G2: It's now clear the internet wasn't a fad. It may even make life better - until digital armageddon
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) 'We're running a special week in which G2 gets taken over by young up-and-coming trainees," explains the Guardian in an email, going on to ask if I'll write something about "the future of the media" to appear alongside it - presumably so the youngsters can point and laugh at my bewildered old man's perspective, the modern little bastards.
I was modern once, about 14 years ago, when the Guardian hired me to write a TV review column on the strength of a website I created. This was back when most websites were hand-stitched pamphlets, 85% of the pages consisting of "under construction" GIFs hurriedly Pritt-Sticked into place (I say "Pritt-Sticked" - it should probably be "Pritt-Stuck", but no one's going to correct me because grammar isn't hugely important in the exciting digital future).
About 10 minutes after I filed my first column, the dotcom bubble burst and people began to wonder if the internet was a fad; a higher-resolution version of Ceefax running on a next-gen platform. (Explanatory note for younger readers: "Ceefax" was an unusably slow information service that closely resembled a shit version of the internet made out of Lego, and you accessed it via a boxy device called a "television", which was a bit like a bulky prototype iPad, except it couldn't take photos, and would only display pornography if you drew the curtains and hooked it up to a "VHS recorder" - a crude form of Netflix dating from the Victorian era.)
Now, here, in the present day, it's clear the internet wasn't a fad. More or less everything else was. Newspapers, for instance. They used to be sombre dossiers issued each morning, bringing grave news from Crimea. Now they're blizzards of electric confetti, bringing The Ten Gravest Crimean Developments You Simply Won't Believe. The art of turning almost any article of interest into a step-by-step clickbait walkthrough has been perfected to the point where reading the internet feels increasingly like sitting on the bog in the 1980s reading a novelty book of showbiz facts that never fucking ends. This trend will only continue. In five years time, all news articles will consist of a single coloured icon you click repeatedly to make info-nuggets fly out, accompanied by musical notes, like a cross between Flappy Bird and Newsnight. Even a harrowing report on refugees fleeing a warzone will cynically draw you in by promising to show you a famous person's bum after every 85th click. And it will succeed.
Instead of generating their own content, news sites increasingly exist to paraphrase something somebody else said, or generate ad revenue by attracting reader comments in much the same way a jam jar with holes punched in the lid collects wasps. Sadly for editors, in the future, researchers will discover these comments aren't being typed by real-world humans at all; they are in fact the agonised howlings of blighted souls trapped in a text-only dimension parallel to our own. Lacking any physical form, these lost and tormented spirits are unable to purchase any products and services, and are therefore useless to advertisers. The day after this revelation, what little money remains in the online newspaper industry drops out completely, leaving behind a powerful vacuum that sucks in two-thirds of the internet. All news sites shut down overnight and are replaced with pictures of dogs in sunglasses for idiots to chortle at. Columnists warn gravely of the effect this lack of access to current affairs will have on society, but none of the columnists have columns any more, so they're reduced to typing this grave warning on Twitter, where no one can hear them over the sound of themselves chortling at the dog photos, apart from their six or seven columnist mates, who desultorily retweet it among themselves a few times before putting their smartphone down and crying softly in front of a daytime repeat of Masterchef.
Meanwhile, buoyed by the dog photos and cheered by the lack of grim updates, the general mental wellbeing of the population improves. People hold barbecues and invite the neighbours. Romances flourish. Humankind fails to collapse.
Away from current affairs, entertainment will arrive in new and exciting forms. Recently BBC3 became a pixel-only channel. Soon BBC4 will be replaced by an app in which you slot mathematical symbols together in order to unlock a vintage interview with Ian Dury. All channels will become on-demand streaming libraries, so in order to stay one step ahead, Netflix will start streaming movies directly into your mind as you sleep - just like your regular dreams, but with a better-looking cast because you're no longer in them.
Meanwhile, video games and social media will combine to create a world in which you unlock exciting advantages in real life by accruing followers and influence. Every major city will house a glamorous gentrified enclave to which only successful social brand identities (or "people" as they used to be known) with more than 300,000 followers will be permitted entry, and a load of cardboard boxes and dog shit on the outside for everybody else. From within the gated community, the sound of cocktail glasses and chuckling will ring out and everyone will
feel terribly pleased with themselves until
12 August 2023, when the sun will drop out
of the sky and fry billions to death.
After which all media will seem kind of pointless. So we'll just stop doing it. The end.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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