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Video Games Are Good for You

Not the way echinacea is good for you, or the way the Soloflex is good for you, but good like gardening or travel. Video games are nutritious for the imagination. Now, you wouldn’t know it from reading the paper, where id Software’s first-person twitch games Doom and Quake have become the only ambassadors for a gigantic, $6.3 billion industry—which has, in a much touted stat, nearly matched Hollywood’s total box office take last year ($6.9 billion). In fact, when it comes to quality and meaning in games, movies make an apt analogy. In the post-Littleton era, talking about video games is like talking about film with a vocabulary of two movies—Armageddon and Starship Troopers. Yep, the explosions are jaw-dropping, the bodies bodacious, but the innovation is happening elsewhere.

The trick is that better technology isn’t necessarily where it’s happening either. The Sega Dreamcast, released last week to 300,000-plus platform-promiscuous game junkies queuing up at software stores across the country, is a sleek upgrade of both the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The Dreamcast games, like the dizzy trip of Sonic Adventure or the dazzling NFL 2K, are no doubt impressive. It can be hard to go back to the seriously pixelated “environments” on your PC after you’ve swooped through stadiums and examined player tattoos in high-res on Dreamcast’s NBA 2K. But the progress here is all about speed and detail (Image refresh at 60 frames a second! Snow that melts on the football field!) and not about broadening the point of play itself.

That broadening is out there, embedded in the evolving social mores of some of the most sophisticated and successful games. The best have de-emphasized gore and violence, even discarding one of the steadiest traditions: winning at all. In its place comes the value of alliances and the social power of shame. The supreme example of this is the hugely popular Ultima, created by Origin Systems (“We Create Worlds”). Ultima started off as a standard, single-player Dungeons & Dragons–style role-playing game. But it took a giant leap forward after the eighth iteration when Origin released Ultima Online in 1997, opening the game to networked play. Ultima Online is like a Renaissance fair with a purring business engine; over 130,000 players now pay $9.95 a month for the privilege of citizenship in Britannia (Ultima Online’s virtual country).

The goal of the game is to invent a character (a soldier or a mage) and help him grow stronger and more skilled. Ethical codes debuted in the Ultima Online design to discourage players from eliminating each other: killing someone makes your name appear highlighted in red for other players to see. An attempt to pick someone’s pocket turns your name gray. “There is this whole notoriety system,” says one Ultima player, Ben Nachumi. “If you kill someone, you become fair game.”

As with Gary Gygax’s D&D creations, the obvious strategy with Ultima is to align with complementary forces. Because no Ultima players have limits on the number of skills they can acquire, they join up with other groups to go out questing. As a result, thousands of communities called “guilds” emerged in the game. “There are guilds to protect certain cities, guilds to go on hunting expeditions every Friday,” says David Swofford, a spokesman for Origin Systems. It’s gotten so complex, he says, that “we don’t refer to Ultima as a game any longer. We say, ‘Live an alternate life.”‘ Which, when your primary one isn’t under your control, makes perfect sense. “My goal was [to get to a point where] nothing else could kill me easily,” says Nachumi, who stopped playing the game two years ago. “I was a grad student at the time, and in a world where you have extremely limited power to affect your destiny, there may have been some psychological benefit to winning small challenges.”

Even the shooter games have subtleties that are often ignored in the larger cultural conversation about video games. Half-Life, released in November 1998 by Valve, looks and feels a lot like Doom and Quake, with hefty amounts of violence, but it introduces sly forms of negotiation, such as human characters who are valuable and necessary for players to befriend. Effectively, you are a survivor of a massive radiation catastrophe, hacking your way around alien monsters. Fellow survivors, such as scientists and security guards, occasionally defend you or help you with keys or information. Kill them—or blow off an opportunity to protect them—and the game rapidly sours and you can’t progress. That small shift in emphasis—from trigger fingers to enforced, selective sympathy—dramatically alters the mood and impact of playing Half-Life. “It’s a game where you can’t automatically assume everything you see is an enemy,” says Marc Laidlaw, the game’s designer. “We had players who got really attached to the scientists and guards, and when they brought them into an area where they got killed, they would feel really sorry.”

But when we talk about community or character building or even regret in games, what we’re really getting at is simply games with implications. The SimCity series, which has players building cities up from the water systems to the skyscrapers, is considered a “god game” because you play from an omniscient, distant perspective, and also because it makes you fundamentally responsible for a city. It is almost strictly about consequences: build your factories too close to town and watch your city erode from the toxicity; create your mayor’s house on an isolated hillcrest and chances are fire trucks won’t be able to make it out there when it ignites (random, but it happens in real life too). The game rewards long-term, flexible thinking. “[It presents] the user with an ecology rather than simple cause and effect—decisions cause feedback, which causes repercussions,” says Douglas Rushkoff, the author of the pro–video-game nonfiction book Playing the Future and the forthcoming Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say. “It’s the one thing that computers do that we couldn’t do before them: play out dynamic systems.”

The SimCity series could scarcely get more complex, but it will. This winter, the game creator, Will Wright, will unveil The Sims, which was the talk of this year’s industry convention, E3. In it, Sim players will be able to drop to street level to walk among their creations. It’s like living inside Legoville, only this time around if you don’t tend your tracts you end up with ghettos. How do you finish a SimCity game? You don’t. The garden just keeps growing or going to seed.

In a way, that’s also the biggest problem with video games—endings are not exactly the medium’s strong suit. After spending 20 hours collecting keys in PlayStation’s Resident Evil 2 or rings in Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure, you’re left only the thinnest excuse for closure. As someone who cribbed cheat-sheets and harangued friends to get through the zombie-fest of Resident Evil 2, I can tell you the satisfaction of completing a video game never really comes. Just when the undead are all certifiably out of commission, the underground research facility explodes, and you’re riding the gravy train to the surface, you start wondering why you played in the first place. Video games may contain vitamins (systems thinking, social accountability), but they are still not quite meals.

Then again, TV has been serving us fast food for years, and nobody seems up in arms about Charmed or Suddenly, Susan. If anything, video games are drawing audiences away from the tube, which is full of endings over which you have no control. Gamers sense that constrictedness and flee. You hear it over and over again when you talk to them. “Basically, I play these games instead of watching TV,” says Nachumi. “I find TV kind of irrelevant,” says Half-Life’s Laidlaw. And if games are thieving time away from TV, how much of a crime could it be?

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Killer Instincts

Good games are as much about atmosphere as adventure. The spooky video game Shadow Man, from Acclaim Studios Teeside (released on PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and PC), is steeped in a dark voodoo mojo that can be hard to shake. The game stars Mike LeRoi, a “voodoo hero” and “dead man.” Fortunately for LeRoi, the game doesn’t end with death— you just flip over to the “dark side,’ where you battle zombies, human-faced rottweilers, and hordes of serial killers who have been called together by Legion, the meanest MF in the underworld.

But in a game where killing is art, what goes into the aesthetics of making it happen? What are we talking about when we talk about game gore? Guy Miller, the lead designer for Shadow Man, talked about the making of the mood.

Were you worried about the Mature rating on the game? We weren’t at all worried by the rating. We never intended to make Shadow Man as a kids’ game. We wanted to break the perception of video games as being a childish, childlike medium and create something that adults would enjoy. The standards differ according to each country. For example, certain characters in the game are naked and in Germany this wasn’t a problem, but in the U.S. it was, so for the U.S. we clothed those characters. Shadow Man has a “mature” rating worldwide, which is right, because there’s stuff in it I wouldn’t want my kids to see.

When zombies get hit in the game, they explode into bloody pulp and their life force escapes. How much is too much pulp? We actually had an in-built regulator for the pulping— the industry term for which is “gibbing.” This regulator was based on the virtual mass of an in-game character; therefore, a really big character would make more of a bloody pulp than a not so big character. I don’t feel that the gibbing in Shadow Man is over the top. I feel that the exploding bodies have more of a grotesque— yet strangely satisfying— cartoony effect to them than a realistic effect.

Shadow Man uses a shotgun, an MP-909, and a .9-SMG. Why so detailed on the kinds of guns he’s got?

The MP-909 and .9-SMG do not exist. We made them up, even though they do look and sound like they’re real weapons. So we’ve never really “shot” either of these weapons— and even if they’d been available, I wouldn’t care to pull the trigger. I don’t like real guns. I prefer the unreal guns, like those seen in video games— the ones that don’t hurt anybody.

How did you come up with all the different beings that Shadow Man must kill? Coming up with the different enemies is the best part of making a video game! Myself and Simon Phipps, the game’s senior designer, sit down with the artists and “talk monsters” for a couple of weeks (and get paid for it!) until we get the monsters we’re looking for. The zombies that appear in the Deadside region of the game are based on autopsy bodies— we wanted them to look like they’d just got right up off the slab and wandered off into Deadside. The Surgeon characters in the Asylum are based on adherents of s&m, all dressed up in their bondage gear. The Sisters of Blood in the Temple areas are a sort of cross between Masai warriors and Amazons.

Many current games add some of their most clever touches in the kinds of weapons that the main character can carry. Here, in Shadow Man, you’ve got the Violator— “spinning razor death.” Me and Simon wanted the Violator to look like the sort of weapon a serial killer would invent. In the game, Shadow Man manages to steal this weapon from a bunch of dead serial killers and uses it against them as a sort of just deserts.

How did you come up with that? The voices in our heads told us to do it.

And how did you sketch out how it would work? Were you at all worried that its violent effects might get out of hand? Simon made some initial sketches, handed them over to a 3-D artist, and he made the thing. It was the addition of sound that
really made the Violator, though— a sort of steam-driven shrieking thrum that you’ll only hear in nightmares. I don’t have any problem with violent effects getting out of hand when those violent effects are affecting dead serial killers in a horror-fantasy world, in a video game.

Pretty much every game has a giant monster at the end. In this game, you have the evil honcho roping in serial killers to help him, and the game ends in an orgy of violence. What specific considerations have to go into designing the end of the game? Shadow Man wouldn’t be a video game if you didn’t get to fight the “boss” at the end. As for an “orgy of violence”— if you’ve been through the adventure, been set upon by Legion and his evil minions through 20-plus levels, and then, right at the end, he pulls this trick on you, tells you you’re a bloody joke— well, it’s highly cathartic to beat the living daylights out of the bad man.

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Ex Machina

The last good game I played was at the old Playland in Times Square a few
years back. Every afternoon, the arC would fill with businessmen on their lunch breaks, random passersby, and scores of high school kids who cut class to spill guts and gobble points on the video screen. For me, it was the only real way to play video games. Playland was encrusted with decades of
dirt and laid out much like the New York City grid— cramped, dark, and electric. I walked in looking for the latest game. At the time, it was Mortal Kombat— one of the first photographically enhanced kung fu fighting games where you play best two out of three bouts.

A huddle of high school kids were guarding the machine. I looked over and laid my quarters on the console (the way to get in line for the game). They all turned quickly to see who it was and a few began eyeing me. Who does he think he is? He thinks he can just come up to this machine and play? He better be good.

To play the latest, hottest game wasn’t an easy task. Sure, you could go to your local game store, buy the game (for fifty bucks), and play it in the privacy of your own home— but then there’d be no audience. (Friends and family don’t count.) You always had to break through a wall to get to the game; endure stares and taunts; stare back and put up your quarters. It somehow lent more meaning to the gameplay. It became a sporting event where you were both fan and player.

My turn. I take a quick peek at the competition— a tall, scrawny kid who couldn’t be more than 15. He has these long, gangly fingers that appear to melt into the console when he plays. Man has become machine. He’s beaten the last three players. Yeah, my kung fu’s better, he’s thinking. Come on old man! (I’m barely 20 at the time.) Let’s play! I drop my change, look at the screen, and choose my player.

I lose the first round quick. He’s got the combinations down already and this game is only a few days old. I only get a few hits in. He turns to me and grins. It’s part of the spoils, a temporary crown. Or the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. His friends are jumping up and down, laughing. Not over his win, but his grin. A dis all real game players love to pull.

In the next round, I manage to get the special moves down (keyed combinations that produce fireballs and general bad-assed fighting moves). The crowd behind me starts yelling things like “Oh shit! He’s got the moves!”

My competition has fallen into an obvious pattern where he attacks on the retreat. A good pattern, but I’ve easily spotted a hole. I throw a few fireballs on his retreat and hit him before he can throw out his attack. I do it over and over. This round, mine. And yeah, I grin back. But the kids don’t laugh this time. He’s their player. I’m the outsider. They’re still loyal to him.

Last round. He knows I’ve figured out his pattern and changes course. Neither of us wants to lay out an attack for fear the other will discover his tactics. A twitch play ensues, each trying to get the other to commit. The crowd of kids is barely audible. After a close round, I win. “Oh shit!” someone yells. My competition turns to me and reaches out his hand. We shake. Game over.

The game was never as good after this. Technology has advanced, but the players have not. That Playland, in fact, is now extinct. The newer “arcades” in Times Square sport a wide array of VR-type games, a clean, well-lit space, and a staff that wears logo’d polos. Families and tourists come to play. I swear I’ve seen Mickey Mouse there.

Game consoles have been around almost as long as the arcade, and they have inspired a new generation— “forged a new market” in biz-speak— of players, but they have also inspired a certain kind of regression. The console is a solipsistic affair. There is no audience.

Video games have become so popular because they have mastered a deception. They make you think you’ve won (or lost) the game— that you’ve racked up points and powers and kills. Thing is, you don’t actually get to take home the points when the game’s over. The kill is unreal. There’s nothing to display over your mantel after defeating the monster. There’s no real-world effect. But in the arcade, the points, the kills didn’t matter. The audience was your record. The grin. The stares. The adulation. These were your trophies and marks of defeat.

After the handshake and even more stares, the group of kids walks away. They’re out of quarters. The tall kid looks back at me like
he’s saying, Next time, I’ll get you. But for the
moment, I’m left to just play the machine.

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Chillin’ With Uncle Sam

The strangest site on the Internet has to be freevibe.com. Check it out if you’re skeptical, and read the bizarre postings about the dangers of illegal drugs. They are written in the style of Seventeen magazine, in which grown-ups pepper their prose with the buzzwords of youth, like, uh, cool, man. But you could browse a long time and learn all about young Jake in the grip of addiction, “tabbing acid during basketball games,” before discovering that the man behind the site is in fact The Man.

You would never know it, but Freevibe is pure government issue, a product of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House. That office is best known for sending armed agents into crack dens and having its director, former general Barry MaCaffrey, tour Peru on a mission to stop cocaine production in the Andes Mountains. But Freevibe is as much a part of the war on drugs as the helicopters and crop eradication routines. It is just a more covert salvo, and the war here is for the mind of America’s teens.

