Digerati - Chapter 25

Digerati - Chapter 25

Louis Rossetto [10.1.96]

Chapter 25


Louis Rossetto

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Louis popularized cyberspace. He took it out of the hands of an elite few and made it conceptually accessible to anyone who might want to participate.

Louis Rossetto is editor and publisher of Wired and HotWired, and cofounder and CEO of Wired Ventures, Inc. 

Louis Rossetto is playing games with me. It all started in the spring of 1995 when Louis began to take serious heat from the very Wiredcommunity he had created.

Louis had spent the late '80s living in Amsterdam running Electric Word, a magazine founded in 1986 and concerned with information processing, before returning to the United States in 1991 armed with a business plan for a new magazine. But he and his partner, Jane Metcalfe, met with a very quiet reception. It took a full year and countless rejections before they scored their first investor‹Nicholas Negroponte, who personally invested the $75,000 they needed to get started. In the four years since, the runaway success of Wired has spawned associated ventures: HotWired, a commercial Web site; HardWired, the publisher of this book; The Netizen Web site and TV show; and numerous international projects run under the umbrella of Wired Ventures, Inc.

Louis created the Wired culture. I disagree with those who say that he tapped into a preexisting culture. It wasn't there. Louis invented it. This success puts him in the same league with such publishing visionaries as Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone in the '60s and David Bunnell ofPC Magazine and PC World in the early '80s. It also makes him a target for those who can't bear other people's success. Thus, when Louis put corporate business leaders on the cover of Wired for three successive months in 1995, a number of people who have attitude toward money and business went ballistic, and Louis received heavy, sometimes abusive criticism (indeed, even from some of the people in this book). Some of those readers who considered Wired their magazine recoiled at what they considered to be the crass commercialization of their culture. Louis faced the wrath of readers over what was perceived as the sellout of their magazine and culture.

What was Louis to do? That's where I come in.

In the spring of 1995, I was interviewed by Wired about my book, The Third Culture, for a simple two-page spread with a picture and a short interview. According to Deep Disk, my secret spy at Wired, just before deadline, Louis called an editorial meeting in which he decreed that from that point on, Wired had to take a stand and lead the culture. The new policy called for taking the intellectual high road and promoting new and interesting ideas. According to Deep Disk, he then uttered the default word that people all over the world have used for the last three decades when the going gets tough: "Brockman!"

A month later, the August 1995 Wired came out with not just the interview about me, but also with- four pages of graphics, in a style Louis calls a "mind grenade." The latter took one of my statements and elevated it into a call to arms. What's more, Louis personally wrote the hyperbolic headline for the interview: "Agent of The Third Culture: John Brockman is the Michael Ovitz of The New Intellectual Elite."

Very cute, Louis. Forget Sumner Redstone, Frank Biondi, Ray Smith, Steve Brill. Now he was going for the gold, for Michael Ovitz, the most important player in the entertainment industry, who at the time was the head of Creative Artists Agency. "What is Louis up to?" I asked myself. "Why am I an 'Ovitz'?"

Nearly a year later, I was still confused, and I asked my friend Danny Hillis to help me with my confusion. By that time, both Danny and Ovitz had moved to Disney. "That's fine for you John, but what about Michael?" he asked, regarding his new boss. "If John Brockman is the Michael Ovitz of the new intellectual elite, do you think Michael is going to settle for just being the Michael Ovitz of everyone else?"

Because of Louis's copywriting talents, I am now someone worth listening to, and for that reason, his new publishing division, HardWired, outbid several New York publishers to acquire the rights to the book you are now reading.

Louis Rossetto is "The Buccaneer." Me? As Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnameable, "I'm in words, made of words, other's wordsŠ . I'm all these words, all these strangers."

THE BUCCANEER (Louis Rossetto): The Web is a lot of things. It's distribution, it's commerce, it's media. Our HotWired project was literally the first ad-supported original content site on the Web. Before HotWired, everyone was worried about whether the Net would accept advertising. John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr, Wired's creative directors, invented HotWired's advertising banner, which is now the industry standard. We launched a month before Netscape launched its first Web browser.

