In 1999, Davide Bowie sat down for a TV interview with BBC host Jeremy Paxman. Bowie explains that if he were a kid of the 1990s he wouldn’t have become a pop star. Instead, Bowie probably would have become obsessed with the internet. Why? According to Bowie, that’s where the potentially interesting — chaotic, nihilistic and truly rebellious — stuff was really happening.
David Bowie talking about the future of the internet during an interview in 1999 (YouTube/BBC)
But the interviewer, Paxman, isn’t convinced. Bowie had a back and forth with the interviewer, who at one point says that claims being made for the future of the internet are “hugely exaggerated”. Bowie shoots back with a wallop of sarcasm about people who doubted that things like the telephone would change the world.
“I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable,” Bowie explained to the BBC. “I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
You can watch the entire interview on YouTube, but I’ve pulled out and transcribed the important bits below.
“The internet carries the flag for the subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic and nihilistic…” Bowie says before the interviewer starts to interrupt him.
“Oh yes it is,” Bowie says back before Paxman can properly interrupt Bowie’s thought process. “Forget about the Microsoft element, the monopolies do not have a monopoly… maybe on programs…” Bowie said as he trails off.
“What you like about it is the fact that anyone can say anything, or do anything,” Paxman says incredulously, more as a statement rather than a question.
And it’s here where Bowie gets to the stage in his vision of the future that perhaps best defines the second decade of the 21st century — an era where everyone from actors, to musicians to even the President of the United States all communicate with enormous audiences instantaneously. Bowie talks about breaking down the walls between the artist and the audience, and how much that fascinates him.
“I really embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience,” Bowie says. He continues on to talk about how the 1980s and 1990s saw a tremendous fragmentation of musical genres, which he sees as positive for establishing interesting communities.
“But what is it specifically about the internet?” Paxman asks. “Anybody can say anything, and it all adds up to what? It seems to me there’s nothing cohesive about it in the way that there was something cohesive about the Youth Revolution in music.”
“Oh, but absolutely,” Bowie says. “And I think it’s because at the time, up until at least the mid-’70s, we really felt that we were still living under the guise of a single, absolute, created society — where there were known truths and known lies and there was no kind of duplicity or pluralism about the things that we believed in.”
“That started to break down rapidly in the ’70s,” Bowie continues. “And the idea of a duality in the way that we live — there were always two, three, four, five sides to every question. That the singularity disappeared. And that I believe has produced such a medium as the internet, which absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.”
BBC interviewer Jeremey Paxman, who doesn’t quite believe Bowie’s optimism for this newfangled “internet” thing (BBC/YouTube)
Paxman expresses extreme scepticism that the internet will have much impact on the world at all. And Bowie can’t help but ridicule this line of thinking.
“You’ve got to think that some of the claims being made for it are hugely exaggerated, I mean, when the telephone was invented…” Paxman begins.
“Of course they are,” Bowie interrupts with a cheeky grin.
“…people made amazing claims…” Paxman says trying to finish his point.
“I know, the president at the time, when it was first invented, it was outrageous,” Bowie continued. “He said he foresaw the time when every town in America would have a telephone. How dare he claim like that. Absolute bullshit.”
“No, you see, I don’t agree,” Bowie said after delivering his sarcastic verbal spanking to Paxman. “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
“It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?” Paxman says, clearly still believing that Bowie is making something out of nothing.
“No, no, it’s an alien life form,” Bowie says with a laugh.
“What do you think then…” Paxman says.
“Is there life on Mars?” Bowie shoots back. “Yes, it’s just landed here.”
“But it’s simply a different delivery system there,” Paxman says, holding his ground. “You’re arguing about something more profound.”
“Yeah, I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment,” Bowie says. “With the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”