Digerati - Chapter 19

Digerati - Chapter 19

John Markoff [10.1.96]

Chapter 19


John Markoff

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Markoff is a special kind of infonaut. He has an academic's curiosity and doggedness, but his wonderful practical streak, much to our good fortune, means he's writing in The New York Times rather than in some dry academic journal. The important thing about Markoff is that he doesn't just get the scoop. He gets the scoop behind the scoop. He tells us about something we didn't know was happening, then goes down another layer to what it means in the larger context.

John Markoff covers the computer industry and technology for The New York Times. He is the coauthor of The High Cost of High Tech (with Lennie Siegel, 1985); Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (with Katie Hafner, 1991); and Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw (with Tsutomu Shimomura, 1995). 

John Markoff (alias "Scoop") is the technology correspondent of The New York Times. He's in a class by himself. No one writes about technology the way he does. David Bunnell, no slouch as a computer industry journalist, says, "I know people who say the only reason they read The New York Times is to read Markoff. A technology writer who sells newspapers‹that is remarkable."

Markoff is "The Scribe." He creates his own stories. He gets the scoop. Never will you find him crawling on the floor searching for crumbs of intellectual property. He is knowledgeable, almost professorial. He's a pro, a working journalist who covers all the bases and gets the job done. Just as important, he is an enthusiast. It matters to him that he can buy a notebook computer with a 150 MHz CPU speed. He wants that new disk drive with 256K cache.

Markoff and I have an interesting relationship. With regard to computers and software, I do whatever he tells me to do. No questions asked. In return for my complete and utter supplication, Scoop is my tech-support guy. I call him at least once a day at The New York Times. No story is too big, no deadline too urgent: he drops whatever he is doing and tells me how to reinstall my system software, lectures me on the intricacies of TCP/IP protocols, advises me on setting up an email bozo filter.

There are only two exceptions to his extraordinary solicitude. If I lapse into DOS talk, he'll quietly sigh in resignation and say, "What do you want from me? Call Dvorak." Then there is that unmentionable word, which, if uttered, guarantees an instant disconnect of (a) my telephone to Markoff's telephone, and (b) Markoff from his senses.

And what might that word be? To be explicit would risk my friendship with Scoop and, more important, void my lifetime tech-support contract. Then one day while I was on my farm sitting on the porch and watching the corn grow, I was talking to Markoff on the phone as a thunderstorm began. "Scoop," I said, "it's pouring. Hold on while I close the windows."


Then there is Markoff's secret, which he bared to me while we walked in the Arizona desert in 1984 during Esther Dyson's PC Forum. Although we were attending a high-powered computer industry conference, from the conversation you would have thought that we were at a 1968 SDS meeting in Berkeley. Scoop told me something remarkable that has remained unknown to his friends, his sources, his masters at The New York Times Company, and the computer moguls whose IPOs, mergers, buyouts, and bankruptcies he covers.

He confided to me that he is a Marxist. That's the scoop on Scoop, and it may explain why some executives at the companies he covers are frequently unhappy about his articles. (Today, by the way, he proclaims himself a political agnostic. But then, didn't Marx claim that he wasn't a Marxist?)

Next came the bombshell‹his reporting for the New York Times is not to be taken at face value. Deeply embedded in the text is Markoff's daily secret message‹in code! I didn't believe it when he told me. I spent the next five years voraciously reading his column, attempting thousands of acrostic combinations. I was getting nowhere. It was only two years ago when Danny Hillis let me beta-test one of Thinking Machines' powerful CM-5 parallel processing computers that I became the first to break what is now known as "The Markovian Acrostic."

Check out the following lead paragraphs from his New York Times article (Section D; Page 4; June 13, 1996):


The Microsoft Corporation will take another step in its effort to overtake the Netscape Communications Corporation in the market for Internet software when it presents a number of new technologies to 300 corporate executives at a meeting Thursday in San Jose, California. But Netscape moved to pre-empt Microsoft today, saying that 92 of the nation's largest 100 companies were already using Netscape's products. Netscape, based in Mountain View, Calif., also detailed its own strategy, describing the next-generation versions of its Navigator program for browsing the Internet and its Suite Spot server software for the World Wide Web.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): We are in the Model T phase of this new and interesting ecology, and there are all kinds of innovations and new protocols that will permit different kinds of human interaction. When we go from limited bandwidth into real broadband stuff, the Net will get very interesting. But we are too close to make a judgment that the Internet is as important as fire or more important than the printing press. You have to give it time to see where it fits in the social milieu. There is evidence that the Internet may be an interim step, paving the way for the next big thing. We are still only halfway through Nicholas Negroponte's grand shift, from wireless to wired and from wired to wireless. We need to see how wireless technology is deployed before making grandiose judgments. The Internet is just a platform the way the PC was a platform, and the Mac was a platform. The Net is the next platform, but I don't think it's the last platform.

