Brockman's digerati are lookers, not doers
Can 33 "cyber elite" say anything important about the Information Age?
John Brockman, the pre-eminent literary agent of the cyberworld, gathers a circle of illustrious cyberfriends to talk about themselves, each other, and the Information Age, in Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite. But do they really say anything? And are they the right people to be talking about what's really happening in cyberspace? (1,900 words)
To those familiar with Brockman's subjects, the most interesting thing about Digerati is not so much what is said as who is interviewed. Granted -- as Brockman points out in his prefatory material -- part of the selection criteria included who was available and who felt like talking. But, in case we didn't know already, we discover that Brockman is an insider who has walked among many of these illustrious netizens for years; these people were willing to sit in front of a video camera and talk about the cyberworld, their businesses, technology, or whatever else they find interesting.
Who are Brockman's digerati? The list reflects a heavy bias toward the journalists, publishers, pundits, prognosticators, and deep thinkers of the cyberworld. Among the journalists are two of my own morning reading sources: John Markoff and Denise Caruso of the New York Times. All of the major figures at Wired magazine are present -- not surprising since their hardcopy publishing division published this book -- as are gadflies John Dvorak and Dave Winer, and magazine luminaries Stewart Alsop (InfoWorld) and David Bunnell (PC Magazine). There are monochromatic ideologues like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Perry Barlow and Clifford Stoll of The Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil fame, and seers like Esther Dyson and Paul Saffo. Out of academia come Sherry Turkle (MIT) and David Gelernter (Yale). Most of the key figures from the old Thinking Machines Inc. are present, including Daniel Hillis (now with Disney), Brewster Kahle (now with America Online), and Lew Tucker (now with Sun's JavaSoft division). Jaron Lanier, the idiosyncratic thinker of virtual reality fame, is here, as is Stewart Brand of The WELL.
Oh, yeah, and there are some people from actual businesses in the book too: Bill Gates of Microsoft, Scott McNealy of Sun, Steve Case and Ted Leonsis of AOL, and Doug Carlston of Broderbund. Plus there are a couple of seemingly random people from Silicon Graphics and representatives of a couple of key techno-trends: CD-ROM publishing (Bob Stein of Voyager) and "virtual worlds" (Linda Stone of Microsoft).
Lookers, not doers
Notice the pattern? The list is long on hardcopy content creators and documenters of cyberspace, because that's the area that Brockman operates in. Besides being an author, he is a literary agent and a principal in Content.Com, a New York City "Silicon Alley" company that promises to be to NYC in the 90s what Thinking Machines was to Cambridge, MA, in the 80s (draw your own conclusions). The list is also long on the type of thinkers who have contributed sound bytes rather than products -- the ones on journalists' first-call lists who, in the words of one of the pundits here, "give good quote." In other words, Brockman's digerati are largely the observers, not the doers.
There are two types of "doers" that have scant representation in this book. First are the people who have contributed technological innovations with real, practical impact on cyberspace. Although McNealy, Gates, and Case are there as acknowledged giants of the hardware, software, and online businesses, where are Larry Ellison of Oracle, John Chambers of Cisco, or any of the principals of Netscape? Any serious overview of "community" in cyberspace ought also to include Ray Ozzie of Lotus Notes fame, the man who put groupware on the map. What about the "push" technology representatives, like Marimba's Kim Polese? Where are Tim Berners-Lee and James Gosling to talk about their creations, HTML and Java? (Lew Tucker, who manages JavaSoft's developer relations function, does the Java evangelizing here, as does Scott McNealy.)
The other type of doer largely missing is the type who actually runs a successful Web site. All of the critics and observers are there, but -- apart from Wired's HotWired and, maybe, AOL -- there is scant representation from the people who actually "do" cyberspace. Where are Jerry Yang of Yahoo!, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, or Paul Sagan, (formerly) of Time Warner Pathfinder, to name but a few examples?
I don't doubt at all that Brockman invited some of these kinds of people to participate, but apparently he didn't have enough pull with them. Brockman clearly represents a particular thread of the cyberscene, one that involves the branch of 60s creative idealists who (like Timothy Leary) saw the information-technology world as their next utopian playground after the novelty of LSD wore off, and who (unlike Timothy Leary) made important contributions to new media. This group of people, amply represented in this book, does include many of the pioneers of the online world, but most of these people are now, like the other reporters and pundits, on the outside looking in. They are not generating the action, they are simply commenting on it.