This effort took a major step forward a few weeks ago, when the White House launched Phase III of its $183-million-a-year National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign. Phase III of this blandly named program has the astronomical ambition of cleaning up the culture’s mixed messages about drugs. “It is a comprehensive social marketing campaign,” says Alan Levitt, director of the NYADM. “The reason you are wearing your seat belt today is because someone convinced a scriptwriter on those cops-and-robbers shows to have the cop put on his seat belt before the car chase. So it’s not just ads, it’s the whole culture, from faith-based organizations to the schools to coaches to media and Internet. It’s surround sound.”

As a key territory on the media map, the Internet is must-win zone for the government, if real change is to occur. And that means countering the myriad pro-drug sites on the Net. In addition to revamping Freevibe.com to better reach its target of 13-year-olds, Phase III calls for a widespread Web ad campaign. High-volume sites will be asked to host celebrity chats pushing the line that staying straight is cool. Another antidrug site for kids, Project kNOw, is also slated for revision. AOL’s search engines are already onboard the new program. Just type in “drug” and you’ll soon be looking at a banner about the nightmare of cocaine, although you might not realize it’s Uncle Sam talking.

The result of this blitz will be to increase the reach of the antidrug mantra. The goal, explained President Clinton at a press conference for the campaign’s new stage, is that “if you’re a teenager or a parent, it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing or hearing our antidrug messages.” Clinton promised it would eventually “outdo the Star Wars promotion.”

But, unlike Star Wars, this campaign will be subtle—and fun! The Freevibe model differs from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” effort in that it lacks a dour slogan. That’s because a panel of behavioral scientists called in by the White House drug policy office determined that harsh words and ultimatums turn kids off. The soft sell is a more effective way to reach vulnerable minds. “Scare tactics don’t work too well. Neither do the slogans,” says Levitt. “We were very concerned about having this campaign become a mockery on Saturday Night Live.”

So don’t expect to see many more commercials comparing a brain on drugs to a fried egg. The future is in Freevibe—which has already won a prestigious design award—where the message blends seamlessly with the medium in a version of government propaganda that’s barely distinguishable from entertainment. Indeed, while every word of Freevibe is vetted by White House-approved “experts in the field of advertising, youth behavior, and youth focus groups,” the ideas for copy flow through creative powerhouses like Saatchi & Saatchi and Fleishman-Hillard, both of which are consultants to the site. And the production of the slick layout was aided by none other than Disney.

Who else would have thought to include a game of Intergalactic Escape along with copy that says, “Hey! There are thousands of things to do that are (a) more fun, (b) cooler, (c) cheaper, (d) healthier and (e) generally way better than drugs!” The list includes volunteering, sports, and, at the top, “making money.”

Click on “making money” and the site reminds teens of this universal message: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby. Get a job, start a business, get you some of those greenbacks!” Or, suggests Freevibe, pass the drug-free time by cleaning out the closet, and “blast the Red Hot Chili Peppers for inspiration.” Several Chili Peppers, by the way, have publicly admitted to using drugs.

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Tools of the Trader

It’s a slow day on Wall Street in late August, but the trading floor of the New York

Stock Exchange (NYSE) still feels like the inside of a Jiffy Pop. Old-boy brokers are capering with the bored confidence that accompanies an economic heyday. One particularly round and balding trader near the IBM booth belts out an aimless battle cry from the depths of his maw— which is otherwise preoccupied with a meatball sub.

Others nearby echo the hoot in unison, then merge
and slap against each other, and crack up at their
own frivolity. “They’re just playing around,” says
my guide, ducking.

These guys seem like weathered artifacts among the whirring hives of LCD monitors and TV screens and tickers that surround every booth and stream from every wall. Some of them are strapped into headsets and wireless trading stations, which they use to punch in large-scale orders and on-the-run e-mails while they follow the activity from booth to booth. You can tell they’re at home in the swarming stadium— the very spot that some consider the last bastion of order in a market that’s hurtling toward a boundless online agora.

Meanwhile, a couple of buildings down the block, on the 20th floor of 50 Broad Street, there are rows and rows of day traders sitting silent in a bleak, fluorescent haze, peering into the skein of numbers on their monitors as though it’s Sanskrit and thumping steadily at their keyboards. This is the trading floor of Broadway Trading LLC, which provides NASDAQ executions for individuals who want to day trade for a living. It’s intensely serene, though occasionally a price pilot, quietly navigating his electronic trading network like he’s racing light cycles on the grid in Tron, will give way to a spasm of victory or defeat. The trappings— tables, chairs, and bulky PCs— may seem as outmoded as early-’80s sci-fi, but many consider this the generation of traders most empowered by the digital-age economy. Day traders have been around as long as the stock market, but all the new, volatile companies on NASDAQ these days make an ideal climate for short-term investments. Most long-term investors who trade on the NYSE see them as reckless marauders, with one eye on the latest news and rumors, and the other on the next impulse buy.

It’s a bizarre contradiction— you’ve got the NYSE, by all accounts the market’s old-world behemoth, housed in a spectacular high-tech romper room, and you’ve got the market’s next-gen warriors tucked away in a tranquil cockpit with nothing but numbers and a changing economic paradigm.

The agents of the so-called electronic trading revolution are NASDAQ-based electronic communication networks (ECNs) that match buyers and sellers directly, eliminating the need for human traders. When it comes to electronic trading, technology is overhauling the market on a systemic level: individual, nonprofessional traders have more liberty and power, and the market is generally subject to far more volatility. The ECN model embodies, in other words, the digital era’s libertarian attitudes toward the economy and information. It is based on the belief that there’s order inherent in chaos— or at least that chaos is a good, sustainable thing.

The technological advances at the NYSE seem comparatively ornamental. They are not changing the traditional, more hierarchical trading system but enhancing it. Right now, there is serious doubt about how long the exchange as we know it will remain in existence given that it has to remain competitive with NASDAQ and the electronic exchanges of the future. But no matter what structural metamorphosis occurs at the NYSE, its tech labs have been refining superior tools and software, which could have far-reaching democratic applications.

The NYSE essentially operates on a system in which all big trades are supervised by a human specialist, whose job it is to monitor the order flow and maintain liquidity— and generally guard against market volatility. Eighty-five percent of trades are actually processed electronically at the NYSE, but all the consequential trades have human arbiters. “What you see on the trading floor are people who are handling the big, buy-in orders,” says Louis Pastina, vice president of point-of-sale technology at the NYSE. “Say a firm wants to buy 5 million shares of AOL at market price; they can’t buy all at once in a direct trade or they’d move the price of the stock, so they talk to a broker, and buy strategically through the course of the day. The broker has to play this game of poker without showing his hand. At the NYSE we’ve developed technology to aid that broker, because in a billion-share day he’s inundated with orders like that.”

The NYSE’s high-tech tools are designed to empower the titans. “Think about it as a commodity kind of thing,” says Pastina. “You can buy commodities over the Internet, but you can’t go out and buy a jet over the Internet. If you are going to spend a couple million you probably want to see it, kick the wheels, take it for a drive. That’s what these [specialists and brokers] are paid to do; they’re paid to add value because they have a lot of experience in executing large orders. And we’ve got to design their tools.”

