The Virtual Revolution

When the BBC announced Digital Revolution, a new project to create a programme about the rise of the Web, I had high hopes that it would be something genuinely different to the way documentaries about computing are normally made.

The whole production process was put out in the open with a blog, a Twitter account and regular releases of the “rushes” from interviews.  Guardian journalist Aleks Krotoski was to present and father of the Web Tim Berners-Lee was on board to drag in the crowds.

I’ve not kept up with the making of the series as closely as I’d have liked – I’ve watched the odd video and heard about some things on Twitter – but last night I saw the first episode in the four part series, now renamed The Virtual Revolution. Part One “The Great Levelling?” (repeated Monday and available on iPlayer now) tried to introduce the series and talked about the early beginnings of the Web – its academic origins, San Fran free living culture and the commercialisation of it.

The list of names they’ve interviewed for the series is impressive: Gates, Fry, Gore, Jobs, The Woz – people so famous they don’t need first names.  Connecting them is a narrative attempting to explain what’s gone on for the last 20 years but it’s this that for me doesn’t work.  While I get the basic concept – the web is a leveller – it fails to link together the examples in a way that tells the true history.  It jumps from a bloke who spends quite a lot of time on Wikipedia to an obscure American bulletin board system pre-dating the web all interspersed with arty shots of Aleks sat using a laptop, stood using her iPhone, walking using an iPhone, sat using a laptop and an iPhone… you get the idea.

While the flow of the programme could be better, many of the interviews are interesting.  Most have been distilled down into mere sound-bites, for example Stephen Fry on Wikipedia:

I challenge anybody to find a better, faster source of perfectly acceptable knowledge for almost all purposes you would require as a normal citizen.

Pretty much sums up my own views on the site.  These clips are too short though – it may be that the rest of what people said could be plain dull but it will be interesting to see the rest of them, and since the rushes have been made available, it should be possible.

This episode tries goes a limited way to put the web into context.  It explains that the web is not the same as the internet and Bill Gates can be relied on to bring it back to Microsoft:

The personal computer was the template on which the web had to be created.  You had to have millions of these common machines in order for it to make any sense.

Al Gore managed to resist the temptation to claim he invented the internet 🙂

Other interviewees aren’t so great.  For some reason TV programmes keep asking Cult of the Amateur author Andrew Keen on to spout his views (I’ve mentioned him before when he appeared on Newsnight).  Andrew Keen is like a Dementor of the internet – he sucks the very soul out of it while offering nothing of value in return.

I think it reflects the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of the internet that someone like Arianna Huffington [co-founder of the Huffington Post] should have come to symbolise the supposed revolutionary qualities of it. I mean she’s an interesting woman, but she’s about as revolutionary as my dog.

On the internet, nobody knows you’re Andrew Keen’s dog 🙂

The Virtual Revolution is an interesting blend of new and old characters.  The old guard, represented by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and other pioneers of the personal computer have, arguably, a far more interesting story to tell which can be found in another documentary from 1996.  Triumph of the Nerds, presented by Robert X. Cringely goes right back to the beginnings of the PC industry and goes into far more detail about how we went from typing pools to the point where everyone has a computer on their desk.  It’s worth getting hold of a copy.

Don’t get me wrong, the web has changed the world (and I really shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me!) but The Virtual Revolution could do a much better job of saying how it came about, what it means to us and promoting the geek origins of the web.  I’d be interested to hear what other people think of the programme and I’ll certainly be watching the next three parts and trying to catch up with some of the interview rushes.

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