Brockman makes some mention here of the controversy that Wired generated a few years ago when they put heads of commercial businesses (like Bill Gates) on their covers. He defends Wired for simply responding to the inevitable movement of the cyberculture from the fringes into the commercial, mainstream domain. But he hasn't gone far enough in doing the same in his own book.
Carrying a big shtick
As for how Digerati is to read, it's fun at first, but it gets samey after a while. Some of these people may well be genuine deep thinkers, great writers, incisive journalists, or sharp businesspeople, but you'd hardly know it from reading their monologues, which average about a half-dozen pages each. They all deal with the same themes: we're on the brink of a new era; there's revolution in the air; the old order is fading away; we can't comprehend the scope of sociological changes to come; we need new types of creative talent for new media; it's not about content, it's about community; blah, blah, blah.
This is cocktail-party palaver, not provocative thinking; it's the equivalent of the pieces that many of these subjects have contributed to Wired. In some cases, the subjects are just using the opportunity to advance their own agendas and tout the party line; this is especially true of the business types. Scott McNealy, for example, sounds like he gave Brockman a standard top-level Sun corporate spiel of the kind that he probably gives to Fortune 500 executives regularly. Clifford Stoll trots out his tiresome "luddite" shtick from Silicon Snake Oil. Paul Saffo gets on his "cheap lasers are the future" hobbyhorse. Otherwise, the messages get so repetitive that it's hard to take more than a few at one sitting.
The book is valuable as an introduction -- a sort of anthology of the voices of cyberspace. If you don't know who some of these people are, it will give you a good taste of what they're all about. The only actual revelations come from a couple of the journalists, whose jobs are normally to report and keep their opinions to themselves. I learned that John Markoff is a Marxist, Macintosh lover, and Windows hater; and that Denise Caruso knows how to stir up controversy more than she knows what she's talking about. More seriously, I also learned some interesting things from the legal types, Mike Godwin (of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and David Johnson (of Counsel Connect, an online service for lawyers), about the inadequacies of America's present legal framework in coping with online issues like privacy and intellectual property. And some of the "deep thinkers," like Jaron Lanier and Sherry Turkle, have unique ways of throwing new light on certain concepts.
Nevertheless, if you were a critical thinker and you had to base your knowledge of the cyberspace scene solely from the contents of this book, you would inevitably come to the conclusion that cyberspace is some sort of pop-culture trend writ large, like the California surf scene, Woodstock, or hip-hop. Reinforcing this feeling are Brockman's chapter intros, in which he provides background on the interviewee in question. Most of them are puff pieces dotted liberally with how-I-helped-launch-his-career name-dropping. Brockman is doing here what he clearly does best: he is acting like an agent; and like most agents, he probably wishes he were more of a "doer" himself. These pieces read like more literate and stylized versions of Johnny Carson guest intros. At the end of each chapter, the book presents comments that other cyber elites have made about the chapter's subject. Most of these -- with the notable exception of John Dvorak's -- sound like the good old days when Johnny Carson's guests puffed each other up in front of the television cameras, a la "A wonduhful entuhtainuh and a close personal friend." Bill Gates' comments are particularly antiseptic (e.g., "John [Markoff]'s a great journalist. He's been around for a long time.").
The real value of the digerati concept would be to show the personalities and styles of the various bigwigs. Unfortunately, a book is the wrong medium for this. Brockman did a fine job in whittling down lots and lots of videotape -- undoubtedly containing everything from impromptu eloquence to rote speechmaking to utter incoherence -- into similarly-formatted monologues. But in the process, he filtered out much of each subject's uniqueness. This is exactly the kind of material that would make a fascinating TV series; surely there must be a million miles of difference in personalities between, say, Bill Gates and Jaron Lanier, or Scott McNealy and Bob Stein. That doesn't come through in this book, although Brockman does have some digitized audio and video from the interviews available on the book's companion Web site. The book is most valuable as an appetite-whetter for those not familiar with its subjects. But even then, it presents pictures of too limited a list of luminaries to truly represent the phenomenon called "cyberspace."
Title: Digerati: Encounters With the Cyber Elite
Author: John Brockman
List price: $24.95
About the author
Bill Rosenblatt is market development manager for media and publishing industries at Sun Microsystems. Reach Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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