[

The latest thing in the labs of the NYSE is a voice-recognition system that allows traders to call in their orders rather than key them into the computer and that can filter out all the background noise of the exchange, and respond to any kind of accent from British to Brooklynite to Jamaican, and a whole series of code names and variations on broker jargon. “Buy, 5000, Big Blue, at the market, not held, send!” barks a trader at a trading booth computer, and the order is flawlessly filled and executed. He is being studied through a one-way mirror by a team of “human factors” experts, who bring top-notch traders from the trading floor to a lab room, and watch them struggle to trade using different kinds of technological innovations. Based on their observations, they refine the technology to override any possible glitches in the trading process. In this case they spent 13 years testing, shelving, and refining voice-recognition software, which they estimate will be ready to hit the floor at the end of September.

But this technology may be reinforcing an archaic system of trading: what’s the use of refining voice-recognition software, or retinally controlled data-retrieval goggles, if the NYSE is under pressure to shift into an entirely electronic system anyway? The innovators at the exchange don’t think the floor is going anywhere, or hope not, because plans are well under way for a luxurious new NYSE headquarters on Wall Street designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. And of all NYSE-listed stocks, only 15 percent are currently traded through exchanges other than the NYSE.

From a purely technical standpoint, the processes and tools they develop to streamline the operations in this Olympian factory of prices are stunning. On an average day, over $37 billion is traded on a volume of 810 million shares. The system supports over a million orders a day and has to be “99.99 percent up,” according to Pastina. “You don’t stop the market; you hit ‘recovery.’ We build recovery systems into everything we do.”

This past spring, the exchange installed a 3-D trading floor, an elaborate three-dimensional data filtering system that graphically interprets— in a VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) format— all the numbers and code that get pumped through the exchange, from the below-ground operations of all the servers to the real-time activity of every individual stock.

The advantage this mapping system has over straight numbers is context— an immersive interface that makes clutch decision-making more intuitive, not to mention more pleasant.

The project was organized by the Securities Information Automation Corporation (SIAC), which manages the entire technological backbone of the exchange and commissioned New York­based architecture firm Asymptote to design the model and RT-Set, an Israeli firm, to program and animate it. Hani Rashid, a founding partner of Asymptote, which does both physical and information architecture, describes the technology as “datascaping: a new idea about mapping 2-D data into animated, 3-D environments,” adding, “Our program translates all the data into shapes and graphs in a contextual environment, morphing real-time, that you can customize and correlate on the fly.”

For systems analysis, operations experts look at the virtual landscape of the floor itself and can monitor all the activity at every booth; the graphics pulse and change color to indicate volume and speed of order flow at every booth, and indicate if there is any problem with the performance of the hardware or system software. For financial analysis, traders could customize a landscape of data that charts the real-time activity of any collection of stocks, and supplement that with background information and historical data. If the Dow is down 88 points, you can see which stocks are weighing it down most. Then you could get a profile of all the hot news on the wire, cross-reference it with your profile of Dow activity, and see the common trends in the markets and news.

“You can’t separate the system performance from the data that it’s monitoring,” says Anne Allen, senior vice president of floor operations. “It’s not enough to know just that there’s a failure— you need to know the implications. Am I delaying traffic? How does that relate to trading volume and everything else that affects the stocks?” In other words, the software itself illuminates the synthesis between the data processing and the patterns of the market.

But still the main thing that affects those rhythms is the system of trading itself, and no one has any idea what will happen to various trading systems themselves. Will the specialist system survive all the criticism just as it survived the crashes of 1929 and 1987? Will it be scrapped for a whole other form of centralization? Will the market bifurcate into two kinds of trading systems— one that’s centralized and one that’s direct?

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NASDAQ’s volatility is as much a reflection of its listed companies as its trading system. The NYSE, on the other hand, has such stable companies that the transition to an electronic market may not be dramatic: “If the NYSE were to transition to an electronically based trading system, I don’t think you’d find a problem with excessive volatility,” says John J. Edwards III, markets editor of TheStreet.com. “There would still be professionals making the markets, just not a floor-based specialist.” What makes the transition difficult, however, is that a lot of companies on the exchange would prefer to stay with a specialist-based system.

But there are those that prefer dramatic measures. “I hope they rip out [the NYSE trading floor] and turn it into a disco club,” says day trader Jim Crane-Baker, one of 10 experts featured in the bestseller Electronic Day Traders’ Secrets. “Specialists are basically a bunch of demigods in a system that’s totally perverse. They have one guy who is controlling all the order flow in his secret book, and you have no idea what kinds of tricks he’s pulling. In general, the NYSE is a complete mess— totally inefficient. Who cares about their high-tech gadgetry? They’re still using carbon copy receipts! Why throw a lot of money on gadgets and make information pretty when it’s all there online? There’s no way that [the old] system can survive.” Crane-Baker, who has been an independent equity trader since 1995, sees direct investor participation as the way to bring justice back to the market. “It should all be an electronic version of the open outcry system— a place of passions that may be volatile, but the fittest survive.”

A pure meritocracy is about as likely to exist as a fairly mediated specialist system. Most big institutions and long-term investors want to trade in a market that feels safer and more controlled— even if the brokers and specialists get exorbitant commissions and have unfair advantages. And not all ECN advocates are sounding the death knell for the NYSE: “There will always be a place in the market for those that commit capital and provide liquidity,” says Matt Andresen, president of Datek’s Island, which is the second-largest ECN. “The question is to what degree you allow these participants to have temporal and informational advantages over the public as compensation.” At Island and other ECNs, “everyone’s orders are treated the same, and at the same time.”

Andresen argues that all evidence points toward a future without physical trading floors, citing the example of the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), which lost most of its volume in deutsche mark futures when the Germans shifted to electronic trading. “This example took weeks, not years. The simple facts are this: computers can match buyers and sellers quicker, more efficiently, fairer, and in greater volumes. That’s not to say that humans don’t have an important place in providing liquidity when needed.”

As exchanges and trading continue to move online and become more and more electronically networked— possibly merging into one common operating system for trading stocks— what most people fear is the lack of order. What the electronic market needs, besides a fair regulatory system, is the ability to map all the activity of an unwieldy online market, an extension of the NYSE’s datascaping technology; it needs an orderly, graphical interface, swarming with the life and energy of a real trading floor, but not limited to top-dog transactions.

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Digable Planet Community

Omar Wasow is walking through the Soho offices of Silicon Alley company Community Connect looking for some fruit. The small staff of about 24 are harried, crisscrossing the floor, shouting across the room to each other. But Wasow is relaxed and cordial to a T. He appears to be the calm before the storm. He
finds a bowl of grapes and melons on the conference table in the back of the office.

“Want some?” he offers.

The reporter is more interested in the Sony Playstation hooked up to the pair of gun controllers to his left. A shoot-’em-up game called Time Crisis sits atop a stack of CDs, luring all to stop work and start shooting. The TV monitor’s blank screen offers a hollow stare and a dangerous call: Play me. Play me.

But the employees are glued to their mice. Working. The Playstation is abandoned for good reason.

Community Connect— which publishes Asian Avenue.com, an Asian American community site— has a new venture, BlackPlanet.com, and a major new competitor, BET.com.

Set for soft launch September 1, BlackPlanet.com, headed by Wasow, claims it will be the community site for African Americans. Its chances look good, considering Community’s success with AsianAvenue.com, which is number one in the Asian American space.

The site functions like an Asian American AOL, its members creating chat rooms and personal Web pages, usually in the hopes of meeting like-minded Asian Americans— a prospect that is normally difficult for second-generation As Ams offline since they are usually scattered geographically.

