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With all this variety, Internet users are unimpressed by television's promise of a 500-channel future. The Internet already delivers 10,000 channels, and the only obstacle that prevents it from carrying live TV pictures is the bandwidth (or carrying capacity) of the data lines. Some video clips -- and at least one full-length video movie -- are already available on the network. And last spring, writer Carl Malamud began using the Internet to distribute a weekly "radio" interview show called Geek of the Week. Malamud is undeterred by the fact that it takes a computer about an hour over a high- speed modem to capture the 30 minutes of sound that a $10 radio can pick up instantly for free. But bandwidth capacity has nowhere to go but up, says Malamud, and its cost will only go down.
The Internet, however, will have to go through some radical changes before it can join the world of commerce. Subsidized for so long by the Federal Government, its culture is not geared to normal business activities. It does not take kindly to unsolicited advertisements; use electronic mail to promote your product and you are likely to be inundated with hate mail directed not only at you personally but also at your supervisor, your suppliers and your customers as well. "It's a perfect Marxist state, where almost nobody does any business," says Farber. "But at some point that will have to change."
The change has already begun. NSF's contribution now represents about 10% of the total cost of the network, and the agency is scheduled to start phasing out its support next April, removing at the same time what few restrictions still remain against commercial activity. According to Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly & Associates, a publisher experimenting with advertiser-supported ^ Internet magazines, the system could evolve in one of two ways: either entrepreneurs will manage to set up shop on a free-market version of the Internet, or some consortium will take the whole thing over and turn it into a giant CompuServe. "That's an outcome," O'Reilly says, "that would effectively destroy the Internet as we know it."
As the traffic builds and the billboards go up, some Internet veterans are mourning the old electronic freeway. "I feel kind of sad about it," says Denise Caruso, editorial director of Friday Holdings, a publisher specializing in new media. "It was such a dynamic, pulsing thing. I wonder whether we shouldn't have left it alone." Others see the period of uncertainty ahead as a rare opportunity for citizens to shape their own technological destiny. "We need . . . a firm idea of the kind of media environment we would like to see in the future," warns Howard Rheingold in his new book, The Virtual Community. While it may be difficult for communities as diverse as those on the Internet to set their own agenda, it seems increasingly likely that if they don't, someone else will do it for them.