har-har. (Even a stopped (analog) clock is right twice a day.)

Having spent billions trying to make 95-percent-reliable services function at 97 percent reliability, the Captains of Industry are off for greener pastures (cough biotech cough), leaving behind a horde of underemployed html jocks, perl obsessives, pixel-pushers, and pythoneers. What are these reborn slackers doing with their time in a down economy?

Exactly what they've done all along, only more so. The spare-time economy has yielded a bountiful harvest of weblogs, Photoshop tennis matches, homebrew Web services and dangerously Seattlean levels of garage-band activity.

Webloggers aren't professional journalists; they don't adhere to the code of ethics that CNN et al are nominally bound by, and they often can't spell or string together a coherent sentence, let alone pen an inverted-pyramid story. Nevertheless, bloggers are collectively brilliant at ferreting out every little detail of a story, wearing its edges smooth with discussion, and spitting it out again. Further, bloggers are spread out across the Internet, mirroring, quoting, and linking back to one another, collectively forming a Distributed Provision of Service that is resistant to CNN-killing catastrophes like 9/11. Blogs are about 95 percent of the way to being full-fledged news-sources, and the difference between the bloggers of the world and CNN is a couple of percentiles and several billion dollars.

Even as cable modem companies are knocking hundreds of thousands of subscribers offline, untethered forced-leisure gangs are committing random acts of senseless wirelessness, armed with cheap-like-borscht 802.11b cards and antennae made from washers, hot glue, and Pringles cans.

The Community Wireless movement is a fantastic example of how something unreliable can be cool, useful, self-sustaining, and utterly devoid of revenue potential. Wireless ISPs like Mobilestar charge a small fortune for network access at airport lounges and Starbucks in a handful of cities, and are still going broke, while a ride in a taxi through midtown Manhattan with an iBook will yield a new open network at every stoplight. Mobilestar's $60/month gets you a service that is only slightly better than what a mass of public-spirited (or security-impaired) WiFi users have accomplished without even trying. It's just too damned expensive to provide the kind of reliability that stress-feeding mobile execs demand. Meanwhile, the cranky, kludgey world of open 802.11 base-stations gains ground every day. It'll never be good enough for people who use phrases like "mission-critical," but it'll be just fine for the rest of us.

Yet Another Revolution

Is that it, then? Should business abandon the Internet entirely, give up on its dreams of wealth-over-IP, and go back to stamping out widgets and airing sitcoms?

Of course not. But it's time to leave behind the idea of traditional reliability as value-proposition. The technical reality of the Internet doesn't care about the successful business strategies of yesteryear. The businesses that succeed in the unreliable world will find new ways of providing reliability.

This kind of everything-you-know-is-wrong revolution comes along every couple of decades, and creates a lot of anxiety and legal slugfests and hot air. The businesses that succeed are the ones that luck into innovate new ways of conducting affairs that exploit the new reality rather than denying it.

Providing circuit-grade reliability over a public-switched network is too expensive to make a go of it. Providing stand-alone-PC-grade reliability in a Web-services world of uncoordinated actors is too expensive to make a go of it. Providing DSL-grade connectivity over 802.11 is too expensive to make a go of it.

The next generation of Internet entrepreneurs will be people who understand this. They'll be working to provide unreliable services that work in concert with other unreliable services to provide a service that works on average, but not predictably at any given moment. They'll challenge the received wisdom that customers are hothouse flowers, expensive to acquire and prone to wilting at the first sign of trouble. These entrepreneurs will build services that are so compelling that they'll be indispensable, worth using even if the service flakes out when you want it the most.

The close-enough-for-rock-n-roll revolution is a-comin' -- to the streets, comrades!

Cory Doctorow is the co-editor of Boing Boing and the Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.