But unlike that site, which currently faces minor competition (abcflash.com, originally a business-to-business site, has recently added editorial content), BlackPlanet will go up against a host of sites targeted at African Americans. Most notable among them are BlackVoices.com, backed by the Tribune Company, which publishes The Chicago Tribune; NetNoir.com, which launched five years ago and is the longest-running black-content site; and the heavily backed BET.com.

In a much ballyhooed press conference a few weeks ago, cable programmer Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced its new site’s $35 million deal with blue-chip companies including Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, USA Networks, and AT&T’s Liberty Digital Media, which is run by cable magnate John Malone. It is set to launch November 1.

Wasow, however, doesn’t see this deep-pocketed competition as a bad thing.

“[Community Connect’s] instincts are that it’ll be a good thing for the black community,” he says of BET’s new partnership. “Part of what’s exciting about the deal is that it validates the market. John Malone and Rupert Murdoch believe there are black people online. So there’s no reason to buy into the digital-
divide cliché that there aren’t any black people online.”

According to a recent study by Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an estimated 3.8 million African American households will log on by 2000.

The pie has gotten just big enough to support a few major players over the next year. It remains to be seen how big a slice each will carve.

Community Connect is banking on its tried-and-true formula, where the community becomes the content— a common structure for sites that target affinity groups. It is a design that encourages write-in dynamics, much like Usenet, but in a graphical, more intuitive environment.

“My community, the black community, has a deep urge for a voice,” Wasow says. “Especially since we haven’t had a voice in traditional media.”

That voice will be expressed by following AsianAvenue’s model, which highlights its chat, instant messaging, personal Web page, and personal e-mail features. Even BlackPlanet’s editorial channels, such as Technology, News & Politics, and Heritage, will devote as much space to its write-in component as to its original content, and will encourage members to respond to the editorial and to other members. This user-to-user environment will be the main draw.

AsianAvenue has succeeded with this model, amassing over 365,000 registered members and about 40 million page views per month in under three years’ time.

AsianAvenue also offers prizes to members
who click through its ads, among other things. The site gives away everything from free AsianAvenue
T-shirts to Nintendo 64s. This ad strategy will also be found on BlackPlanet.

“We’re moving into e-commerce strategies, but those will be rolled out slowly,” Wasow says. One such model involves gift certificates. Members who have already registered information such as birth dates and favorite vendors will be notified of fellow members’ birthdays and given a list of their favorite available shops. An electronic gift certificate can be arranged.

“You don’t ever have to remember a friend’s birthday, or what they like,” Wasow says. “We’ll do it for you. And the great thing is, if I buy you a gift this way, you are morally obligated to do the same.”

Perhaps “morally flexible” is a term that would come to mind, considering the ease with which people can maintain friendships under this plan. But online ventures are looking for any way to “commodify viewership,” as the saying goes.

The business models sound promising, and the recent hype (and money) around the African American space suggests now is the time. Web ventures in general tend to attract investors on vapor alone— forget the business model.

But the folding of once promising site Cafe Los Negroes, a New York­based community site that closed last year after financial difficulties, and the financing woes of The Black World Today (tbwt.com) underscore the difficulty in convincing the mostly white world of the Net that people of color are penetrating this new economy.

According to the Forrester study, African Americans are the fastest-growing group online for 1999— at a 42 percent growth rate.

“Last year the fastest-growing group was whites,” says Ekaterina O. Walsh, the author of the Forrester study. “This year it’s blacks. In 1999, 23 percent of African American households are online. By 2000, 40 percent of that group’s households will go online.”

Asian Americans are the most wired group overall, at 68 percent of households, or 2.1 million online by the year 2000. Hispanic households will increase by 20 percent, to 3.6 million in 2000. Community Connect plans to develop a Hispanic community site sometime next year.

Which brings up the question of when Community Connect plans to go IPO.

“I can’t really say yet,” responds Benjamin Sun, CEO and president of Community. “But it looks like 2000 will be a big year.”

Community has so far raised $5 million in financing from angel investors such as Robert Goldhammer, CEO of Concord International Partners and former vice chairman of Kidder Peabody. The company will soon look to venture capital money.

“It’s weird,” Sun says. “When we first started back in 1996 we had the hardest time trying to convince investors that the ethnic space was viable. Now everyone’s getting in the game.”

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Net Pill Bill?

When Congress goes back in session next week, drugs will be a topic of discussion— though not the question of what George W. may have snorted. Legislators are puzzling over what to do about the unfettered growth in Internet prescription centers— where consumers lost in the borderless anomie of cyberspace can get refills and new prescriptions, sometimes for medically inappropriate uses. A new bill is aimed at protecting consumers from medical fraud and tainted or unsafe medicines, and adding accountability to online drug sales.

This premier maneuver to regulate the wide-open frontier of online drug sales would require distributors and prescription services to disclose their business location, the state in which the prescribing doctor is licensed to practice, and the license of the pharmacy—
essentially the same information the American Medical Association requires for pharmacies and prescribing doctors.

The bill, authored by Representative Ron Klink (Democrat, Pennsylvania), has drawn little attention since its introduction in the House just before Congress recessed in early August. But critics cite its glaring inadequacies at preventing misuse of the Web, and even the bill’s proponents concede it does little to remedy some of the problems.

The AMA and the Food and Drug Administration worry that the Web could threaten their authority. The AMA’s board of trustees
issued a statement saying, “If obtaining
prescription drugs from foreign companies without a prescription through the Internet
becomes common, it potentially could render the whole concept of by prescription only drugs meaningless in the United States.”

Another problem: no single government agency tracks all kinds of drug sales, and none has specialized units to specifically investigate the Web. The FDA does plan to expand its surveillance of Web-based pharmacies, but its plans are far from concrete. To date, 60 cases of drug-distribution or medical-product fraud have been investigated since 1994, and many more cases are pending. One particularly cruel
example of medical-supply fraud investigated by the FDA involved a bogus HIV test sold over the Web that gave prefabricated false results.

There is as yet no effective way to stop international sales over the Web, due to lack of jurisdiction. FDA and Drug Enforcement Agency officials say they may be able to cooperate with other governments, but implementation could get pretty sloppy.

Despite all the concerns, though, the Web pharmacy is a welcome service for many, and Klink’s office is “not interested in interfering with the convenience or cost-saving features the Web provides,” a spokesman said. An all-out ban on Net drug sales is unlikely. For its part, the AMA recognizes that “transmitting prescriptions via e-mail makes sense”— and a large number of legitimate sites that are primarily
refill centers exist (soma.com, drugstore.com).

Still, Klink is concerned about the question of liability: “Do we want them self-diagnosing and self-medicating?” he asks. Whom does the patient sue if heart complications arise from an online prescription of Viagra?

Critics of Klink’s proposed bill, and Web pharmacy entrepreneurs, claim they are looking out for the average American navigating the complicated health care industry. AIDS activists, who have long lobbied for lower prices on
life-saving drugs, say drugs purchased the
traditional way are too expensive. “Americans pay the most for their medicines,” said Steven Fisher of AIDS Action, which studied prices of drugs in the U.S. and abroad. According to the report, the same prescription that costs $18 in the U.S. will cost only $10 in Great Britain, and $8 in France.

Larry Burstein agrees. He started his Florida-based international pharmacy referral site to save his customers money. His site sells books that list what he calls trustworthy foreign pharmacies.

