Digerati - Chapter 27

Digerati - Chapter 27

Bob Stein [10.1.96]

Chapter 27


Bob Stein

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Bob Stein is the professional maniac who is not afraid to go off and do something that seems absolutely absurd to everyone else who does not have his vision. People like Bob make things happen. He is the publisher born before his time, born before the printing presses were good enough to do the things he wanted to do.

Bob Stein is founder of the Voyager Company.

"There's a great need for some competent intellectual who understands Marxism and what Lenin and Mao added to it, who can apply that method of thinking to the digital transformation that's taking place." Bob Stein, CD-ROM and Internet publisher, is presenting a discourse on radical politics to me. "Somebody needs to write a political economy of digital culture," he continues. "We could use it. We need the [French sociologist Fernand] Braudel who wants to extrapolate forward with these technologies and try to really understand them."

I first heard about Bob in 1988, when his company, Voyager, released what is considered to be the first consumer CD-ROM, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, while also launching the Expanded Book Project.

After arranging licenses for the right to dozens of titles, Bob moved his company from Santa Monica to New York. In New York Voyager continued to play an important role in encouraging major houses to enter the electronic publishing arena.

For the inhabitants of corporate America, Bob is hard to read. He runs a business, and he strives for economic success, but as David Bunnell, himself an unrepentant '60s radical, notes, "Everything about Bob and his company flows from the fact that he marches to a different drummer. In a digital world filled with money-grubbing, heartless capitalists, Bob is doing work that enriches our culture and will endure long after the garish mansions of high-tech billionaires have crumbled and returned to dust."

Thus, you will find on the Voyager list a distinguished array of Modern Library literary works. You will also find a CD-ROM by award-winning journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who sits behind bars on Death Row convicted of murdering a police officer. First Person: Mumia Abu-Jamal‹Live From Death Row is evidence that Bob doesn't check his values at the door when he walks into his company every morning. He will devote as much space on Voyager's Internet Web site to anti-censorship forums as he does to his own commercial line.

Bob thinks deeply about the social ramifications of the communications revolution. He understands that the big battles looming in the digital realm are not the browser wars or open-versus-proprietary operating systems and platforms. "The subtext of what's happening is that we are changing the way that humans communicate with each other," he says. "This transition is going to take much longer than people talk about, and it may be a hundred years, two hundred years, before it settles out. This profound shift is more significant than the invention of the printing press, and the deep implications of it won't be known for some time. A thousand years from now, humanity will look back at the late part of the twentieth century as the time when something big started."

The big battle will be over how the Internet is shaped. Will it be a common carrier like the telephone system in which each individual has access or will it follow a broadcast model like TV in which only a few have the ability to make content available? According to Bob, the media companies want to control the Internet in a way that is comfortable for them, that insures their ability to make profits. These companies favor the broadcast model. "If an unknown in Nebraska has the same power to reach everybody as somebody at 75 Rockefeller Center," he says, "that's unsettling for somebody who's trying to make money. It's clear how the companies will organize themselves. What's not clear is how the people will organize themselves to maintain the freedom that we have right now on the Internet."

Bob Stein is "The Radical."

THE RADICAL (Bob Stein): The excitement about the Internet is that it is a common carrier. There are hundreds of thousands of Web pages created by people who are unknowns, and suddenly they're on the Internet on an equal basis to Time Warner and Sony.

What excited me from the beginning was letting authors express themselves in new ways, letting people see works in new ways, and letting them communicate with each other. I've been willing to use whatever technology has come down the pike, whether laserdiscs, videodiscs, CD-ROMs, or the Internet. The reality is that every medium has a unique capability. CD-ROMs are good at giving you a fairly large amount of audio-video and textual data in one place. If you want to give somebody reasonable-resolution video, high-resolution audio, and text, there is no other medium right now that does it like CD-ROM. A lot of the programs that I'm interested in producing require two hours of video, an hour of animation, and four hours of audio. Someday we'll have capability on the Net and we'll distribute products requiring high bandwidth that way.

For now, one of the keys is localness. I can have a book in my hand on the subway, and I read the first twenty pages. When I get off the subway, I curl down the corner of the page and take the book with me. I sit down at my coffee break, take out the book, and open it up again. It's all there and it's instantaneous. I can have a CD-ROM with me all the time. It has bookmarks and things like that. It's nowhere near as good as a book, but it's almost there. The Net requires me to be connected to a telephone, and it's not personalized in the way that it needs to be. For things that require twenty or thirty hours to go through, like a CD-ROM, it's nice to have them local, to own them and be able to have them at your beck and call. The Net is best for things that are much smaller to absorb. It is better for sound bites than for two-hour audio programs. That will change over time, but negotiating that divide will be interesting.

