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'The Dot.comedy of the eToystory'
(Peter Lunenfeld, at the Dec. 27 press conference. Peter Lunenfeld, Ph.D. teaches in the graduate program in Communication & New Media Design at Art Center College of Design, where in 1997 he sponsored a residency for two members of etoy.com. He is director of the Institute for Technology & Aesthetics (ITA), founder of mediawork: The Southern California New Media Working Group, author of Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Culture (MIT Press, 2000), and editor of The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media (MIT Press, 1999). His column, "User," appears in the journal art/text.)

etoy vs. eToys is more than just the David vs. Goliath cliché that's been covered in the media, it's the opening salvo in the 21st century's battle over cyberspace, and the ongoing struggle over identity and imagination on the World Wide Web. In newspapers and magazines around the world, at press conferences at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on internet listservs, and in court, the facts of the case were presented clearly: the on-line children's toy retailer eToys.com has instituted a suit against the etoy.com artists' collective. It would be laughable if it weren't so detestable and--at least so far--successful.

When a huge American company shuts down a collective of European net.artists because they won't sell a name they've had longer than them, it's more than an abuse of the U.S. legal system, it's an attempt to destroy a whole group's identity. To those who would question why etoy.com didn't just take the money and run, let's not forget that these are a group of young people who have dedicated the last five years of their lives to establishing an identity on-line. This identity is the very heart of their artistic practice, and on the Web your URL is your name is your address is your identity. To shut them down for not wanting to sell their identity is the height of corporate hubris. The actions of eToys.com further erode the notion that the Internet and the Web can and should be anything more than a technologized, suburban shopping mall.

There was a moment, not so very long ago, when those who first built and inhabited cyberspace had pretty utopian aspirations. They'd hoped that they had made a new place to do many of the things that people like to do in physical space, while at the same time transcending the distances that physical space had always imposed on human interaction. That pioneering generation was not averse to making money in these new spaces, and in fact many of them profited handsomely. But they also fought like hell to ensure that there were public spaces on-line where a range of voices could be heard and nurtured.

The dot.com explosion did bring about part of the original vision of a networked world, but its new class of internet billionaires have yet to offer us anything beyond their own wealth as inspiration. Yes, they have integrated shopping ever more fully into our daily lives, but a glorified mail order company like eToys.com does little to feed our imaginations for the future.

Hard as it might seem to believe, many of the same utopian claims made about the Web today were first offered about broadcast television in the 1950s and then cable in the 1970s. One reason people are so desperately fighting the actions of eToys.com is because we have seen how both broadcast and cable were swallowed whole by massive interlocking conglomerates, and how those early hopes for these media ended up travestied by the Jerry Springer Show and the Home Shopping Network.

Up to now, the Web has allowed a space for interesting hybrids like etoy.com, which is both a serious artists collective in the European avant-gardist tradition stretching from the Dadaists to the Situationist International, and also a group of young people who are playing with the codes of corporate conduct and the entertainment allure of pop celebrity. etoy.com successfully solicits business sponsors, offers shares in itself, issues investor updates, and even released a CD of electronic music. In other words, etoy.com simultaneously participates in and parodies this extraordinary dot.comedy in which we all play a part.

On one level then, it is no wonder that eToys.com overreacted to the perceived threat of these complex artists. But the anxieties of paper billionaires is no excuse for subverting the law, squelching creative expression, degrading the utopian aspirations of Web pioneers, and confirming the rest of the world's worst fears about ugly Americans armed with money and power.

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