On Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2000, Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs stood before thousands of consumers at the Moscone Convention Center under a tennis-court-sized photo taken of Dr. King during the "I Have a Dream" speech, and Jobs said, "We love building great products for you guys. And whenever we're designing stuff, the people that we think about the most, that we really want to please, that we really want praise from -- some love from occasionally, now and then -- are you folks. And we work really hard to do that. And I hope we're doing it."
By 8 a.m., people had already queued around the block, waiting for Jobs' 9 o'clock presentation. Once inside, they repeatedly drowned Jobs with applause, prompted by such stirring lines as, "We love these new colors so much that we've been running some ads to show everybody how nice they are."
Sitting three rows back from Jobs' stage, underneath Dr. King's melon-sized eyes, I found myself oddly moved, teary even. America didn't used to adulate capitalist chieftains. And nobody imagined that this country's last great moral call to arms, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, would morph into a consumer-appliance sales pitch.
I composed myself, though, and headed to the Seybold S.F. 2000 Internet Conference press lounge for some free sandwiches and cake, and then on to the Moscone exhibition hall to enter some tech-gadget free-prize drawings. There, under the neon light of a Microsoft sign, I would discover the center of the expanding Internet moral universe Steve Jobs' presentation had described.
This 30th annual Seybold conference, I learned, would be the site of momentous ethical debates, troubling moral quandaries, rival theologies impossible to reconcile. It would be a battleground, with the wise and the just pitted against the pirates and the scofflaws. It would be where the Internet, in the manner of Siddhartha Guatama or Robert Johnson before, would suffer doubts and tribulations before choosing a lifetime path.
Computer seers would debate whether copyright theft is theft, or the foundation of creativity, and whether stealing personal information is stealing, or improved customer service in a digital format. They would discuss the role of human individuality in a computer-monitored age; and the role of individual creativity in an age when creative content is offered up for free.
And last, and most important of all, they would discuss what all this meant for their business plans.
Throughout history, periods of moral upheaval have been preceded by times of great social chaos. The Internet Age is no different. By the time Seybold had begun on the last weekend of August, two disparate, barely noticed, far-off occurrences would forever alter the trajectory of the Internet's development.
* On March 4, 2000, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. released in Japan the newest version of its Playstation toy. Basically an Internet computer, the device will ship to the U.S. this fall and allow children to download and play video games, or any other content, across the Internet. Sony is expected to ultimately ship as many as 80 million copies. For an extra $50, children will be able to add 30 megabytes of storage space, thus putting 240,000 terabytes, or 10,000 Libraries of Congress worth, of retrieval and storage capacity into the hands of millions of computer-newbie 12-year-olds.
In the age of Napster (music), Gnutella (video), and their spawn, this device will become the doomsday machine of computer piracy. For producers of any sort of copyrighted intellectual content that could possibly be digitized, the present universe will cease to exist.
* On Aug., 17, 2000, the German government auctioned off licenses for cellular telephone service worth $46.2 billion. The companies were paying for more than telephone licenses. They were buying the right to own "the next generation of computer system that will become the predominant controller of our life," in the words of one Seybold seer. In the near future, cellular phones will be fitted with Global Positioning Satellite monitors and will be used to open car doors and houses, and will pay for almost anything, and will display specialized consumer information every time a user drifts close to, say, a movie theater or a bookstore. These phones (and other wireless devices) will be used as credit cards, in toll booths, in vending machines, as communication devices, as information-retrieval devices, and they will do everything over the World Wide Web.
These machines will become ubiquitous in a world in which computers virtually disappear from our conscious lives and move into corners of existence we're not currently aware of. Artificial intelligence will become so tiny and cheap that most of our physical environment will be engaged, to one extent or another, in digital contemplation. These millions of tiny brains will whisper to our cellular telephones, the phones will whisper back, and from this discussion will emerge consumer profiles of such sharp resolution that marketers will see into our souls. The ethical issue of Internet privacy protection, now largely limited to Web shopping and pornography sites, will move into the arena of questioning whether corporations should know where we drove our cars at 10 p.m. Tuesday; whom we called at 10:15; and which door we unlocked at 11.
In this new world, dot-com people must decide which moral principles they hold dear and which they will discard. As tends to happen during such dissonant times as these, Netizens at Seybold S.F. 2000 assembled into opposing moral tribes. There were those who believe that unless Web entrepreneurs come to revere consumer privacy in this new age, customers will abandon the Web by the drove. And there were those who see monitoring consumers, then honing specialized sales pitches down to a hair's breadth, as the best way to survive. Already, commercial Web sites monitor consumers' clicks so carefully that they can accurately predict whether, say, a Cigar Aficionado-reading wine connoisseur is likely to buy a humidor.