We are Web pioneers because we believe that this is the prototype for interactive media, which we are convinced will be the dominant media of the future. It's not CD-ROM, it's not interactive television (remember interactive television?). It is interactivity over the Internet, and the Web is the leading distribution channel. In five years, for a quarter of the population, this will be their main information and entertainment source. In twenty years, it will be everyone's.

With the Web we have the ability to use all media types: sound, text, moving images, and still images. We can mix them interactively, and involve the creators of the material, the propagators of the material, and the participants on the site itself, which would include users. To a large extent the Web is the users, not as just passive receptors of information, but as actual participants in shaping of the content and the dialogue around the content.

It's still the early days on the Web. Bandwidth is severely limited to most users, so the kinds of data we can deliver, while broad, are still limited. We can't deliver a half hour of video or put out an album of sound, because it would take forever to download. That will change.

What will come is still to be discovered. And I use the word discover pointedly. We're not inventing a new medium, we're discovering it, just as Lewis and Clark didn't invent the Louisiana Territory, they explored it. And what they discovered, what we're discovering, is that this is one large space, with enormous potential.

Insofar as online services can become competitive Internet providers, they have a future. If they can't make that transition, then they're history. Their unique position was that they provided an easy-to-use interface to cyberspace. Before that, all you had was command-line access, like DOS. When online services came along, they grew because they were obviously something that made connecting easier. But now with the Netscape and Microsoft browsers, the Web is the new interface to cyberspace, and the unique selling proposition of online services has disappeared.

The online services would like to believe they are content providers. Wrong. They have hosted content providers (and alienated a lot of them by not appreciating their contribution to increasing service's user base), but they themselves are not content providers. It's like theatre owners thinking they are operating studios. Media is not so easy.

Everybody talks about content. Everyone says, "We're content providers. Let's repurpose content. Consumers want access to content." Not true. Most of what is described as content is really raw data, and people most assuredly don't want raw data. What they lust after is context. They want the raw data run through the filter of human consciousness, someone else's human consciousness, who can do for it what they can't do themselves: add imagination or analysis, then deliver it in a way that is entertaining or valuable. What we are really talking about is the value added by creative minds. Creators take the raw data of the world, add their special essence to it, and deliver it to ultimate end-users. Interactivity facilitates that delivery. At the moment, the most popular media form, television, is a one-way radiator. You sit in front of a television, and it radiates you unless you flip around the dial. You can't get what you want out of the television. You can get only what the television wants to give you at any particular time.

Interactivity facilitates your access to information, to context, letting you get information when you want to get it. More important, interactivity enables you as a content creator to establish references and links to other content, which deepens the relationship of your analysis, your context, by putting it in the matrix of other people's works. This gives you an associative, and therefore a deeper understanding of the analysis that's being conveyed.

The third advantage of interactivity, maybe the most compelling, is the connection to the other users who are consuming the context to begin with. You are no longer an isolated consumer, a passive radiation absorber. You are connected to the other people who are experiencing a particular work, or have experienced the work, today, tomorrow, yesterday. You become part of a community that is dialoguing, not just with the creator or the delivery vehicle, but with all the other people interested in the particular work. The creation of this community, the coalescence of this community through interactivity, is the real strength of this medium. It creates interest around works and around themes, trends, and ideas, and it enables works to stay alive, to evolve, to keep engaging the participants.

I have completely contradictory impulses about the question of how to reward the creators. On the one hand, the grant of monopoly on the part of the government for intellectual property seems a fundamentally wrong societal decision. We all swim in this sea of human consciousness, and some of us come up with ideas sooner than others, but nevertheless these ideas are the product of everyone's social participation. Ascribing profit to the first finder strikes me as inequitable. On the other hand, I recognize the other social argument that in order to encourage the propagation of new ideas, we need to reward those who discover them first. It's a social benefit to all of us. Otherwise, those inventions would be kept secret, and there would be a delay in their being introduced to society in general. Intellectually, I carry both competing ideas in my head, without resolving them.