I assume that the future for all publishing is on the Net. In terms of Voyager, clearly we're not so established in any form of publishing that we could ignore the Net. We must establish ourselves as a leader, as we did in CD-ROMs. There's no way we could stay only in the CD-ROM world and survive. Our Web site gets, on the average, ten thousand hits a day. I'm happy with that number at this point. One of the nice things about having a company that's up and going is that we can put people to work on our Internet site, and most of what I'm doing now is Internet stuff. We're still evolving and growing, and we're not sure what direction we're going to go in yet.

Will today's hot content providers or filters, the HotWireds or Yahoo!s, be the same ones in existence five years from now? I tend to think the filters are more valuable than the content providers, unless the content providers are doing something unique, and of long-term value. The topical stuff we see from companies like HotWired makes it hard to believe that providing content is a prescription for success in the long run on the Net. The content providers who will end up being successful on the Net will be able to create material that you go back to over and over again.

Whenever a new technology comes to the fore, people glom on to it and do what they can. In capitalism, the tendency over a very short period of time is for the market winners in the first year or two to be co-opted and made into businesses so there's no longer any room for the individual. First you get a Netscape‹originally built as a Mosaic on a university campus for work-study money‹going public for $72 million. Next we have Yahoo!, a wonderful little site on the Internet, which basically kept track of all the other sites, and overnight it became a business. The window of opportunity for individuals is shorter than we'd like it to be.

Another much deeper concern in the long run is the contradiction between the technologists, who keep making and improving their technologies without thinking about their social implications, and the rest of us, who have to live with these technologies for the next hundred generations. The analogy is the car, although what we're doing is more significant than inventing the car. Sometimes when I give a talk I ask the following question: If you had the opportunity to invent the automobile, with foreknowledge of what it was going to do to society, not only in technical and environmental terms, but in social and economic, would you invent the it? I'm always amazed at the answer I get. The first part doesn't surprise me. Basically they say they would, because if they didn't, somebody else would. What I find more surprising is the hostility that comes from the audience when I ask, because they don't want to hear the question. They don't want the responsibility of having to think about the long-term implications of something as fundamental as the creation of the automobile or, what's probably much more significant, the development of new communications technologies.

The time must come fairly soon when poets and philosophers and artists, and the rest of us ordinary people, try to think about what we are inventing with these machines and how we're using them, in terms of the kind of society we want to have. If we continue on the same path, making machines without understanding the broader social framework in which they exist, we'll end up with something truly frightening.

At a conference I attended someone said it's becoming increasingly less common for architects to design structures that actually get built; instead they are designing virtual buildings. The reason is that there's not a lot of money out there for real buildings, so it's natural that architects would try to build where they could, which is in the virtual world. I was struck by how easily this went down with the audience I was in, because I was very disturbed that we're willing to accept that as a reality. It's not as if millions and millions, if not billions, of people don't need better housing, more beautiful public buildings, and better factories to work in.

The question is, What do we want in the real world? If we want to use electronic mail to lead to discussions that take place in physical places, with people looking at each other and talking to each other, I think it's great, but not if there are not enough people talking to each other face-to-face. I love my machine. I love the fact that I can use it to talk to people all over the world, but we can't use it this technology as a replacement for physical communication or physical presence. I'm somewhat suspicious of the movement toward developing a sense of community on the Net. I would much rather encourage the development of communities in the real world.

What people think are technical questions are really social questions. What society does with machines is up for grabs. This is especially true in education. There are those in the educational community who would just as soon use computers as baby-sitters and trainers of kids, there are others who would like to see these machines basically as intellectual prostheses to empower children. Between these two extremes, we've got what's going to happen, which is a social question rather than a technical one. Until there is a good discussion about what we should do with these machines, I don't see how using them in the schools is going to bring great benefits. If the schools are good before they get the machines, the machines don't change them very much. The kids who like computers will use them; lots of other kids won't. It's the schools that aren't good where the machines sometimes have a much bigger effect.

The short-term picture of what is happening is quite complicated because there is a cauldron of conflicting interests. You have people who are excited about the pure technological issues, who keep raising the ante every year, or every week. You have people who are excited about the possibility of making money using these advances, and who are thinking very short term. You have the broad masses of us who are just excited about the access we're getting to traditional material and content, and also about the new content being created and the way people are able electronically to talk to each other online. What I find most interesting is watching these different groups battle with each other. The Internet is going to be a place of tremendous struggle over the next several years.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): There seems to be some fundamental dissonance between running a for-profit company and what Bob Stein believes in, and I think that must make him uncomfortable.

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): Bob Stein is widely acknowledged as a pioneer in multimedia development, and if it weren't for him, people would not have understood the creative opportunity quite as early as they did. But a lot of his ideas are still locked in a previous generation of political thought, though: they seem to be less and less appropriate to the world we live in now.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Bob Stein can inspire you and he can piss you off, and he can do it at the same time. At some level, Bob is shy. He's very soft on the inside, and it causes him to be very hard on the outside, to protect himself.

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): If I was having a meeting, and I wanted somebody, in the most politic and kind way possible, to stir things up, Bob Stein would be on the invitation list.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.