Making a blind leap of faith

To Andy Nulman, the Internet is like a fridge: “You put stuff in. You take stuff out. And it’s really, really cool.”

Nulman, the “chief executive retina” for Montreal-based Web company Eyeball Glue and president of Internet start-up firm, spoke recently in Toronto about why “everybody’s perception of the Internet is wrong.”

Nulman compared people’s understanding of the Internet with the classic fable of The Blind Men and the Elephant.

According to Nulman, the fable describes how four blind men together had to describe an elephant, based on each of them touching only one part of it. So the man on top of the animal’s back felt the elephant was like a brush; the man who touched its trunk said it was like a snake; the man who felt its leg argued it was like a tree trunk; and the fourth one pulled its tail and concluded it was like a rope.

“Basically, this to me symbolizes people’s perception of the Internet. In my great and grandiose experience with the Internet, I’ve heard: ‘The Internet is like radio, because you get to hear all this stuff.’ Yeah, it is kind of like radio, but not really. I’ve heard: ‘The Internet is like the telephone, because you can call someone, or e-mail them.’ Well, yeah, it has that telephonic element to it, but it’s not a telephone. Or: ‘The Internet is television, because you can watch stuff.’ OK, yes, it does have a broadcast component, but it’s not really television either.”

He said a well-known producer from Los Angeles once told him he thought the Internet was nothing more than an extension of the distribution chain. “To this guy it was like… just another way to sell his crap. And I found that amazing to be so short sighted.”

Nulman said the container, or “the fridge,” is not what’s significant about the Internet. “It’s the stuff you put in – the content, the ‘food.’ That’s what’s important.”

He said he finds all the “doomsday scenarios” amusing as well. His favourite was a recent piece in Canadian Business, entitled How the Internet Killed Television.

“This is, I would say, a touch extreme,” he told the laughing audience. “I don’t know the last time you checked, ladies and gentlemen, but last time I turned on my TV – it worked! It was still there, the Internet had not yet killed it. And yet it shows the arrogance and the ignorance that surrounds this beast – this elephant that is the Internet.”

Nulman said it’s time to kill the mystique. “In essence the Internet is just a glorified two-cans-and-string. When you strip it down to its essentials, at the root of the Internet there is communication,” he said.

“At its core is interactivity, (which is) the single biggest difference from passive media like radio, television and newspapers. We watch TV, we read newspapers and magazines, but we use the Internet.”

But how we use it is up to us, Nulman said. “What a shame it would be if all the Internet was remembered for was pornography, buying antique lunch boxes or best sellers at 50 per cent off, or copying the latest ‘N Synch song. It would be a real pity.”

The Internet is a novelty right now, like cell phones used to be. But that will eventually wear off, he said. “So many people in this industry think that nothing exists outside of [the Web]. It’s a chauvinism rivalled only by show business. But the truth is, there are a lot more people out there not on the ‘net than on the ‘net. The hype is pervasive.”

But there is still hope, he said, because it is still early in the Internet’s existence. He illustrated the timeline of the Internet using one wall of the room as the beginning, and pointing to the far wall as the end. “Where are we right now?” he asked, and walked right up to the first wall. “I am a piece of paper on the wall – that’s where we are on the timeline of the Internet. It is still early enough to change things.”

What the Internet needs, Nulman said, is a cultural revolution – and creativity and communication need to be re-emphasised. Companies on the ‘net will survive by building communities, which will serve to raise the level of trust.

“Just think about that leap of faith. Would you give me a cheque right now if I said I would send you something when I got back to Montreal? No, there’s no hope in hell. But you’d send it to some guy in North Dakota for a Pez dispenser,” he said.

“So… if it’s not about technology and it’s not about dollars – what is the Internet about? Any guesses folks? It is about people. You and me. Those things at the other end of the screen.”