How David Bowie predicted the potential of the Internet

David Bowie Internet

David Bowie. A friend broke the news to me on Monday on the way into work. We talked about football and the weather. Then, oh, did you see Bowie died?

I was stunned. Still am. Bowie has been this other-worldly creative force, pursuing his art, an explorer, and an experimenter, following his own muse and oblivious to expectations and demands. Not afraid to be out there, and happy to never apologise, never explain. Most of all, he produced some stunning music, and clearly inspired armies of others to find themselves, their way of being, and their own artistic path. Arguably, he has been the most influential individual artist of the past 50 years, and if not always ahead of the pack, then at least zigging (Ziggy’ing?) when others were zagging.

I was fascinated this week to see on Newsnight a clip of an interview he gave to Jeremy Paxman back in 1999 in which he offered his view of what the Internet could become and its effect on society.

The subject emerged as Bowie noted how we were now in a world with less singular musical leaders—Presley in the 50s, The Beatles and Hendrix in the 60s—and that since the 70s there had been the promise, hope and expectation of a more pluralistic society and that this was now helping enable the Internet, which would begin to now serve a world of fragmented tribes and communities.

Paxman—playing stooge—challenges Bowie on the Internet, noting with disdain that since “anyone can say anything on the Internet, there is nothing cohesive about it”. He wonders if the Internet is not merely “a simple delivery system”. Or, he asks: “Are you arguing for something more profound?”

Bowie initially replies that the Internet is not simply a tool, but “an alien life form” — some kind of ‘Life from Mars’. But he then goes on to unequivocally state that the (then) Internet is “just the tip of the iceberg” and that “what it will do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable” and that it is “both exhilarating and terrifying”.

Far from being wary of it though, he was clearly excited by it and the challenges and opportunities it offers anyone wishing to create art and to communicate. He notes: “the actual context and state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment” and that “the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

Citing early 20th Century artists like Duchamp, he notes how ahead of their time they were, with the idea that “a piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation”. This, he notes,this grey space in the middle, “is what the twenty-first century is going to be about.”

At this time, Bowie had already invested in the Internet, having launched BowieNet, an early Internet Service Provider, a dial-up service which not only offered web access but the promise of a kind of online fan club offering potential access to exclusive live studio feeds and other exclusive material. At its peak it had over 100,000 subscribers.

For most people, especially the Newsnight audience of 1999, it would have been easy to just see this as abstract futurism, something that would naturally appeal to the Major Tom, to Ziggy Stardust, to The Man Who Fell To Earth, to the man creatively “strung-out in heaven’s high”.

In hindsight, the interview reveals a fascinating insight into how far ahead he was thinking, and how he was attuned to the power and the potential of the Internet as an interactive, pluralistic, empowering medium.

You can see the full interview below—there’s a jump point direct to the part about the Internet around 9mins in. It’s a jolly affair, though I would have loved it if he had quoted some of Ziggy’s “Moonage Daydream” lyrics to Paxman, advising him to…

“Press your space face close to mine, love”

Cautioning him to…

“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me”.