Greg Scandlen, a fellow in health policy at the Cato Institute, sees the Web pharmacy trend as representative of “a frustration of
patients in America.” With capped pharmacy benefits from medicaid, private insurance, and HMOs becoming increasingly common, and an estimated 43 million Americans without any health insurance at all, the potential market for Internet drug sales is huge.

There are at least 400 Web sites that prescribe and sell drugs without a physical exam. Some, like thepillbox.com, specialize in Viagra, others in drugs for hair regrowth and allergies, and still others in pain-relief meds and sedatives, like codeine and valium. Some sites are referral services for pharmacies abroad that will readily prescribe you Xenical, a fad diet drug, or the notorious Fen-Phen diet drug
combination recently banned in this country.

The multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical
industry has yet to weigh in definitively on the issue. An FDA spokesperson said the industry has offered “mixed messages,” with some “voicing concerns [about] losing profits to
foreign pharmacies” and questions about
liability. Still, many suspect that big drug
companies are attracted to the potential of
extra profits from cash-cow drugs.

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A Lot of Nerve

It’s all in the decor. In this case, we’re talking stainless steel desks, black space-age chairs, and iMacs. These items are resting on a hardwood floor, freshly polyurethaned, in a SoHo loft on Broadway. If a TV producer conjured a set for a hip web zine, he couldn’t do any better. Of course, the TV version would be an illusion and this is a real office. In the corner sits Rufus Griscom (third from left in photo), the editor and CEO of Nerve.com, and that really is an Adorno tome on his desk, and he really does want to be as helpful as he can for this interview. After all, everything really is happening for Nerve.

Next month, the little-erotica- Web-zine- that-could will transform into a community space and portal, replete with homepage building, e-mail, chat, bulletin boards, and personal ads. In January, Nerve.com plans to debut a print version, sold online, to be followed with distribution in bookstores. Private investors with $10 million have given Nerve a boost, and industry analysts now think the site could be the first adult play to make it as an IPO. And the recently launched German, French, and Spanish versions of the site already bring in a big chunk of the company’s ad revenue. Nerve.com isn’t profitable, but hey, it’s growing. Fast.

All this makes a good story, and Nerve has always courted publicity with uncanny skill, from that first puff on CNN just days after they launched, a scant two years ago— Griscom and then lover Genevieve Field (center in photo) conceiving the site over Chinese food on the floor of their one-bedroom apartment— all the way down to today, when a publicist is on staff to “help” the stories along. Somewhere, though, is an analyst who has taken a look at the mathematical reality.

“Clearly they are going to generate a lot of buzz, but you can’t live on buzz alone,” says Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. ‘‘Nerve has a very limited market, and in order to make money on a limited market you have to offer a lot of services, which is obviously what they are trying to do. But I don’t think there is a big enough market to support them.”

Sinnreich could so easily be wrong. Nerve could be the next Playboy media empire; as president and editorial director Field says, “we’ve been thinking big all along.” All that Nerve has to do is embody the spirit of a new sexual movement, to position itself on the cusp of change the way Playboy did more than 40 years ago. The comparison may appear a touch forced— after all, Hefner threw bashes for the
masses, whereas Nerve holds soirées for the post-gender crowd. But if the parties were raunchier in the ’60s, or if the site seems too studied to be radical, realize that Nerve is as sharp as the straight edge can get before it loses all hope of profitability. No
other zine draws as diverse a crowd of hot writers, from Dennis Cooper to A.M. Homes, although the gems are often by less-known talents, such as a very popular recent piece of reportage by Leif Ueland about a porn star’s 500-man gang bang.

The trouble is that at this point you can’t say whether Nerve is a simulacrum or the real thing, whether all that cool furniture belongs to a next-generation mover and shaker— or to a Web site that’s enjoyed a lot of press and modest financial success by publishing quality photos and prose, but whose future remains limited to a small number of people interested in “literate smut.” Is it a better
story than a business? Perhaps it’s no surprise that the answer depends more on how the zine navigates the waters of big-time media than on whether it convinces Rick Moody to muse a little more about the joys of polysexuality.

These days, it’s Griscom who runs the business end, and he knows, without giving the game away, exactly what a delicate spot Nerve is in. But if anybody can make a highbrow content play work out, well, it’s going to be a guy like 31-year-old Griscom, someone who wears Oxford shirts with crazy-quilt slacks and can talk cash-blend ad deals as easily as postmodernism. He certainly possesses that rare ability to ooze an aphorism (“I believe in running for the purposes of locomotion”) as readily as talk market risk (“our revenue story is very solid”). But is that enough?

Let’s start with basics: you are planning to launch a magazine in January. What is the projected circulation, who is the
audience, and why does a Web site need a magazine? We are exploring a new strategy for launching a print magazine. We are going to create a beautiful physical magazine, start with a small print run, and market it exclusively online. It may be hard to find a copy of the first issue— we are interested in generating grassroots buzz and creating demand without spending a lot of money. We are investing a considerable amount of money in the content, though— top writing, photography, design, paper stock, and so on.

[

Are any sections planned already? We will be doing lengthy reported pieces each month— and we will simultaneously make documentary segments in most cases. Streamed documentary footage will accompany the stories [when they are posted online], and we also use the segments, which will be television quality, as one of the early projects of NerveStudios.

What makes this different from Playboy? Everything. First of all Nerve is predicated on the belief that there is a symmetry of desire between men and women. What is most radical about Nerve on some level is that I think it marks the first time that the male experience and the female experience have been close enough to one another that they could be embodied in a single magazine, and there is also a coherent Nerve sensibility which informs both the photography and writing.

Describe that sensibility. An interest in the humanity of the sexual experience, whether it’s embarrassing, beautiful, peculiar, ugly, sad, what have you. It’s the same kind of curiosity that causes people to look at their feces before flushing.

Charming . . . We are fascinated by our bodies and the things that they do and I think that this is one of the most intriguing frontiers for great writers and photographers.

It sounds like what makes Nerve different is that the editors don’t dictate what makes good sex or interesting sex, whereas in Playboy you have this hierarchical view that feeds the reader one standard of sexual expression. I think the people at Playboy are not genuinely interested in great writing. They have bought some great writing over the years because they could afford it, but it was never central to their mission. Playboy has always been about surface-level pleasure and the God-
given right to that pleasure, and that was radical in the early ’60s.

So do you think it’s radical now to talk about sex that is not pleasurable? Absolutely. I personally have a great interest in bad sex because I think it’s relatively untrodden territory. It’s something people have a hard time talking about, and in fact we are involved in a film project on the subject. But we also have a great interest in documenting near-apocalyptic sexual triumphs.

Apocalyptic sex sounds like Norman Mailer. But are most of your writers macho straight men? Or are they gay men, writing for straight men and women? We have many gay writers, but definitely not a majority. We’ve published a number of pieces by unsensitive guys. Eighty-five percent of our readers describe themselves as straight, but, yeah, I think this is a key point. I think an interest in sexual experiences and preferences that one doesn’t have and doesn’t intend to have is part of this new, late-’90s sensibility. It takes a level of sexual confidence that people haven’t had, en masse, in past decades to want to understand experiences far from one’s own.

You are talking about a kind of voyeurism. Definitely, but more than that a suspension of judgement and a genuine affection for difference.

I think the voyeurism aspect is really key to Nerve, especially when you are talking about having people put up their own sex-centric home pages on your site. Voyeurism online with high-res televideo will be an extraordinary, powerful phenomenon. Tens of billions of dollars will be spent; a large portion of the population will participate at some point.

