Date sent: Mon, 12 May 1997 20:03:00
From: Andrew Ross

The Great Wired Way

Andrew Ross

Silicon Alley has been hailed as the first new urban industry to emerge in New York in well over a generation. It is also a culture industry of sorts. Breathlessly heralded in all of the city’s media organs as a superrush of adrenalin to the urban economy and culture alike, the Alley is customarily described as running in a thin strip from 23rd Street down to lower SoHo, and as populated by creative East Coast hipster geeks (as opposed to Palo Alto techies and Bay Area self-styled supergeeks). Its multimedia webshops not only provide corporate and public institutions with Internet design and programming services, they also harbor a neo-bohemian community of online publishing and graphic art. The much lionized emergence of the new media’s small, independent entrepreneurs has drawn upon the human resources and skills of the downtown artworld, creating some accomplished new art sites like ada ‘web ( and Artnetweb (, and The Blue Dot ( (adding to older, invaluable artworld resources like Echo [] and The Thing [] and newer ones like Rhizome []). These sites contributed to the flourishing electronic arts movement, and ada’web’s projects by Vivien Selbo, Matthew Ritchie, and General Idea were the first online works to be acquired by a major museum institution, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in February 1997.

By 1996, pioneer Silicon Alley webzines like Word (, FEED (, Urban Desires (, Total New York (, Stim (, and NY@work (a labor-oriented site) had formed an independents sector of original content publishing, distinct in feel and opinion from Microsoft’s power-oriented Slate, the industry lifestyle-oriented Hot Wired, and Time Warner’s Pathfinder. In the spring and summer of 1995, when half a dozen local would-be publishers had followed Urban Desires into the Web publishing arena, the heady expectation was that native New York creativity would steal a march on the West Coast and launch a more democratic wing of the hi-tech community, drawing an audience and advertisers to a new medium where no one controlled distribution. The alternative, countercultural ethos of hacker vintage suffused the indies sector, and fuelled a classic culture clash when venture capitalist groups from the West Coast, or from NYC ( Flatiron Partners—the VC arm of Chase and Softbank, and the city’s own Discovery Fund) came calling all along the Alley. FEED is the only first-generation Web site that still functions solely as an online content publisher. The others have either folded, been sold, or are serving as creative window displays to attract clients for their web developer owners. In the meantime, the potential of the medium remains unfulfilled. The graphic scrolldown space is still clunky, slow and wearisome to read after a few screens, and while feature articles have been developed in ways that are appropriate to the medium, the webzines have yet to break a big story. The deliciously irreverent and heavily hypertexted daily media commentary from Suck ( is the only publication in this field to win itself a must-read audience. No one yet believes "way new journalism," art and multimedia performance has matured—the scene is often likened to early TV, when radio shows were reissued in new formats—but there is much that is promising and much more to come. While none of the delivery schemes, the ad tracking mechanisms, or the direct marketing plans have been able to support the content boom on Silicon Alley, it’s clear that the appeal of independent online interactivity is a formative part of youth culture, and that, down the line, the second- or third-generation wave is likely to alter the new media landscape for good. The sense of living within and contributing to, a "revolutionary" culture, or at least a new paradigm, is powerful enough to propel youth culture through the managerial constraints of information bueaucrats and venture capitalists alike.

Silicon Alley was in part the creation of city politicians and real estate investors looking for a way to revive the ailing downtown economy in the early 1990s with its alarming building vacancy rates; in part the response to an immediate need for WWW content providers and designers directed at the huge local labor pool of creative workers (aka artists); in part, the entrepreneurial outcropping of the self-publishing movement driving the great WWW boom; and in part, the result of a new generation of twenty- something trust fund babies looking for a glamorous outlet, much like the collectors who frequented East Village art gallery scene in the 1980s, (indeed some of the trust funds were no doubt amassed parentally on Wall Street during that same decade).

