David Bowie, tech visionary, predicted social media's rise

David Bowie performs at the 1999 much music video awards in Toronto [credit: Reuters / Andy Clark]

David Bowie performs at the 1999 Much Music Video Awards in Toronto.

Credit: Andy Clark/Reuters

In 1999, the pop star was predicting the success of music downloads and ripping wearables

In 1999, Computerworld took a look ahead at the coming decade, the first of the new millennium, and asked 20 visionaries to share their thoughts about the impact that technology would have on all aspects of society -- from everyday life to the economy and the arts. The roster of people we interviewed ranged from Internet pioneers and veteran CIOs to recent college grads, and included one individual whose impact was felt by generations of fans in many spheres of life: David Bowie, who died on Sunday at the age of 69. The story about him -- which ran on January 4, 1999 -- follows in full.

Starting his fourth decade in the limelight, musician and philosopher/trendsetter David Bowie is no stranger to technology. Since the mid-1980s, Bowie has used his Macintosh to create lithographs and write lyrics. Now, at age 51, he's into the Internet. BowieNet is his latest project, a portal at which Bowie keeps a personal journal and chats every day with fans. (He also lurks in chat rooms under a handful of assumed names to observe.) Next, Bowie wants to add three-dimensional avatars -- on-screen representations to let members create online personas. He also plans to broadcast a live recording session with a 360-degree camera from Lucent Technologies Inc. All this, he tells Computerworld senior editor Kim S. Nash, is so "we can know each other in new ways."

BOWIE SPEAKS: My interest in the Internet arose more than anything else because of my son's interest in computers. Being the doting father, I got involved because he was involved, in 1993 or '94. Before that, I was using the computer for writing and painting.

Then a friend of mine in Silicon Valley developed a cut-up computer program for me where it takes my chunks of prose and reassembles them for me. You end up with something very surreal.

Cut-up prompts your mind into action. It might display something that you hadn't thought about or shine light on areas that, in rational thinking, maybe wouldn't have gotten there at all. But it's not new. It's the way that, indeed, James Joyce and William Burroughs worked, but they tended to work with scissors and glue. I thought, "Well, hell, it's such a bore to cut up lines of poetry or dialogue and reassemble them." So now the computer produces reams of stuff at my command. I took care of lyrics for the next hundred years! That form of writing is chaotic like the Internet, and like the Internet, will continue to be into the future.

I couldn't wait for the day to put up my own site. Virgin Records worked with me in 1995 to do it. But that was really a puff site.

About a year ago, I realized there were so many fan sites on me -- 200 or so. I discussed the idea of integrating them somehow and that evolved into a sort of quirky portal; an individualized portal that revolves around me and music. There's no advertising: We want absolute freedom.

The chaos factor is a very important part of the Net. The most attractive thing is its decentralized nature. Despite what people say about Microsoft and all that, there's no real way it can actually be monopolized, and there never will be. Certain companies will try to eat up everything, but it's not going to happen. There will always be so many cowboys out there to keep it alive.

Someone said it's almost like having 1,000 books on your floor and not knowing where to start. That's how I live. That's how I think! The Internet really is a technology model of how I think. It thrives on its own chaos. It's willing to change its mind overnight, combine things that shouldn't be bedfellows. I see it as a brother.

The Net will become more and more exploratory, reducing itself into many, many smaller and informal units. Portals will emerge and dissolve with regularity. Corporate brand-name [Internet providers] will lose their flavor. People will want to keep the village aspect of the Net. We're banking on that. We're not sitting there counting eyeballs at BowieNet.

What's missing and will not be corrected in 10 years is the ubiquity of the television. Television is in everybody's home, and that isn't going to happen with the Internet. Maybe we'll get to 50%. This produces a technology version of haves and have-nots. Information is gold, there's that. But also schools that have the Net will have higher scores than those that don't. And that gulf will only widen. That's rather disheartening.

People ask me about the distribution of music over the Internet. My heart says one thing, and my wallet says another. Once everyone has his own CD-burning machine, you will put together the album of your dreams. That's what I'd like to do: Go to a heavyweight blues category and take down a particular track by Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker. I'd be quite willing to pay per track.

The record corporations are just like King Harold, sitting there on the beach, on this throne, trying to order the sea back. They don't stand a chance. The industry isn't going to come crashing down, but [custom albums online] will be integrated into a new way of selling. They will not be able to stop this. There are too many little independent companies keen to do real online downloading. They will become so popular that, by force, corporations will have to capitulate. When there's a dollar in it, watch their knees bend.

Everyone talks about wearable computers in the years to come. Whether I go for that has an awful lot to do with who designs them; I'm quite fastidious about what I wear [laughs]. These huge vinyl boots -- when you're 18, that's OK, but not when you're 52. You hear about air-conditioned cooling suits or visor helmets so we can watch stock options flash before our eyes while we send E-mail from our wristwatches. It's all too silly.

Within the home, I love the idea of intelligent buildings completely wired, though I don't think I'd have anything like the Bill Gates house. I don't want it to look like you're living inside HAL -- thought I don't mind HAL living with me. But I like old-fashioned paintings on my wall. No flat video representations of them, either. I want to touch the paint and feel statues.

As pieces of my body start falling apart, I'll have them all replaced. All the ones that make life worth living -- I'm talking of the brain, of course [laughs].

I suspect that I won't be living in a very different fashion in 2008. Why I fight the idea that my lifestyle would change is because it really didn't change that radically in the last 20 years. I don't see why it would in the next 10.

There's a built-in expectation [created] by the stupid millennium business. The buildup to the millennium is going to cause this agitated state between exhilaration and panic. Next year could be a frightening year. There will be such an enormous letdown when you wake up in 2000 and realize it's just another rainy Tuesday and your life hasn't changed, for the better or worse.

The biggest lifestyle change will be for parents and children. Unless parents get themselves computer-literate, there will be a real disparity in knowledge and reference points. The child will think the parent is stupid, and the parent will become bitter and angry that he can't understand things.

In 1999, Kim S. Nash was a senior writer at Computerworld and is now a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal.

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