Everyone has a democratic right to be the star of their own porn film. Is that what you are betting on? Well, I believe everybody has a need to star . . . and therefore they will. Porn itself is underwhelming. I think most people have seen porn and associate it with a kind of post-orgasmic disappointment in themselves and the sexual experience.

So, finally, what makes Nerve different from Salon‘s Urge section is that you give people the venue— now through the reader feedback section, but later through home-page hosting— to express their own sexuality, as opposed to reading about somebody else’s. Well, I think the caliber of our writing is better and the project as a whole is considerably more daring. We are taking risks that they aren’t taking. I am thinking primarily of the photography, but also I think we have less of a concern about offending with the writing. But they definitely have good writers and publish some great material.

Do you think of Nerve as pushing the culture, rather than following? Yes, I do. We have never changed our content for advertisers, or with advertisers in mind.

[

Will blue-chip American advertisers ever associate with Nerve? Absolutely. They are starting to come on board. CBS Sportsline, CD Now, UBid are a few of the larger advertisers we have had in past months. We definitely have more work to do on the advertising front. It’s a gradual process but we think mainstream culture is moving in our direction. I heard Nike has a new ad campaign with nudity; I think many mainstream advertisers in the U.S. will start to move in this direction in the next few years.

In the new Nerve community space, are you going to censor insensitive remarks and hate pages? What about a man who has rape fantasies? We will definitely censor illegal and really revolting stuff, but I think you guide a community more by highlighting material that you like. Emma Taylor, our VP of community development, used to be at Tripod, and removing inappropriate material was one of her responsibilities. The community governs itself to a degree. What’s critical is to let it do so.

I suspect the community will be more interested in the spirit of postings than crossing any particular line. And we have never not published photographs because they were too graphic; we have only not published them because they weren’t interesting enough. We are obviously big believers in free speech over here.

But you are not absolutists about free speech. If you have a few loud people without any subtlety who drive away hundreds of really interesting people, the community isn’t working well.

Are you competition for Tripod? No. I think Tripod and Geocities aren’t cohesive communities with a coherent sensibility. They are highly successful business models. I don’t want to post my life on a business model.

So is Nerve warm and fuzzy? No, it’s decidedly not warm and fuzzy. . . . We are interested in attracting thick-skinned women and men who aren’t afraid of them.

Are you rich yet? No. On paper, I guess, but many a spill between the cup and the lips. I think we are likely to be the first sex-related content company to go public with mainstream backing.

What’s the print run of the magazine? I can’t say at this point. Sixty-five percent of Nerve readers polled said they would pay for a print mag subscription; we have 750,000 different monthly readers right now. . . . I think it’s not unreasonable that we could get to a circulation of a half a million a couple years out if we do it right.

Your relationship [with Genevieve] was a big part of the initial press coverage. The media oozed over this
“labor of love” and couple thang. Now you guys have split. Does that parallel Nerve‘s growth from a small-time, closely-held baby project? [Long pause] The story had pretty much shifted from being about us to being about the company in the last year, which is nice. There is nothing more powerful than love, but an erupting, pre-IPO Internet company that actually stands for something you believe in is a close second.

machineage@villagevoice.com

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What a Gas

Late one night in Del Ray Beach, Florida, 56-year-old textile magnate Fred Jarow awoke with a vision. “I was laughing so hard, but I didn’t know why,” he says. Then it came to him. Something futuristic. For the whole family. A sound. In the distance. A remote . . . control . . . whoopee cushion. Now, seven years later, Jarow is creating a big stink, so to speak, with his invention, the Fart Machine: the latest entry in the technological evolution of novelties.

Jarow’s device, a sleek, black, FCC-compliant unit which contains computerized recordings of various toots, earns a mention in the annals of pop culture history as one of the first gags to utilize a microchip. The novelty business has long been a bastion for techno-weenies and mischievous chemists, but never one for prurient digerati.

S.S. Adams Co., a nearly century-old company in Neptune, New Jersey, has limited itself to shrewd mechanical gadgets. Many of these— the joy buzzer, the jumping snake— are still designed around the spool-and-wire premise; pressing a button, say, or opening a can causes the wire-bound object to unwind, surprise, shimmy, and shake. S.S. Adams’s vice president, Chris Adams, the founder’s grandson, says that keeping gags relatively low-tech has always been cost-effective. Most of the science used at the company is a matter of home-brewed synthetics, such as those used in what Adams calls the “grossology” products. “We make all our fake vomit here,” he explains.

Electronics, until recently, has been used almost exclusively in the nonprank side of the novelty biz. Fortune Products Inc., a distributor and importer in Washington State, specializes in stoner mainstays like strobes and the “plasma ball’,’ which spews out blue streaks of light in response to the position of its fondler’s hands. Bob Kocher Jr., Fortune’s owner, says that the majority of these products are made overseas. But around the world, disco-inspired gadgetry remains in vogue. The devices continue to improve in quality, Kocher explains, but some things are better left untouched. As he says, “What can you do to make a mirror ball look better?”

One would think, too, that a whoopee cushion couldn’t be improved. For the most part, there has been little innovation. In the late 1980s, there was a shortage of latex due to the AIDS crisis, Chris Adams explains, resulting in some lackluster vinyl cushions (“they just didn’t have that wet, obnoxious sound,” he says).

It was Fred Jarow who ultimately decided to take the classic bag into the future. To produce the Machine, Jarow teamed up with an old friend who was a ham radio enthusiast. Holed up in a studio in south Florida, Jarow and his partner consumed inordinate amounts of cabbage and beans with the hopes of digitizing some authentic ripples. Unfortunately, they soon discovered, the audio frequency of their eager blasts simply did not transfer adequately onto the computer chip. In the end, the two meticulously composed over a hundred eruptions on a synthesizer, whittling down the contenders to four of the most realistic blends. “Originally, we wanted to have one really long one,” Jarow explains, “but it sounded too much like a motorcycle. Shorter ones are much more realistic.”

To date, the Fart Machine has sold over 100,000 units worldwide. Jarow hasn’t quit his day job, but he continues to experiment and innovate with the Machine. His company, TJ Wiseman, even tried to incorporate other technological innovations into the product; an accompanying odor spray, however, proved too costly.

Like any dedicated inventor, Jarow had his device subjected to repeated testing. Recently, he used a Fart Machine at a ballet, which, he reports, had to be stopped as a result of the ensuing commotion. His 87-year-old mother placed a Machine discreetly behind a potted plant in her hospital room; “She calls the plant ‘the Gaseteria,’ ” Jarow says. At Thanksgiving, Jarow has been known to stuff the turkey with one of his pocket flatulators; he hits the remote right when the host goes in with the knife.

This fall, the third-generation Fart Machine will hit shelves, featuring a quartet of new and improved noises. For now, Jarow’s happy, but soon enough he says he’ll be back in the studio to brew up even more realistic emissions. “I gotta tell ya,” he says with a sigh, “it’s a science. It’s really a science.”

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Artistic License

Maciej Wisniewski shifted his weight from one foot to the other and smiled nervously. He and about 20 other people were gathered outside Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea for the public debut of his meta-browser/artwork, netomat (downloadable at www.netomat.net). A table with bottles of water and juice, plastic cups, and a bin of ice had been set up on the sidewalk, but the ice had melted and the liquids had been quickly drained by the uncomfortable, sweaty crowd loitering outside the gallery. “God knows we tried. The show will be open tomorrow, June 25th. We will be ready,” read the signs taped to Postmasters’ roll-down metal gate.

