Everyone knows David Bowie as a fashion pioneer and a musical visionary, but the man alternately known as the Thin White Duke / Ziggy Stardust / Jareth the Goblin King was also a tech trailblazer. In 1994, Bowie released a CD ROM alongside his track "Jump, They Say," which let buyers make their own accompanying music video, and he was one of the first major artists to put a new song — 1996's "Telling Lies" — out exclusively on the internet, selling 300,000 copies in the process. He even helped the New York Yankees make its first website, but Bowie didn't stop there.
In 1998, he announced the creation of his own ISP, a service that gave users internet access and entry to a vast trove of his photos, videos, and songs, as well as the promise of an exclusive look at his upcoming material and web chats hosted by the artist himself. BowieNet, as it was called, cost $19.95 a month and looks prescient today. It gave users 5 megabytes of space to create their own personal sites, and inserted music and video plugins to regular webpages, creating what The Guardian describes as "in effect a music-centric social network," years before the rise of MySpace and Facebook.
BowieNet came at a time when the internet was only slowly transitioning from curio to integral part of human existence, but it's clear Bowie saw this change coming. This is best shown in an interview he conducted with Jeremy Paxman — a famed figure in the UK for his Rottweiler-esque political interviews — about the technology, and what it meant for the future of media and the relationship between creator and fan. In a clip of the interview edited by FACT Magazine, Paxman sneers at the web, calling it "just a tool," and a "different delivery system," but Bowie steps in. "I don't agree," he says.
"What the internet is going to do to society is unimaginable."
"We're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying," he tells a frowning Paxman. "The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment — the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it's going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about." Specifically, he says the barriers between creator and audience will be further eroded, predicting the rise of services like Twitter and Instagram that give us windows into our idols' lives. "I embrace the idea there's a demystification process going on between the artist and the audience," he says, describing the internet as "a communal power" that was helping media become more and more about the audience and less about monolithic era-defining artists like The Beatles.
He says that the internet, rather than rock music, was becoming the conveyer of rebellion in society. If he was born later, Bowie says he wouldn't have been a musician at all because the counter-culture inherent in music in the 1970s had long departed, with music in the late '90s "a career opportunity." The web, instead, was the new wild frontier, a technology that would break barriers and change context in the way human beings communicate and grow. "I don't think we've even seen the tip of the iceberg," Bowie says as his interviewer is unable to picture the future we're already living in, just 15 years later. "What the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable."