This prescient book, published in 1994 on the eve of the Web age, shaped a lot of my early thinking about technology and media. Kevin Kelly was the editor of Wired and previously the Whole Earth Review. The book touched on topics that were strange then, but now more familiar: the wisdom of crowds, the hive mind, gamification, distributed computing and what Kelly called “the marriage of the born and the made.”
For the world of our own making has become so complicated that we must turn to the world of the born to understand how to manage it. That is, the more mechanical we make our fabricated environment, the more biological it will eventually have to be it if is to work at all. Our future is technological; but it will not be a world of gray steel. Rather our technological future is headed toward a neo-biological civilization.
A collection of games and other provocations developed by the Surrealists. An example: “Would You Open the Door?” One member of the group names a person, famous, infamous or known to the group. The rest write down whether they would let the person in, and explain why or why not.
No, consigned to the textbooks. [J-LB] Yes, through wanting to get it over with. [RB] No, nothing to say to each other. [AB] No, too caught up in his theories. [EB] No, seen too much of him! [AD] No, so dreary! [GG} Yes, suppose so, but conversation might wear a bit thin. [JG] No, boring. [GL] No, urge to laugh. [SH] No, I’m afraid his intentions prejudice his painting. [WP] No, too stupid. [BP] No, I have my window. [JP] No, no time to waste. [BR] No, hate apples. [JS] No, since I love apples. [AS] No, enough of still lifes. [T] No, I like fruit too much. [MZ]
Four years ago I was parked on a corner in Chelsea after nightfall on a Friday night. Well, parked, but I was sitting in the back of the truck bed.
My friend Saul, a previous boss of mine, had started a business of installing custom-made time-lapse cameras - a neat invention by some of his British friends that was made by cramming a Canon G6, hard drive, and wireless card into a security camera housing - that we awesomely called a Camputer. I was his only (freelance) employee. These cameras captured construction projects, providing a unique service that was practical (for things like live off-site progress management) and also creative (when the footage was used for time-lapse videos for usage in sell-in videos and the like). The picture would send photos directly to the hard drive, and the harddrive, loaded with software, would use the wireless card to beam them to a remote server, where they could be accessed by those who used our services.
So I sat in the back of the truck because I needed workspace. We were getting ready to build a base for one of the cameras that was going to essentially clamp onto a wall on top of the roof. We had measured the length that the pipes would need to be for a snug fit. He gave me the numbers, the rough diagram, the pipes, and the pipe cutter. He had to run and file some paperwork. He said he would be back, but that I could work out of the back of the truck until he got back.
It wasn’t then until I realized how sketch I looked, sitting in a truck bed in Chelsea, a 22 year-old kid casually cutting pipes on a Friday night.
A cop pulled up and asked me what the hell I was doing. I didn’t have a great answer for him.
“My boss and I are building this brace for this camera to sit on that wall up there and film this worksite.”
“Yeah. Its time-lapse stuff.”
“Do you have a permit for that?”
“…Being taken care of right now”
Working for Saul was always a little different like that. It always had an element of people asking “Uh, what the hell are you doing here?” Don’t misunderstand me, though, this is absolutely the most fun a 22 year-old can have while working. And the best part was that cutting pipes was only the beginning of that.
As I continued working for him, I became more familiar with the operation of the cameras and how to troubleshoot/fix them. All of them had routers outfitted with wireless cards which allowed them to beam out their images. If the cameras stopped transmitting photos, though, it usually required an on-site visit. When Saul would be indisposed, he would usually ask me to make a trip for him.
And so I, a punk kid still caught in the awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, showed up once at a high rise near Times Square with a backpack, went to the front desk, and told the clerk that I needed to go onto the roof. You should have seen the look I got. Barely looking up from his paper, he said,
“Ah, yeah, I don’t think you’re gonna do that today.”
I mean, I had guessed there was going to be a little bit of explaining to do, but chuckling at his rude and immediate dismissal, I kinda played with him for a bit.
“But please? I have to go up and look at something up there.”
“Kid, what the hell are you thinking?”
After explaining who I was, who I worked for, and telling him to consult his boss, he came back (slightly) apologetic and we shared the most awkward ride up the 40-something floors to the roof of his building. It’s hard to explain how hard it was to cover up the smirk that kept creeping up my face. As a kid just about to leave school with a degree from art school, every opportunity to prove that I was something other than a delinquent with possible cans of spray paint in my bag was a treasured one.
