I must be thick. I’ve been puzzled for years about why the Internet, the Web, has been so infused with counterculture politics — free information, antagonism to authority, and a schizoid perspective on business models. Then I came across an excellent article in a magazine I immediately bookmarked (and may subscribe to). The magazine is called n+1, and the article is called, “The Internet as Social Movement: A Brief History of Webism.”
When I first encountered the Mosaic browser, my first instinct was to make a commercial product from it. After all, a distribution, presentation, and publishing tool that created worldwide, instant, interactive, commercial possibilities seemed like a major windfall for business and publishing. So build a commercial offering I did, and within months, I had customers buying digital products from all over, including in Antarctica. Antarctica! It was amazing to contemplate the business implications. (That product is still alive and well, by the way, I’m happy to say.)
But a certain strain of politics was riding shotgun even back then, a “Webism” the article describes nicely in the following potent paragraph:
. . . as Fred Turner—a communications professor at Stanford—has convincingly argued, it is a mixture of the technophilia of Stanford and the countercultural ethos of San Francisco that has created the ideology of the web as we know it. The first business venture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, both college dropouts who grew up in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino, was to build little circuit boxes to steal long distance service from the phone company in 1976. They sold them in the dorms of nearby universities—for $100 you could get a little circuit breaker and save some money on your long distance bill. Best of all, with this gadget you could stick it to the man. Thus the era of the great freeload began.
From travel agents to music retailers to bookstores, the commercial revolution has been amazing, and it smacks of the same mentality — overturning authority, finding ways to outsmart the establishment while belittling it, driving prices down as close to zero as possible, and sticking it to the man (as long as “the man” wasn’t Jobs or Wozniak or Gates or Page).
But in the publishing world, the politics of the Web have hit a snag — namely, if traditional media outlets falter, who will publish and validate the geniuses of this era?
Who will provide them with the prestige they’ve been seeking (and, in many cases, deserve)?
If journals, books, and magazines are engines of prestige as much as they are engines of information, how can the ladder-climbing technophiles get their prestige if they destroy the stacks of print their ladders are leaning against?
The webists met the Times’s schizophrenia with a schizophrenia of their own. The worst of them simply cheered the almost unbelievably rapid collapse of the old media, which turned out, for all its seeming influence and power, to be a paper tiger, held up by elderly white men. But the best of them were given pause: themselves educated by newspapers, magazines, and books, they did not wish for these things to disappear entirely. (For one thing, who would publish their books?) In fact, with the rise of web 2.0 and the agony of the print media, a profound contradiction came into view.
Essentially, companies built on foundations of print media are important to the Webist world view — more important than movies, music, airlines, or DVDs — because the institutions built on print, the ones unable to gracefully move their brands into the digital age without the same destruction experienced in other industries, those institutions are where Webists get their validation.
Their love of publications is clear. It’s why Stewart Brand had the Whole Earth Catalog, why Chris Anderson started Wired magazine, why Tim O’Reilly has his books, and why every aspiring Netizen has always wanted to publish a book.
These people love print. They need the authority, relative permanence, and tactile qualities it and its traditional brands offer. So, when facing the propsects of books disappearing into e-books, people like Steve Jobs become reluctant. He didn’t hesitate for music or movies or television, but he famously hesitated with books. And with the iBook implementation, he and his designers kept more of the book’s attributes (page turning, page color, typography) than Amazon — a company run not by a Silicon Valley insider but by a former New York finance guy.
At this point the best thing the web and the book could do for one another would be to admit their essential difference. This would allow the web to develop as it wishes, with a clear conscience, and for literature to do what it’s always done in periods of crisis: keep its eyes and ears open; take notes; and bide its time.
Of course, prestige can come by other means, and another source to contemplate is academic institutions. Again, even while multi-billion dollar industries have been turned inside-out by digital entrepreneurs, these institutions have been largely left alone — despite the fact that the technologies, incentives, and users are probably all in place. In fact, they’ve been a focus of beneficial activities like iTunes U. And, interestingly, Wozniak, Gates, and Jobs all dropped out, pledged to return, and obviously place academia on a pedestal, while Larry Page and many others emerged from academia.
Perhaps the psychology of Webism is partially what has made publishing and academia less of a focus for aggressive digital strategies. There’s a consistent desire to preserve them.
In 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple debuted their famous ad depicting an athlete demolishing a totalitarian broadcast world. It was a defining moment of counterculture imagery. Yet it may also be a reflection of underlying bibliophilia and academic aspirations, owing to the fact that not one book or university was harmed in the creation of that advertisement.