Content in the Digital Age

In January 1995, I invited the chairman of a publishing division of one of the mega-media convergence companies to lunch to talk about book projects. He had another agenda. The Board of Directors of his corporate parent had just handed down a mandate to division heads: digitize all assets. My luncheon guest was faced with the dreary prospect of digitizing thousands of backlist titles.

"I can arrange to have the keystroking done in India or the Philippines," he said. "But, after the files are digitized, then what do I do with the content?" "John," he continued, "you work with content-providers. Perhaps you have some insight into how I can repurpose these paper-based assets."

Keystroking? Repurposing? Content-providers? Paper-based assets?

Ten years before, in 1983, I added a computer disk image next to the book on the logo of my literary agency and announced our transition as the first "literary and software agency." Because I had moved quickly when the personal computer market exploded I enjoyed a substantial success as the agent for software developers and computer book authors and packagers who wanted to work with the large, well-funded New York publishers.

This business experience coupled with my intellectual curiosity regarding communications, alerted me that something big was beginning to happen. I wasn't about to sit on the sidelines and watch it go by.

Thus I began a series of "digerati dinners," in San Francisco, San Mateo, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Barcelona, London, Seattle, Palo Alto, Cannes, New York, Sausalito, Milan, Monterey, Paris, Napa Valley, and Munich.

The questions driving my curiosity involved ideas about content in the digital age, how new approaches to the theories of description and language is critical to a new understanding, and how the anesthesiology of common sense stands in our way.

Stewart Brand, founder of The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) points out in the GBN Book Club Newsletter that "Bits are bits, not things. As the economy shifts from primarily distributing things to primarily distributing bits, it is being transformed almost unrecognizably. The whole nature and flow of value is shifting. Not only is the business environment altering radically, the function of business itself is morphing. But toward what?"

Esther Dyson, publisher of the influential computer industry newsletter Release 1.0. writes in "Intellectual Property on the Net" (December 1994): "the future world of electronic content and the world most intellectual property owners have been planning for, contracting for, securing rights for." Those ten thousand backlist titles in the warehouse (aka "paper-based assets") are not assets in the electronic information economy. Content does not sit in a warehouse or on your library shelf.

Content is context.

"Information is an Activity," writes John Perry Barlow in Wired ("The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Rethinking Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age ­ Everything You Know About Intellectual Property is Wrong.") "Information Is a Verb, Not a Noun. Freed of its containers, information is obviously not a thing. In fact, it is something that happens in the field of interaction between minds or objects or other pieces of information."

John Perry, who is cofounder of The Electronic Frontier Foundation, uses a medieval model of storytelling to render visible the new digital model. When stories are passed from generation to generation there is no definitive version, no authorized authorship. Thus, "digital information, unconstrained by packaging, is a continuing process." He sees a diminishing value in the traditional importance of authorship. In this new environment, according to Barlow "information is a relationship, meaning has value and is unique to each case."

Text supplanted by billable interactivity is the hallmark of the "new media." He notes that "as people move into the Net, and increasingly get their information directly from its point of production, unfiltered by centralized media, they will attempt to develop the same interactive ability to probe reality that only experience has provided them in the past. Live access to these distant 'eyes and ears' will be much easier to cordon than access to static bundles of stored but easily reproducible information."

Esther Dyson sums up the business realities implicit in this new order. She envisions content-based value on the Net created through "services (the transformation of bits rather than the bits themselves), the selection of content, the presence of other people, and assurance of authenticity ­ reliable information about sources of bits and their future flows. In short, intellectual processes and services appreciate; intellectual assets depreciate."

Esther makes the radical suggestion that "content (including software) will serve as advertising for services such as support, aggregation, filtering, assembly, and integration of content modules, or training ­ or it will be a by-product of paid-for relationships. The likely best defense for content providers is to exploit that situation ­ to distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships. The provider's task is to figure out what to charge for and what to give away free ­ all in the context of what other providers are doing and what customers expect. This is not a moral decision but a business strategy."

The end-users, according to her scheme, might be given access to works on the Net for free. "The payments to creators," she writes, "are likely to come not from the viewers, readers, or listeners, but from companies who use the content as ­ or to deliver ­ advertising. The challenge for advertisers is not being paid, but making sure that their advertising messages are inextricable from the content. The intellectual activity of agents ­ talent scouts, advisors, creative packagers ­ will be valuable and richly rewarded."

Value is in activity. A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in fantastic amounts of data, or in huge libraries filled with books. Information is process. There's no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation.

Value is in activity. Content is no longer a noun. Content is context. Content is activity. Content is relationship, community. Content is not text or pictures as distinct from the interactive components that provide access to them. Content is the interactive quality. Content is a verb, a continuing process. Value on the Internet will be created through services, the selection of programming, the presence of other people, and assurance of authenticity ­ reliable information about sources of bits. In short, intellectual processes and services will appreciate; intellectual assets will depreciate. Content is information, and information is not a thing. Value is in activity.

A year later, in February of 1996, the four keynote speakers at an Internet conference held at the Jacob K. Javitz Center in New York were arguably the key players shaping the future of the Internet.

Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, presented his plan to embrace and extend the new open technologies and allow Microsoft customers to interact with the Web through the integration of new versions of Microsoft desktop applications with Microsoft Explorer, a proprietary Web browser.

Jim Clark, Netscape's chairman, envisioned a new era of communications engendered by the development of telephone and communications technologies.

Steve Case, CEO of America Online, disagreed with the conventional wisdom that "content is king." He believed the battleground would not be just content but also context and community.

Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, viewed the Internet as example and extension of his dictums that the network is the computer and the network is the business.

According to Dr. Eddie Currie (general manager of MITS in 1974 and thus one of the founding fathers of the personal computer revolution): "If there is a single truism of the evolution of computers, computer technology, the Internet, it is that no one knows where it is going or precisely what drives it or in what direction."

This is perhaps another way of saying that we have grabbed the tail of an electronic beast so large that we can't begin to imagine its size or the impact it will have. All approaches reveal a different aspect of the beast. Yet all agree: it's the next big thing.

What is the nature of this next big thing? What kind of vocabulary do we need to describe it? Who is driving it? Who can render it visible for us? How does it change our culture, and ourselves? These are some of the questions that this book explores through my encounters with the members of the "cyber elite" I present in this book.

The "digerati" in this book are a cyber elite, and it is not my intention to define the group as the cyber elite. They are, I believe, representative of a much larger group of the cyber elite, and as a group they constitute a critical mass of the doers, thinkers, and writers, connected in ways they may not even appreciate, who have tremendous influence on the emerging communication revolution surrounding the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Although they all happen to be Americans, their activities have a worldwide impact.

Stewart Brand points out that "elites are idea and execution factories. Elites make things happen; they drive culture, civilization. They are usually a group of people who are good at what they do, have gotten into a meritocracy with others like themselves and force each other to get better. They want status, but it's not status necessarily in the commonly agreed domain; it's status within the game that they are playing. They are open to new members, provided entrance is based on merit. They may not be the elite in five years."

The digerati evangelize, connect people, adapt quickly. They like to talk with their peers because it forces them to go to the top of their form and explain their most interesting new ideas. They give each other permission to be great. That's who they want to talk to about the things they are excited about because they want to see if it plays. They ask each other the questions they are asking themselves, and that's part of what makes this cyber elite work.

A common characteristic is personal authority that, by and large, is not derived from institutional affiliation. The digerati pay close attention to each other. Not all of them necessarily communicate with each other, but they are interconnected in various ways, and are in personal communication with me, and in varying degrees, through me to each other. There is one overriding consideration that makes them an elite: they are at the helm of some of the most important developments of our time and they are a tremendous influence.

The new communications technologies change the terrain of everything. Huge corporations are finding that their entire companies are changing. None are changing as much as Internet and software companies. And they have become the companies that really matter. The individuals and corporations that dismiss this set of developments do so at the risk of marginalizing themselves.

Many of the brightest people in recent years have gone into computing (hardware, networking, software, Internet, convergence media). The cutting edge is in exploring new communications, such as the World Wide Web, through the use of computers.

Emerging out of the digerati are new ideas about how human beings communicate with each other. As communications is the basis of civilization, this is a book not about computers, not about technology, not about things digital: this is a book about our culture and ourselves. The ideas presented here offer a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the world, and all of the things we know in it, and it is the individuals presenting these new ideas and images, the digerati in the book (as well as others), who are driving this revolution.

In today's world, technological advances are taking place at a rate unparalleled at any other time in history. The very nature of change itself has evolved so quickly that a hallmark of the twentieth century is the uncertainty with which we all live.The ideas and information included in this book are essential to anyone interested in knowing who we are, and where we are headed. Our models and metaphors are in a state of flux. Our world and all of the things that we know in it are being radically altered and transformed. This is a book about a group of people who are reinventing culture and civilization.

I present the digerati; they present themselves. They are not on the frontier, they are the frontier. They are:

The Pragmatist (Stewart Alsop), The Coyote (John Perry Barlow), The Scout (Stewart Brand), The Seer (David Bunnell), The Thinker (Doug Carlston), The Idealist (Denise Caruso), The Statesman (Steve Case), The Gadfly (John C. Dvorak), The Pattern-Recognizer (Esther Dyson), The Software Developer (Bill Gates), The Conservative (David Gelernter), The Defender (Mike Godwin), The Genius (W. Daniel Hillis), The Judge (David R. Johnson), The Searcher (Brewster Kahle), The Saint (Kevin Kelly), The Prodigy (Jaron Lanier), The Marketer (Ted Leonsis), The Scribe (John Markoff), The Force (John McCrea), The Competitor (Scott McNealy), The Publisher (Jane Metcalfe), The Webmaster (Kip Parent), The Buccaneer (Louis Rossetto), The Citizen (Howard Rheingold), The Oracle (Paul Saffo), The Radical (Bob Stein), The Skeptic (Cliff Stoll), The Catalyst (Linda Stone), The Evangelist (Lew Tucker), The Cyberanalyst (Sherry Turkle), The Lover (Dave Winer), and The Impresario (Richard Saul Wurman).


John Brockman
New York City

[Note to the reader:]

From August 1995 to April 1996, I videotaped one-on-one discussions with thirty-six digerati about their work and the work of others included in the book. I had a multilevel agenda: (1) to write a book; (2) to use the material I gathered to supply the foundation for building an ongoing Web site devoted to the digerati.

This is not a general survey or a work of journalism, but rather an oral presentation of a culture. The book is an exhibition of this new community in action, communicating their ideas to the public and to one another.

Three of the digerati who graciously took the time to talk to me did not make it into the final text strictly because of temporal considerations. I talked to them early in the interview process. In the six months it took to complete the manuscript, the ground we had covered changed dramatically. Their work is important; they are worth knowing about. They are: Greg Clark, President, News Technology Group, News Corporation, "The Physicist"; Stewart McBride, chairman and chief creative officer of United Digital Artists, "The Maestro"; and Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, "The Pilgrim."

The selection of digerati is subjective and idiosyncratic, and far from comprehensive. Indeed, several other entirely different casts of characters could be assembled under the same book title. There are a number of obvious people missing that I am very much aware of and, indeed, I invited their participation.

In this book I am presenting "the first generation" of digerati: they are the people who got us here; they may not be the ones who to push the envelope and get us to the next plateau. The Web is breeding a whole new generations of movers and shakers.

About a third of the digerati in the book I work with professionally: some of those are clients of Brockman, Inc., my literary and software agency. Several others run companies that are customers. Most are friends. Although HardWired is the publisher, I have no connection to Wired magazine (except as a paid subscriber) and the book is neither an endorsement nor critique of what some have called the "Wired culture."

I have taken the editorial license to create a written narrative in the voices of the digerati from my videotapes. Although the participants have read, and in some cases edited, the transcriptions of their spoken words, there is no intention that the following chapters in any way represent their writing. For that, read their books and articles. I have also made the assumption that the views of the digerati are of more interest to readers than any interpretations I might offer. I have thus written myself (and my questions) out of the text. Finally, remarks made by the participants about each other are general in nature and were not made in response to the text.

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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.