Digerati - Chapter 8

Digerati - Chapter 8

John C. Dvorak [10.1.96]

Chapter 8


John C. Dvorak  

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): John C. Dvorak is definitely an industry gadfly, but he's worked at being one. Everything with John is incredibly calculated. If you talk to John much you'll realize that he thinks about things like cross-marketing himself. What an absolutely bizarre concept. But he's really the funniest person in the personal computer industry, he's one of the most irreverent, and he doesn't tolerate all the bullshit that goes down, which is my favorite quality about him. He doesn't buy into this vision shit and he's a useful antidote to the mass delirium that goes on around technology.

John C. Dvorak is a columnist for PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and Boardwatch; the host of Real Computing, a radio program broadcast on one hundred public stations; and the software reviewer for C-Net Central, a nationwide cable TV show.

"What we're dealing with is not really a content revolution," says John C. Dvorak. "In fact, the computer revolution is not even supplanting the Industrial Revolution. These computers that do things we couldn't do before with our brains, with our bodies, are just another new extension to man." Pretty good, I think to myself. Lip-synching Marshall McLuhan! He's got the words down. Even the rhythm's right. Marshall, whom I got to know when he spent a year at Fordham University in 1967, is probably up there somewhere, delighted that thirty-three years after the publication of Understanding Media, his words reverberate in the deep recesses of John's skull.

"The revolution is in the increased communication capability," John explains. "This is a continuation of what started well before the Industrial Revolution. Genghis Khan was one of the first to grasp the concept of the necessity of quick transmittal of information. He had horses positioned every twenty miles, and when guys were out a horse, and they jumped on the next one and the next one. They made two hundred miles a day, which was a big deal back in the year 1200. Now we can do everything instantly, worldwide. It's frightening."

John is The Gadfly. He has been a major industry columnist for fifteen years. First he wrote the "Inside Track" column for InfoWorld, before he jumped in 1986 to PC. Today he's a one-man column factory, and he's on radio and television as well. People read him for his biting wit, his inside intelligence, and his sense of humor‹unparalleled in an industry not known for laughter. If I were pitching his story to a Hollywood studio, I would describe him as "Don Imus meets David Letterman."

I met John in the early '80s on the floor of Comdex in Las Vegas, where he must have learned the secrets of success that have served him well over the years. First, there was Dvorak's daily walk, a party in motion, through the miles of exhibits, during which he was trailed by media people, various cognoscenti, and me. He always had an endless supply of insights and wisecracks. Second, there was "Dvorak's Unofficial Party List," on which he kept a tight rein, and which, if you were lucky, might provide you with the necessary information to crash the big events of Commodore, Osborne, Visicorp, Digital Research, and other dominant industry players. Third, there was his uncanny ability to go through life without paying for anything. Who needs credit cards, who needs cash, when people are throwing gourmet food and cases of wine, champagne, computers, and software at you simply for walking by their booth and insulting them in person and in print?

After a decade and a half, I can personally confirm that John has not lost his touch.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): Content is anything that contains information; it's a shortened form of the term information content. It could be art, it could be a picture, it could be a video, it could be an essay, it could be an old magazine, it could be a live TV feed from the freeway showing you that the road is clear and you can now get in your car and go someplace.

Audience is always delivered by some form of content. People want to find something out when they visit a Web site, whether it's how to pick up a prostitute in Las Vegas or where to get the best coffee in the world, which incidentally comes from some obscure farm in Mexico at $15 a pound. Ultimately, content is the realm of personalities and writers and auteurs who can create it. I think people want new content more than they want old content.

We're seeing a couple different kinds of interactivity. The first is online interactivity, people talking to each other about different topics that interest them, but at a low bandwidth an a slow speed. It's a group thing, and it has a sense of anonymity that people like. They can spew out their thoughts without having to worry about somebody ridiculing them for being an idiot. People like to interact, and anonymous interactivity has an appeal. But it's an entertainment vehicle. I don't think any substance is involved. It's just fun.

Tn the other kind of interactivity, people interact with, for example, a television program. This is something they've been trying to do for decades, and nobody's really interested. David Letterman said he went to one of those movies where the audience got to pick the ending, and he joked that he went to see the movie, not to write it. People don't want to interact with everything; sometimes they want to sit back and relax. I don't want to interact with the book I'm reading. I just want to read it!

Community is an issue here. Are we really little network clubs that allow somebody in Ohio and somebody in Pennsylvania and somebody in Florida to get together and talk about canaries? These communities are false because a community requires close person-to-person contact over a period of time within a certain region. Genuine communities are not separated and fragmented. I've seen too many instances where an online community appears to be solid, like a little town, and then it deteriorates. It turns out that one member is a complete phoney, and another just got arrested, and one guy is really a woman. Too much lying goes on for the online community to exist except in this very shallow, weak form; it is unable to withstand the pressures that would be put on a real community. These are fake institutions.

The Well is an interesting phenomenon because it pretends to be a community, but is getting slick now and is going to start falling by the wayside. One member committed suicide. Before he died, he somehow hacked The Well and erased all evidence of his existence. This got The Well all atitter for a very short period. Ultimately, though, it was just one of those head scratchers that occurred in an isolated moment in time, like watching a weird news report.