As a businessperson, I am equally conflicted. HotWired as a company certainly wants to be compensated for the work that it does and the material that it puts out; on the other hand, lots of people work for HotWired, write for HotWired, and collaborate with HotWired; tracking all rights to the nth degree, to the last possible user, becomes an enormous burden. We are trying to work out a balance between our need to secure and defend our rights in intellectual property, and our desire to recognize the rights of our creators in a way that compensates them fairly without overly burdening our ability to operate in the modern world.

Regardless of what we think, a reality about the Web is that things can be copied very easily. This has good and bad aspects. It's bad because you can't seem to capture the increment of marginal revenue that you should get if you are the actual owner of the intellectual property that is copied. On the other hand, the ease of copying helps propagate your name and your ideas, and perhaps makes a more congenial market for you in the future. This suggests that compensation for intellectual property in the future may come down to being paid for delivering experience. Esther Dyson has suggested that you then may be able to add to your compensation by continuing to augment that experience in a one-to-one way, by modifying or updating the experience. Peter Gabriel's take on intellectual property when asked about Indonesia, where his discs are illegally copied, was, "Well, then I go and do a concert there, and I capture revenue that way."

One side of interactive media today is reminiscent of the CB radio craze. People are enthralled by this bright, shiny new toy out there to play with. Build a Web page, no matter who you are, whether a corporation or an individual, without understanding what it means to build a Web page or what it means to do media in general. At the same time, there's a nascent media sensibility on the Web. That is what we're trying to participate in. The Web is a publishing platform, an environment to produce media products that other people will consume and participate in. This is the objective of HotWired.

As tools arrive and experience accretes, Net commerce is finally starting to emerge. Not surprisingly, I think most companies will eventually migrate a substantial portion of their business to the Net. Sun used to say the network was the computer. Now it says the network is the computer‹and that's true for a lot of companies today. Airline companies fly tons of aluminum around, burning up millions of gallons of jet fuel every day, but their information network is what keeps the whole thing rolling along. How many warehouses disappeared and how many businesses were created because Federal Express delivered something to you overnight? These are just the harbingers. Many of the things that we take for granted as being absolutely crucial in the physical world are going to start to migrate to the immaterial world of the Net.

A simple example: The biggest expense I have as publisher of Wired is the physical printing and delivery of the magazine. If I could somehow get that out of the way, I'd have more resources to devote to my primary business, which is delivering context. That's true of everyone else who has to deal with the material world, especially if they have offices or warehouses or retail establishments, or walk-in facilities. It would be much easier to have fleets of UPS trucks roaming around, connected together by wireless and GPS satellites, than to build physical stores. There is a huge, compelling economic reason why a large part of our commerce is going to move to the immaterial world of cyberspace.

Tools are arriving, companies are being formed, alliances are being built, big corporations are starting to change. General Motors and Procter & Gamble, the largest advertisers, are now committing to Web advertising. Intuit lined up nineteen banks to participate in its electronic checkbook bill-paying system‹while Chase Manhattan absorbed Chemical Bank and Wells Fargo swallowed First Interstate, and both closed lots of branches. They could close all of their branches in ten years. Visa has introduced ecash. Federal Express is on the Web. One of the most successful Web enterprises is a bookstore, Amazon.com. If you want to trade hazardous waste, you can turn to a Web page to find a market. The SEC has allowed a brewery to sell its securities over the Web, without an exchange, without an investment bank. I just got a prospectus for an offshore online bank. Wherever you turn, it's happening. In five years, this discussion is going to seem quaint.

Big companies don't have to invent the future. They can buy it. They have a certain arrogance. Many felt they didn't have to be involved with the risk of developing a Web presence in the early days, because in the end they could go out and buy their solutions in the event that they needed to be involved. It's like trying to sell the great book of an unknown author to a publishing house. A publisher is much more willing to let somebody else publish it, and then buy the subsidiary rights later, once the book has been proved, even if the publisher is going to be paying ten or twenty times more for those rights. This is definitely true of the media business, probably any business. Those publishing companies and those media companies that have kept out of interactive media so far, or who've been doing it in a very lackadaisical way, are going to start to get a lot more serious about it now that they see the writing on the wall.

Even big investment bankers are saying interactive media is where the big growth in media is going to be in the next five years. You have telephone companies like MCI watching their business become a commodity business and starting to divert their cash flow to content companies. My sense is that we are going to see a lot of activity in interactive media that is going to start to look more and more like real business, not just R&D. They are starting to see a real media market developing and a real commercial potential, and want to be players in the new game

The Digital Revolution is going to have increasingly profound consequences. Fifty years ago, the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin wrote about how technology was an integral part of evolution‹you know, not only is the chicken DNA's way of making more DNA, but so is the nest. Digital technology and networks are part of the evolution not just of the human species, but of the planet itself. My colleague Kevin Kelly talks of the Digital Revolution as being "the earth clothing itself in a brain."

The planet is going to be networked, and a billion brains are going to be connected together, and that will have a profound impact on humans, and on the planet‹unlike any that we have seen before.

I've been accused of proselytizing, but I'm not proselytizing, anymore than someone who looks at the horizon, sees a typhoon heading toward them, and says, "Hey, a storm's coming."

Computers are brain appliances and networks are exo-nervous systems that are connecting the entire human race in real time and creating a living human consciousness on a planetary scale. All I'm saying is Take note of this, pay attention to the erupting future. Think about how it's going to affect you in your life.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Louis had this wonderful vision that digital culture wasn't just a subculture anymore, it was the culture. So he produced Wired, which explained this culture. Then he did a radical thing. He sold advertising to mainstream companies like Absolut Vodka and Saturn. Smug computer publishers said it couldn't be done and the readers wouldn't stand for it. But Louis was right, and they were wrong.

THE CONSERVATIVE (David Gelernter): Wired tries to convince people that it is a shallow and intellectually superficial magazine. Often it isn't. Often it has good stuff in it. I think it's a tremendous idea and it could mean a lot more if it took itself more seriously.

THE PRODIGY (Jaron Lanier): You don't read Wired, you watch it. It brought computer culture out into the light, but not far enough. There are odd orthodoxies in the magazine that are never questioned. Every issue of Wired has an article that suggests that the abstract world inside the computer is the same as the world outside the computer, except that computers aren't good enough yet. If you think that way, you diminish life a little bit, because computers are programmed, whereas the world outside computers is infinitely mysterious and made of this stuff called nature. When you lose the difference between computers and the world, the world becomes bland to you, you become bland to the world, and you become nerdy.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): I have a problem with Wired's attitude that it is the arbiter of political correctness in Net culture, when all it is is a bunch of guys with attitude. There's no particular insight that everybody else doesn't have. They're ahead of the curve sometimes. I'll give them credit for that.

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Louis is one of the deep thinkers who watches carefully and pays close attention to what's going on. He doesn't open his mouth very often, but when he does, you'd better listen. He's extremely thoughtful. I'm not sure he's shy. He's just a listener, an observer. You learn more by listening than by talking.

THE PRAGMATIST (Stewart Alsop): I have the feeling that Louis doesn't like me, but that's probably because he's ignoring me, he doesn't know who the hell I am. I don't think he has any social skills. I send him emails and he never responds. At one point he showed me the business plan for Wired and I said, "this isn't going anywhere."

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): Rossetto. You sometimes get the sense that he's caught up in a frenzy that he's bored with. On the one hand, he's delighted that Wired is so successful and that he's essentially become a spokesman for the wired generation. On the other hand, you get the sense that he'd rather be left alone.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Now that I'm over 60, I think I've earned the right to say "I knew them when." Most people think of Wired; I think of Louis and Jane's earlier journal Electric Word, which opened the door to electronic publishing, allowing Wired to happen. Wired's success didn't happen as an overnight miracle, but because of an astonishing amount of work, passion, and risk.

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): If I had wanted to work for an asshole, I would have worked for myself. He taught me that the only way an editor truly has creative control is by being the publisher.

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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.