Kapor: Net Hype Is Dying, Reality Moving In

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (05/31/2000) - The early hype surrounding the Internet and "dot-com" mania is giving way to a more moderate view that will ultimately be a change for the better, according to Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus Development Corp. and nonprofit organization Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"I think we're at a particularly important moment now in the evolution of the Internet," Kapor said during the opening keynote speech at the biannual Harvard Internet & Society conference here today.

The "retreat from a kind of giddy euphoria" occurred as a consequence of the recent correction on the technology-heavy Nasdaq stock market, Kapor said. One effect has been that the free flow of funding for startup technology-related companies has slowed.

But Kapor thinks the current state of affairs is an improvement on the Net's heady past because "businesses that have actual business models and can make money rather than just chase dreams" will now be the ones that obtain funding from venture capitalists.

In his role today as a venture capitalist, Kapor splits his time between Silicon Valley and the Boston area and described his talk today as "confessions of a recovering techno utopian." Like many others in the IT industry, he was swept up in the heady early days of the Internet's rise to global prominence.

Though he now counts himself as more realistic, Kapor still marvels over some aspects of the Internet, which he said "you just have to love if you have a beating human heart."

For instance, a recent article in the New York Times explained how rural fishermen in India use the Internet to download daily weather forecasts for the Bay of Bengal. The forecasts are generated in the U.S. and mark the first time that the fisherman have had access to weather information so that they know if storms are approaching.

On the less savory side of the Internet is the widespread commercialization that seems to have taken over -- a topic that during the first hours of the conference here already had become a recurring theme. Another theme seems to be how communicating electronically "strips away the body language, nuance and the things that give communication character," Kapor said.

"It is easy for conversations via e-mail to get out of hand," with senders and recipients becoming angry over words not intended to provoke anger, he said. To combat that, Kapor said that he has a rule that if he needs to speak to someone about something important he talks to the person either over the telephone or in person.

Because the Internet lacks "emotional bandwidth," Kapor wants to see a day when technology leads to "extremely realistic models" of people that can be viewed when they speak to others over the Internet. The "stupid smiley face" symbol that is common in e-mail and in online chats is one end of the emotive spectrum with the other being to "populate cyberspace with avatars and representatives of ourselves," Kapor said.

However, it's difficult to obtain funding for such ideas because the time frame for that type of technology to come to fruition is too long according to those who control the venture capital purse strings, and there also is a lot of risk in financing basic research that often leads to "false starts," he added.

The Harvard Internet & Society conference continues through Friday. Additional information can be found at http://www.IS2K.harvard.edu/.

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