For Wisniewski, it was a small disappointment in the context of a far larger one. The opening had been scheduled for June 24, a Thursday. On Wednesday morning Wisniewski received a call from MOMA curator Barbara London informing him that—contrary to a plan three months in development—the Modern would not be hosting netomat on its Web site. Nor would it place a kiosk featuring netomat in its exhibition space. The news sent both Wisniewski and Postmasters’ director Tamas Banovich scrambling to provide server space for the artwork, which they barely procured in time for the belated Friday night opening. Up until London’s call, MOMA had wanted Postmasters to take a backseat, and let the museum claim exclusive sponsorship of netomat for three months. In return, MOMA would promote and host the browser for a minimum of one year. “They made a lot of promises,” Wisniewski says of MOMA staff.

It is the strategy that MOMA employed in courting Wisniewski that frustrates Banovich more than their decision not to exhibit the piece. “Realistically, it would have been a miracle if it’d worked out,” Banovich says. “They can’t make a decision in three months.” Art institutions the size of MOMA slate their exhibitions years in advance, while the burgeoning field of what is loosely termed net-art transforms itself on a daily basis. Neither Banovich nor Wisniewski doubt London’s interest in or enthusiasm for netomat, or net-art in general, just MOMA’s ability to respond to a rapidly changing medium. “She tried everything, I could tell,” Banovich says. “But I think at the last day someone else stopped it.”

London won’t go into detail regarding the impasse, but she does express regret over the failed negotiations with Wisniewski. She also echoes Banovich’s statements regarding the difficulties museums face in presenting net-art. “We’re a big, lumbering institution, so not everything has worked according to plan. The Web moves at incredible speed. Software, hardware—it’s constantly unfolding and evolving.” And, she points out, museum decisions are reached by committee. “It’s a collective voice. Not everything I’m interested in gets shown.”

The “collective voice” of a museum at once constitutes one of its greatest strengths—what London refers to as the internal system of checks and balances—and in the case of emerging discourses like net-art, one of its greatest weaknesses. “What happens is, you get individual curators who are really interested and knowledgeable about what’s going on, but everyone else is afraid of stepping into anything in which they’re not experts,” says Fred Wilson, one of this year’s MacArthur genius grant recipients. He likens the obstacles net-art faces in finding a museum audience to those faced by artists exploring issues of cultural diversity 20 years ago. “It’s outside [some curators’] value structure, so they don’t have the impetus to take it seriously. I don’t know what it’s going to take for [Net-based artists] to overcome the barriers we face.”

Perhaps just time. When video first emerged as a medium for artistic expression in the early ’70s, curators and critics were quick to dismiss it. The trajectory traced by video art—from exclusion to a grudging, token inclusion to its current ubiquity—is an oft referenced model for net-art. To communicate to a broad audience, artistic media require a critical framework—a set of conventions and a history through which the viewer can interpret the work. “People like Maciej are mavericks,” says London. “They’re still developing a vocabulary for the medium.”

It’s a sentiment with which few artists working in net-art would disagree. As in all applications of new media, the technology’s largely untapped potential provides its greatest appeal. As such, net-artwork is often as exploratory as it is revelatory. Wisniewski’s netomat reinvents the Internet, and serves up the results through a visually mesmerizing interface. A search engine that retrieves sounds and images as well as text, netomat facilitates an associative, experiential journey through the chaos of the Internet. It addresses the medium in a formal sense, but escapes the trap of becoming tech qua tech. The viewer, user, whatever, dominates the art. That said, it’s also challenging stuff, not so much questioning traditional conceptions of objecthood (where is the art?), meaning (what is the art?), and authorship (who makes the art?) as leaving them behind altogether.

Is it any wonder that curators who specialize in, say, minimalist sculpture (and last went online to get cheap tickets to Venice and Basel) don’t get it? Net-artists themselves—many of whom, like Wisniewski, have backgrounds in programming—are still trying to figure out what it means to make art out of ether. “It’s very early, in terms of the existence of the medium, and museums are slow to respond. But it’s naive to get frustrated with them,” says Mark Tribe, founder of Rhizome (www.rhizome.org), one of several Web sites that serves as an online forum for the emerging critical discourse on net-art. “I think across the board, they all want to find ways to get up to speed on net-based work, but it’s a space that’s still grassroots and below their radar.”

And that, he says, is just fine. Because net-artists happen to use extremely marketable skills in the development of their art, the paradigm of the garreted artist suffering through soul-sucking day jobs to support the art habit breaks down when applied to net-artists. The community that makes up what might be termed (again, loosely) the net-art world bears little resemblance to the traditional one that exists in three dimensions. Wolfgang Staehle, a founder of The Thing (www.thing.net), a combo research lab/”virtual nightclub”/online exhibition space, says many net-art practitioners have problems with the term “artist.” “I personally prefer cultural activist,” he says, and points out that the community (he prefers the term “social sculpture”) that gathers on The Thing is made up of political activists, hackers, writers, and programmers, as well as artists working in traditional media. In addition to the explosion of Web sites that serve as repositories for net-artwork, numerous net-art festivals are held each year, though mostly in Europe, and a major resource center called ZKM (www.zkm.de), described by critic Robert Atkins as “the Bauhaus of digital art,” recently opened in Karlsruhe, Germany.

“One thing that attracted me to the Internet as a space for art making is that it allowed us to work independently of the entrenched institutions that dominate the world of contemporary art. At this point, we don’t really need the museums,” says RhizomeTribe.

The question remains, however: do museums need net-art? Many forward-thinking curators obviously think so. David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum and current director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, serves on Rhizome’s board and has acquired Web-based art since arriving at SFMOMA. Sarah Rogers, director of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, recently curated a well-received show called “Body Mécanique: Artistic Explorations of Digital Realms.” “There’s so much fascinating work taking place that utilizes technology. Sure, museums should be featuring that work.” She notes, for instance, that this year’s Venice Biennale featured only one tech-based artwork. “Institutions don’t support contemporary work enough period, whatever the medium.”

But however sparing institutional patronage for net-art might seem, no one disagrees that there’s a great deal more than there was even two years ago. In an Art in America article published last August, Atkins criticized American art museums for “waiting until the dust settles before committing curatorial resources to online art.” He’s since become greatly encouraged by the steps museums have taken to get involved in the medium. MOMA commissioned three Web-specific projects for last spring’s exhibition, “The Museum as Muse.” The Guggenheim continues work on its ambitious Virtual Museum as well as commissioning ongoing Web projects. The Walker Art Center continues to expand its already extensive collection of Web-based art. Dia Center for the Arts recently announced a partnership with Stadium (www.stadiumweb.com), a site featuring work not only by artists like Wisniewski, but also those known best for working in more traditional mediums, like Louise Lawler and Allan McCollum.

But above and beyond what net-artists can offer traditional art institutions, and what those institutions can offer in return, Atkins feels the Internet itself is where net-artists’ contributions are most valuable. “The online realm is desperately in need of their distinctive way of seeing things,” he says. “If the Web becomes increasingly commercialized, the influence of artists will diminish. Art has always been appropriated by fashion photographers, etc., but on the Net, artists can affect culture at a much deeper level, offer an alternative to the glut of commercialization and information that the medium will become if we leave it in a corporate entertainment state.”