How David Bowie anticipated Web 2.0

Anybody traversing social media today can hardly have missed the memories and mourning over the death of David Bowie. For my generation, Bowie always seemed to be way head of his time – in musical ways, obviously, but in so many others that it would be tedious to relate.

It was while scrolling through the tributes that I happened on a link to a TV interview Bowie gave to the UK’s arch-interlocutor Jeremy Paxman. There, Bowie talks about his views on the future of the internet, and fascinating stuff it is too.

While Paxman plays his pantomime villain role of Eeyore and grand curmudgeon, Bowie insists on the transformative effects of the internet and anticipates a startling future. Paxman provokes him, suggesting that once upon a time the telephone seemed a force of transfiguring the world. Bowie jumps in to remind Paxman that a prediction at the time was that “every town in America would have a telephone”. How bold and daft that must have seemed at the time…

When Paxman downplays the transformative nature of the Net, Bowie says we’ve “even seen the tip if the iceberg”. The online future will be “unimaginable” in both good and bad ways, he says. And, riffing on one of his most famous lyrics, he says: “Is there life on Mars? Yes, and it’s just landed here.”

But his best point is saved for last when he says that the “interplay between the user and provider will be so sympatico it will crush our ideas of what mediums are all about … the idea that the work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation.”

If this wasn’t a prescient anticipation of Web 2.0 and the flowering of user-generated content, peer reviews and the Twitter storms that accompany every Richard Prince tweet, then Ashes to Ashes is an Abba song performed by Chas and Dave.

All of this might seem like conventional wisdom today but Bowie was speaking in 2000 as the first dotcom era had flared and was dying and many backers in traditional businesses were reining in their investments. The job advice of the day for bright graduates was to go B2C – Back to Consulting.

Of course this was only a tiny fleck of Bowie’s coruscating ability to outsmart his peers and surprise us all. How sad we won’t get to see his next move.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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