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David Bowie
Image: Getty Images/A.H. Walker

RIP Bowie: Internet technologist, futurist

Zulfikar Abbany
January 11, 2016

David Bowie is lauded for his ever-changing music, style and innovative approach to art. But it's often forgotten that he was also one of the first artists to recognize the potential of the Internet.


Is it disrespectful of the dead to admit I was never a huge Bowie fan? I tried and I tried, but his music never truly found its way into my heart. Perhaps it was the one thing he is most lauded for - his endless innovation - that always gave me the feeling that the art in his music towered over its soul, even when he did soul music.

But it's that very same innovation that makes me think Bowie was one of the greatest futurists who ever strutted his stuff on Earth.

Late into his career, Bowie reinvented himself for the umteenth time, but in ways many may have forgotten. He became an Internet pioneer. To be precise, an Internet service provider.

Forever futurist

In 1998, this working class lad from South London launched BowieNet (davidbowie.com), initially in North America and then in the rest of the world.

BowieNet aimed to provide subscribers with (at the time) a high-speed Internet connection, email service, a unique Bowie browser, a community for fans to interact and exchange ideas, build customizable home pages and get access to digital releases of unreleased new music.

It was the first "artist-created" ISP and possibly the first instance of what we now call "social media." It thrust the artist yet farther ahead of the pack.

This was a time, don't forget, when other artists believed the Internet heralded their artistic and financial ruin.

Bowie touring
Bowie touring "Reality" - an album he launch with an interactive eventImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Rickett

But not Bowie. Forever a keen businessman, he sought to maintain control of his creativity by embracing the future of technology.

BowieNet wasn't his first foray. He had already distributed new music - the song "Telling Lies" in 1996 - as an online-only release. With over 300,000 downloads, it was a success on a par with the heyday of seven-inch singles.

He had also toyed with CD-ROM technology, allowing fans to create their own video for the song "Jump They Say."

The Internet is "chaotic and nihilistic"

In 2000, Bowie was interviewed by the prominent British journalist Jeremy Paxman. Paxman has his own reputation for pushing boundaries. But Bowie left Paxman way behind.

At one point Bowie tells an incredulous Paxman, "The Internet carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious, and chaotic and nihilistic."

Paxman reels back in his chair with a look of crumpled disbelief - and Bowie pounces right back in:

"Oh, yes it is," he says. "Forget about the Microsoft element. The monopolies do not have a monopoly … I embrace the idea that there is a demystification process going on between the artist and the audience … It's about the community. It's becoming more and more about the audience."

And with that Bowie foresaw the future advent of social media. He predicted that "the context and state of content" would change radically and "crush the ideas of what mediums are all about."

Essentially, he saw the future - our present - of music and video streaming services at a time when most other artists were shouting at the Internet as though it were the devil.

Remember: Two years after Bowie launched BowieNet, American rock monsters Metallica took the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster to court for copyright infringement and an unlawful use of digital devices. A lot of good that did.

Yet, as with all the best visionaries, Bowie's tone was more measured than evangelical.

"I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. We're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying," Bowie told Paxman.

Aside from his ISP, which was nominated in 1999 for the WIRED Award for Best Entertainment Site of the Year, Bowie also launched an Internet radio station before the dawn of the new millennium.

And in 2001, he launched his album "Reality" with what was said to be the world's largest live, interactive satellite event.

Alien lifeform

Musically, he may have been past his prime, but Bowie was raging at the head of a pack of younger artists (both in age and volume of work), such as the Future Sound of London and Coldcut, who were themselves experimenting with similar technology, such as interactive music software, and concerts transmitted between London and New York via ISDN.

In 1997, Bowie attempted to broadcast a concert (a "cybercast"), but bandwidth limitations let him down.

Bowie's aptitude for futurism also saw him start his own bank. He created Bowie Bonds, a conduit for selling future earnings on his catalogue. With Bowie Bonds, he became his own tech venture capitalist (another invention), reselling and reinvesting himself to score enough cash for his next Internet company.

"It's just a tool, though, isn't it?" says Paxman, still not buying Bowie's vision of the web.

"No," laughs Bowie, "it's an alien life form."

And he, if anyone, would know.

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