I was optimistic about the grand promise that the Internet would create a multiplicity of communities, until about a year ago. The Internet as it is today lacks the necessary bandwidth to give you a real community. Communities are as much about smell and texture and touch as they are about intellectual content. The Net is not going to be a substitute for the family and the close-in community. We're talking Yellow Pages here.

The World Wide Web has enabled a whole series of things because it was accessible to mortals‹allowing you to point and click instead of typing a set of arcane command sequences‹and because it resonated with whatever particular thing was happening. People were looking for the next big thing beyond personal computers, and the Web took off. It met some key minimum standard and then became a standard that is going to rival the personal computer. But it's not the last one. The Web created a platform for innovation, so innovation and growth move away from the PC to this new thing that's bubbling along.

But there are a couple of flies in the ointment. People say that there are 30 million people on the Internet. Let's deconstruct that number. The actual number of people who can get to your Web site at any given moment is not 30 million, because maybe 20 million of them use some sort of electronic mail system that might not be compatible and might have a gateway. So that cuts the figure to 10 million, which has to be broken down even further. The real figure is probably a million people. This is not a number to sneeze at, but it's certainly not 30 million. Until the next leap‹the Web is put into a consumer appliance, like your telephone, or your television, or something you can carry around with you, where it really is accessible to everybody‹it is still a playground for yuppies and intellectuals and engineers and people who work with computers, and is not societywide in any sense.

There is a tension between distribution and centralization. David Gelernter's centralized vision was remarkable because he really was out in front of it. When he wrote Mirror Worlds in the late '80s, no one had any sense of the power of computer networks. David had this idea of mirror worlds, just the way Ted Nelson had the idea of hypertext, but he couldn't implement it. The world rushed right by David. His notion that there will be terminals in supermarkets was the vision of a group of anarchists in Berkeley back in the early '80s, called Communion Memory, made up of Lee Feldenstein and his gang. But public terminals in public spaces make no sense. Silicon is free, so why would you want to share it? Why wouldn't you want your own? Why would you want to have to plug it in somewhere rather than have the data coming out of the ether? Practically as well as sociologically, it will make more sense to carry something. You carry a notebook with you right now, so why wouldn't you carry something you could perhaps talk to, something that could understand you?

Too much computer power is coming too quickly to think that the keyboard is going to be the interface in five or ten years. A grand inversion is going on in the computer industry. In the past, the people who built and designed and purchased supercomputers were the people‹or institutions‹who could afford them: the military, the Pentagon, large corporations. In the future, the fastest computers will also be the cheapest and will arrive under the Christmas tree first. The military and large corporations will follow. That is the nature of the technology.

Everybody thinks that Bill Gates is radically innovative, but if you look at the personal computer industry today and compare it with the mainframe industry of two decades ago, there were eight architectures at that point, IBM and the seven dwarfs. In the PC industry, we have two architectures. It is less innovative now than the mainframe business was. There is less competition. There are a million dwarfs making boxes and a couple of guys making software. This is going to lead to a huge computing crisis, and nobody sees it.

The nature of the computer has changed entirely. I buy into Kevin Kelly's point that the computer is basically a tool for communication. We saw inklings of that in wordprocessing as a communications vehicle. Communicate directly with someone, and the machines disappear entirely; that's the ideal. Why should you be tied to this machine at all? It should be tied to you: you should wear it, which is what the people at the Media Lab are pursuing.

Voice recognition has been a Holy Grail for thirty years. The interesting thing is that, along with Moore's Law, there's Joy's Law [named for Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems]. Both are geometric. Joy's Law is the same kind of geometric procession in MIPS, millions of instructions per second. Very quickly we are going to reach interesting levels of computing speed in something you can carry around in your hand, where it can do supercomputer kind of stuff, such as a huge dictionary that can recognize speech. Then all of a sudden you are free of the imprisoning keyboard, the imprisoning mouse. It's going to happen.