For those who still worry that post-industrialism is a contradiction in terms, it’s not clear that this neo-bohemian corridor constitutes anything like an industry, in the sense of producing and distributing a product far beyond its borders. Among other things, it is a service developer for corporate website promotion, a subcontractor of low-wage HTML labor (high school kids are willing to labor for cappuchinos because website work is cool), a low-overhead R&D test bed for software tools and applications, and a welcome, if underpaying, non-union employer of a generational cohort that might otherwise have ended up being "warehoused" in graduate seminars. A 1996 Coopers and Lybrand study of the economic impact of new media in New York showed more folks working in new media than in television, and fast approaching publishing (although with much lower salaries) at a growth rate that outstripped any other business in the city. The figure of 18,000 plus jobs in Manhattan was much disputed, since it probably included many part- time and freelance employees. Ironically, the report appeared at a moment when some companies were going under, and many of the surviving Webshops were soon to make deals over the course of the year with the likes of Microsoft, Omnicom, Sun, AOL, Time Warner, and Viacom. When the smoke cleared, the roads to sustainability were more starkly defined, and the prospects for a critical, IndieNet culture thinner and more circumscribed. Many of the new battles were being fought, for example, in the hometown listings wars—exactly the same wars being waged by alternative newspapers (the last grassroots attempt to create an independent publishing medium) in cities all over the country. It all boils down to cornering the block advertising revenue of the big entertainment conglomerates, but how many information sources do we really need to tell us that Jerry Maguire is playing in the theater down the street?

If Silicon Alley does give birth to a new kind of culture industry, it is not likely to be a mass media industry, nor will its impact necessarily lie in the realm of leisure or entertainment. Ironically enough, unlike radio, film, TV, recording, fashion and advertising, which had their start in the Age of the Machine, the work environment of new media is entirely machine-based, and labor-intensive in ways that are now the legends of cyberspace. The fact is, new media technologies have already transformed our work patterns much more radically than they are ever likely to affect our leisure hours, just as information technologies have already played a massive role in the restructuring of labor and income in the new global economy—reorganizing time, space, and work for mostly everyone in the developed world. Let’s not forget that for every one of us who wants our PCs and software to go faster, there are five thousand who want them to go slower. And, in the U.S., most fully employed workers, whichever side of the labor divide they inhabit, are likely to be working at least 40 hours more each week than in 1969.

The difference in these attitudes to computing speed speaks volumes about how new media straddle the division of labor, and should remind us why it is necessary to make links between work cultures that are ordinarily kept apart. Silicon Alley is currently being showcased as an urban enclave for whizzkids, a chunk of some future utopia of cooperative work in the virtual city, and in this respect, its work culture is philosophically akin to the creative, hard technology sectors of Northern California and the Massachusetts corridor. But it is also industrially connected to sites of very cheap labor—electronic chip production and circuit assembly in Asia and the Caribbean, and the armies of word processing and data entry clerks in Ireland and India. Contrary to the belief that "symbolic analysts" are the fastest growing, and most lucrative middle class sector of employment, data show that unemployment and low wage labor in any location appear to swell in direct proportion to the growth of select information-intensive industries.

In July 1996, a posting on the WWWAC (World Wide Web Artists’ Consortium) list in July 1996 caused a storm of comments that summarized the current state of labor anxieties. A new media publisher announced it was "looking for HTML slaves. Applicants must love grunt work, long hours, fluorescent lights, caffeine and other stimulants, and display grace under pressure." Despite, or because of, the dark humor of the posting, it touched a nerve among Silicon Alleycats, but it was an accurate reflection of the economy of subcontracting that has already worked its way into the heart of the industry. The result is a further depression of the wage floor, and not just for basic HTML mark-up. Improved software can, overnight, turn skilled programming, coding, and image manipulation into grunt work. At the time of the posting, there were public relevations about the garment sweatshops producing Kathy Lee Gifford’s clothing line for children. Suck cunningly revealed that the Wired staff occupied a floor in a building full of garment sweatshops. Suddenly, it seemed as if the professional distance between the hi-tech HTML and the no-tech garment industries had been reduced to nothing. The original subcontracting industrial shops of the turn of the century were back in business, cheek by jowl with the new postindustrial ones in the retrofitted manufacturing lofts of the cyber city.

For many owners of small web shops (for whom maintaining a content- driven site can cost between $300,000 and $1m a year), the future of their business lies in petitioning the city and state for tax-exemptions. Emulating the ways of the Wall Street giants, who threaten to move their office workforce to another state unless they are granted massive tax breaks, this goal hardly distinguishes new media owners from the garden-variety corporate tax-evader. Others swear that the marketplace alone should make or break Silicon Alley. A third option is publicly-assisted job creation—jobs in the name of culture! If high-tech cultural workers could shake off their association with the traditions of "artistic freedom," or the new Barlovian cyberspace version, they might be in a defensible position to demand sustainable assistance. The new media sector is barely two years old, but it is already being confronted with basic choices about the nature of cultural work in a business economy. This is not just a quandary for industry insiders. Given the avant-garde location of the webshops, the outcome may serve as a model for at least the next generation of cultural workers. So before we all hop on the Info Love Boat, let’s make sure that everyone is getting paid.