“We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
The year is 1999 and David Bowie, in shaggy hair and groovy glasses, has seen the future and it is the Internet.
In this short but fascinating interview with BBC’s stalwart and withering interrogator cum interviewer Jeremy Paxman, Bowie offers a forecast of the decades to come, and gets most of it right, if not all. Paxman dolefully plays devil’s advocate, although I suspect he did really see the Net as a “tool”– simply a repackaging of an existing medium.
“It’s an alien life form that just landed,” Bowie counters.
Bowie, who had set up his own bowie.net as a private ISP the previous year, begins by saying that if he had been just starting his career in 1999, he would not have been a musician, but a “fan collecting records.”
It sounded provocative at the time, but Bowie makes a point here that has taken on more credence in recent years–that the revolutionary status of rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s was tied in to its rarity, that the inability to readily hear music gave it power and currency. Rock is now “a career opportunity,” he says, and the Internet now has the allure that rock once did.
What Bowie might not have seen is how quickly that allure would wear off. The Internet no longer has a mystery to it. It’s closer to a public utility, oddly a point that Bowie makes later when talking about the invention of the telephone.
Bowie also approved of the demystification between the artist and audience that the Internet was providing. In his final decade, however, he would seek out anonymity and privacy, dropping his final two albums suddenly without fanfare and refusing all interviews. He also didn’t foresee the kind of trolling that sends celebrities and artists off of social media.
Paxman sees the fragmentation of the Internet as a problem; Bowie sees it as a plus.
“The potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.”
There’s a lot more to unpack in this segment, and let your differing viewpoints be known in the comments. It’s what Bowie would have wanted.
David Bowie Gives Graduation Speech At Berklee College of Music: “Music Has Been My Doorway of Perception” (1999)
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
Music may not be rare these days, but good music is still difficult to find in the heaps of rubbish we are deluged with.
I believe Frank Zappa said essentially the same thing before he death…which was in 1993.
Everyone in ship most helpful. Love Gilbert.
I miss Bowie so much, for his music AND his philosophical viewpoints. It’s a great pity he tended towards reclusiveness. I’d love to hear his opinions on the state of world events today. Thanks for sharing this fascinating and prescient clip. I particularly enjoy watching Paxman’s expression morph from his (default) cynicism to obvious approval.
ah… the endless positive enthusiasm for the internet that could only be found in the 90s!
of course, in hindsight, we can cherry pick some nifty sound bytes from mr. bowie that make him look good and us feel good for agreeing.
but… come on: the internet/phone/online crap “revolution” we’re living in has turned 100% into a Capitalistic freakout with it’s users smeared on the bottom of the corporate world’s shitstained shoes. we, humanity, have lost.
there is no TAZ here anymore… never was. if you are a consumer and Capitalist, and continue to buy the dream, sure: the internet is your heaven. but the cost is best ignored by you.
the cost to make all this shit? who made your phone and laptop? what resources were used? what toxins dumped in some unknown jungle river so that you can tune in to Black Mirror on Netflix and feel oh so groovy and aware?
the real rebellion is tossing it in the bin and go to a honest to gawd subversive meeting in the back of some library somewhere with living humans to discuss what we can do about this and how we can live better lives. I’m sorry, but anyone still arguing for the internet now is a Capitalistic, consumerist whore that is squarely under the thumb of billionaires.
good luck with your planet, suckers.
I still think there’s another Bowie album. They always came out of the blue. I’ve been looking forward to them since I was thirteen years old. I’m fifty seven. It seems impossible that there aren’t anymore. What will I listen to when I retire?
I had no idea Bowie was so well versed in aesthetics. Literally pulling from Heidegger (the internet is not a tool – “modern Technology is no mere instrumentality, but a way of seeing the world”), Walter Benjamin (“the art is only finished when the audience gives their Interpretation”), and referring to Duchamp’s Dada interventions.
The interviewer is so skeptical, but everything Bowie says is spot on. Notice, though, he isn’t only optimistic about the internet (“the good with the bad,” he says), but is indicating the cataclysm in the very idea of medium that has been occurring ever since (and everything else that entails, like, perhaps, surveillance capitalism and election rigging). Its the grey space between the artist and the audience that will define the 21st century, he says; I think that’s worth keeping in mind.
Also, check out BowieNet from 1998. you’ll thank me.
And like Rock’n’Roll became everywhere and lost its power, now the internet is everywhere, in our hands all day long tracking our every move. And being pinned down by a very few companies. So where will the rebels go next….?