What comes out of Disney-ABC, Westinghouse-CBS, Time-Warner-TCI-Turner? This is a period like the late 1960s, when the perception was that the only way you could survive was if you were the largest. What is motivating these guys is essentially the perception that mine is bigger than yours. Will this ultimately lead to the same disastrous explosions that capped the merger period of the '60s? Moving large blocks of capital around is uninteresting; there's no value created. Netscape Corporation is an example of the process that has been marked by the rise of the personal computer, the workstation industry, the networking industry. Over and over again technology, largely spun out of government research programs, is being adopted for commercial use.The result is the creation of technologies that are changing the world. This is where the interesting stuff is happening. The renaissance is in the Valley, not in New York, and it doesn't look like it's slowing down, which is the one sign of hope. But I don't understand the interaction between the corporate giants. They are playing Monopoly, going around trying to put hotels on all the squares.

It's too early to bet on any particular technology. A corporate giant that wants to protect itself will have to take a cover-your-bases strategy, dabble in everything, and be prepared to commit heavily in something that seems it will win. If it's the Net, the corporate giants have to be there, but they are just going to be followers. They want to be tariff takers, the bridge-toll collectors of this new technology. I suppose they can capture it, although there is some hope that because the technology is interactive it won't be the kind of McLuhanesque global village we saw in the '60s and '70s, where there was one source broadcasting to millions of people. Perhaps, just the way personal computers made desktop publishing possible, this technology will democratize the ability to create content, and content will come from the grassroots. You will be able to create small design houses and production houses, outside the control of the gigantic, vast operations. The technology may move quickly enough so that it will be a decentralizing force. Obviously there's a tension there.

The idea of convergence is a myth. You have collisions, but you don't have convergence. Marx had a vision of the pianist as the performer who produced something that you couldn't turn into a commodity. Then there was this other thing, the recording, which was the commodification of the pianist's art. But they were two very different things. Maybe in the twenty-first century, when you can commodify everything, when everything becomes content, you will have this leveling process, and we will become entirely commercial beings.

Perhaps convergence means the coming together of all these spheres of creation, writers writing, performers playing, scientists creating, with this new world that Negroponte talks about, which is expressed best by saying it's all just bits. If it's all just bits, it's like money. There's an exchange mechanism, and everything is taken to the same digital level, and you have a very flat world. It's multimedia, but it's this gelatinous stuff. Maybe that is the convergence‹running the unique spheres of human activity through the Cuisinart of digitization. Maybe this is capitalism's last revenge, so that the universal commodity is not money, as it was in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century capitalism, but bits. Where does that lead? Technology does not substitute for creativity. It enhances creativity in places, but not if it's flattening the world and is the ultimate leveler.

A classic moment in the evolution of the Internet took place at the 1995 Neiman conference when Esther Dyson was talking about what the Web means for commerce with New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Sulzberger said, "We're the shopkeepers, and we're here, and we're your worse nightmare." There is a lot of truth to that. A small anarchic community of wireheads and hackers made the mistake of giving fire to the masses. Nobody is going to give it back. It is paradise lost. This wonderful community is not a community anymore. It's a society. It is a city on the Net, and in the back alleys of this electronic city, people are getting rolled. It is no different than being in New York. Let me be a couch potato if this is what Internet activity is about.

As an example, go to the chat lines. Anybody who has been around the Net for more than five years bemoans the declining standard of discourse because it is not an elite phenomenon anymore. It has become a mass phenomenon. I thought that the Net would be able to support both elites and mass culture and they would coexist. Now I am not so sure. This is what sociologist Herbert Marcuse predicted, a one-dimensional society, where everything becomes level, and there are no elites.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): Markoff is the journeyman reporter who should be a book writer. Get out of The New York Times!!!

THE SEARCHER (Brewster Kahle): John Markoff is one of the more insightful writers alive today. He does much more than journalism; he routs out the new trends that are about to come up. His front-page coverage of publishing on the Internet in 1991 was way ahead, even of the trade press.

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): John Markoff is the voice of the Digital Revolution. If John says it's important, it is.

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): John is the voice of sanity in an often insane field. There's no more exemplary journalist around the computer business.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Markoff is one of the people I look to for help in educating me about what's going on, to be a step ahead of me, to be putting things together for me. Markoff was one of the first people who started pointing to the Internet. He was excited about Mosaic almost before anybody knew what it was.

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): John's a great journalist. He's been around for a long time.

THE COMPETITOR (Scott McNealy): John is probably one of the most trusted and respected technology reporters in the business. You trust him to respect your opinion, to respect your off-the-record comments, and you expect him to understand what you're talking about, and not misrepresent‹or even worse‹represent inaccurately the industry trends. If there was one guy out there who I'd grant an exclusive interview to, if I could only give one, it would probably be John.

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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.