Intellectual property issues are where the lawyers are going to make all their money. Over the last decade, publishers have been trying to wrest control of authors' rights to such an extent that it's hard for authors to retain electronic rights to their work. If you're writing for magazines, publishers usually want you to work under a work-for-hire contract, where you give away your copyright. Publishers see a bonanza down the road in terms of electronic rights and electronic distribution. They have no model that proves they can make a nickel on this stuff, but there's a greed factor. They've decided to try and get all the rights from the writers up front. Writers have to resist. Too many writers say, "I'd just as soon write for free if my ideas can get out there." These guys with all that idealistic crap are hurting everyone else.

We've got all this information, and someone is going to have to decide if it's good information or bad information. Unfortunately it's the end-user who too often makes that decision. Eventually it will all be done through clearinghouses, and we'll have the same situation we do with magazines or newspapers. You have to trust editors to look at the information, have their meetings, and say, "This is good information. This is what you should know about." Reliability is going to be a big issue in the next century.

People seem to lose all sense of reality about the computer scene. It's not as radical as everyone would like to believe. We like to think of ourselves as being in the middle of a revolution. It makes us feel a lot better at the beginning of this massive societal upheaval. Anyone who thinks that DOS is going to be around in a thousand years is nuts, because even within recent memory we've lost a number of operating systems. The old Commodore machines have been put aside, and the CP/M world is all but dead. These things are changing quickly because of the inadequacy of the software available today. Most of the stuff won't be with us ten years from now.

One of the reasons we're having these weird conversations about computer technology is that we're basically an agricultural society too easily wowed by technology. The World Wide Web is pretty boring if you look at it objectively. Compare the six-channel Dolby movie, which is a spectacular piece of technology and amazing to watch, with the sluggish World Wide Web, which has a few graphics here and there. It's ridiculous to be too giddy over the Web and these other computer-based technologies.

I don't think the Web is going to make money for anybody until things smoothen out a bit. Right now it's a rough go. People aren't going to pay a lot to go on the Web and wait forever for a site to be accessed. Nicholas Negroponte got this one right when he said that we're going to nickel-and-dime people to death with small transactions. It's all going to have to be done with e-cash. People will end up subscribing to some system or other, and when they want to use a service it's going to cost them a nickel. People are going to say, "Oh, it's only a nickel," so they'll go along with it.

Many people have opened up archives on the Web, and there's an I-can-do-better-than-you attitude among Web sites. Someone says, "Well, I'm going to see if I can post the entire library of our university on the Web." What's the value of that to the average guy? It's valuable to me because I can find an old book that somebody wrote in 1890, download a copy on my computer, and search the downloaded text for a particular reference, instead of having to read the whole damn thing. This is terrific if you're a researcher or a writer or you're in the arts. But what is the guy who drives a taxi going to get out of the Web? Maybe he'll learn something; maybe he'll get a different job; maybe he likes being a taxi driver. I'm not absolutely sure that the Web is universally valuable. The Web, the Internet, the entire computer scene, may be stratifying society in ways that aren't particularly healthy.

Privacy is dead and there's nothing you can do about it. Instead of Big Brother, we have Little Brother, and he's watching all the time with his camcorder. It's going to become very difficult to maintain privacy over the long haul. There's just too much intrusion. We're going to have to live with the fact that our lives are now subject to public scrutiny. That's why these fringe groups lock themselves away in Montana or Idaho. They sense that this is happening and they can't stand it.

A couple of institutions will be affected adversely by the changes in communications. One is the newspaper business. If I want news, I can go online. I can get all of today's stories. I can get in-depth stories. I can go to the Los Angeles Times and to Time, which has a daily service. The newspapers have got a real problem on their hands. The numbers show it, and it's getting worse. It's not just the news. If I want to buy a Nikon camera, I can go to the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and a bunch of other places around the country and search the want ads from all these newspapers at once online. I don't see how newspapers in print form, especially with the rising cost of paper, are going to survive. Magazines have a better chance of surviving because they have a higher bandwidth: hi-res color. Even they are probably doomed at some point, when special-interest Web publishing becomes more common.

Newspapers are specifically protected under the Bill of Rights but other media are not protected adequately for my taste. Worse still, I am concerned that NBC is owned by General Electric, CBS by Westinghouse, ABC by Disney. GE and Westinghouse are companies that had price-fixing scandals in the '50s. Now they own two of the three major networks. The fact that the government allowed this to happen is astonishing to me. You have to question what kind of investigative reporting these networks would ever do about Westinghouse and GE. Do you think any could run a negative story about the company that owns it? That's not likely to happen. The potential for losing control of our press freedoms is quite high and disturbs me more than anything.

THE PRAGMATIST (Stewart Alsop): Dvorak is the David Letterman of the PC industry. He once told me that you have to make a third of the people happy and a third of the people unhappy at any one time. I've used that often.

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): My Dvorak story: I was at Comdex and one of our investors introduced me to Dvorak: "This is the founder of Wired. All this exciting stuff's going to happen. You really ought to know these people and follow what they do." Dvorak wouldn't even speak to me. The next day I see him in the airport. I'm wearing an extremely curvy suit, and I am kind of dolled up. He comes up and says, "Hi! John Dvorak! Nice to meet you." I'm thinking, "Yeah, I'm the same person you blew off last night."

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Every industry needs a contrarian, and John Dvorak's a damn good one. That saidŠbetter him than me.

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): Dvorak demonstrates that a small amount of knowledge, a large amount of attitude, and a good organization can bring in the bucks.

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): Widely read indeed. Widely respected?

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): He's even funnier in person than he is in print. He's a very funny guy.

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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.