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Is the Web a 'vast wasteland?'

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The Internet is fast becoming the "vast wasteland" that some claimed television turned into after the forces of mass marketing took over the medium, critics said Thursday.

But they also held out hope that the self-repairing mechanisms of the Net could curb commercial excesses.

The comments -- and the heated rejoinders that followed -- came during the opening day of the Networked Entertainment World conference here, a show dedicated to exploring how entertainment will be delivered online.

"At moments, it does seem as if we are inventing the vaster wasteland" of cybermedia, said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, in Menlo Park, Calif. Saffo moderated a panel that included authors Neal Stephenson and Douglas Rushkoff, and Disney fellow Alan Kay.

One gripe: The forces of mass marketing are trying so hard to make a buck on the Net that their efforts eclipse the truly wonderful things that have been created on the Web. A risk is that many worthwhile but low-budget sites will be neglected.

Rushkoff said that although the Net has great potential for becoming an interactive medium and bringing people closer together, it has not realized that potential. Instead, some businesses seem intent on turning the Web into a TV-like passive medium.

"Hopefully, we can reinvent ourselves out of this mess," Saffo said.

Kay suggested that is likely, saying the Internet was designed with the lowest level protocols just so it would be easy to repair and grow.

When an audience member took issue with the suggestion that entertainment over the Web was somehow bad, Kay responded that there was nothing wrong with entertainment per se. The issue is with the mass-market push behind it.

The assessment of the Web as an expanding wasteland drew a blast from Mark Mariani, executive vice president of sales for CBS SportsLine. "To them, I'm the Antichrist," Mariani said.

He claimed the Net, far from being a wasteland, is already a boon to people who need information, want to be entertained, or want to buy goods instantly.

And he said that the Web will soon supplant some traditional kinds of media, such as daily newspapers. Though major national brands such as the Wall Street Journal will survive, it's likely that most newspapers will be pushed aside by the ability of the Internet to deliver instant, customized information instantly.

"Newspapers are going to go by the wayside, no doubt about it," he said.

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