Stepping out onto the roof was equally exhilarating. The wind that hits you at 500 ft in the air is one that has no regard for your safety. Stepping across pebbles in the darkness, looking back at the attendant standing in the lit doorway with his arms crossed, the unfamiliarity of the situation brought uneasiness, which in turn made me feel like a bit of an ass for walking into the building with a brashness that, honestly, no 22 year-old with a backpack deserves to have yet.
Anyways, got past that. Got over to the camera and pulled out my laptop. I remember thinking that the attendant would probably be finally impressed by whatever straight-CSI/hacking shit it looked like I was about to do. As the light from the laptop lit up my face and blackened everything else around me, I started going through the steps, checking the card, the router, the software - every step in the process - trying to find the kink in the hose. While the computer worked, I looked past my screen into the haze of Times Square and got lost in it for a second. Have you ever looked at Times Square from a vantage point that’s not the ground? The sheer ridiculousness of it is more noticeable than the overwhelming splendor you feel when you’re surrounded by it. Being on top of buildings in the city always brought on this feeling for me. It’s part of why I love being on them, up high, getting a new perspective. It’s only really then when I feel like I understand the city I live in. It’s a fitting time to have a conversation about something bigger than yourself. When you’re 22 and feeling on the verge of something great, it’s a proper reminder that, in the pulled-back scope of the city, you’re still really small. You’ll probably be happier if you find things to love in it rather than wait to feel like it loves you.
And so I fixed the problem, took a couple test shots, packed up my awesome NCIS/hacker/Jack Bauer kit, and headed back to the lit doorway. My thoughts had rolled past the building attendant, I was still stuck in that feeling of vertigo. Not a literal one, it was a rush of feeling like I was moving fast while I was sitting in one place. And I felt thankful to know a guy like Saul who was such a bright, hard-working guy, who let me, even as a dumb kid, go on adventures with him.
It was nights like that one that I knew I would find happiness in the city.
This book is an expanded version of a nine-part Pulitzer Prize-winning series published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1991. The pointed question, and the overall tone of the series, struck a chord with readers, who lined up around the block at the newspaper’s headquarters to purchase copies and flooded the paper with thousands of messages and letters (at a time before widespread E-mail made that an easy thing to do). Statistics showed the widening gap between rich and poor, and how changes in the tax law had encouraged this gap. It noted the decline in defined benefit pensions, and other trends that accelerated after the turnaround and prosperity of the later 1990s. I admired its ambition and thoroughness of the investigation, so I bought a copy of the paperback reprint for posterity. I was reminded of it in 2011 when the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements expressed similar discontent to the early 90s and focused on some of the same issues (growing federal debt and deficit, and widening income inequality). Donald Barlett and James Steele say they are now revisiting the series. Their former newspaper, alas, is in a rough patch now, its golden age of ambitious investigative journalism and editorial integrity a distant memory.
The year was 1987. Personal computers were less than a decade old. I had been working a couple of years earlier as a reporter for a newspaper that still used electric typewriters. The Web did not exist. E-mail was something still new and amazing. Personal hand-held mobile phones were still an expensive novelty. The videocassette recorder and the compact disc were the height of consumer technology.
Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the organizer of the first “Hackers’ Conference,” wrote about Nicholas Negroponte and the M.I.T. Media Lab, where the future we live in now was just starting to be imagined. With chapter headings like “intelligent television” and “paperback movies,” this book was more influential on my career and thinking as a journalist than anything else I have ever read. Its predictions were off here and there, but it explained how all those bits were going to change everything sooner or later.
Here is a sentence I underlined: “Even copy machines and photography are going digital.” Obvious now, a revelation then. As was this: “E-mail evaporates the tyranny of place, and to a considerable degree, of time.” And I don’t know if Brand came up with the idea or borrowed it from someone at the lab, but there is this observation on page 202: “Information wants to be free.”
People who repeat that now often forget the corollary that followed in the book: “Information also wants to be expensive.” Eight long years later, the future foretold in this book started to come true for me. I spent the first three decades of my life waiting for the Web to be invented, and the second two playing and working in it. What’s next?
Here’s that full passage on information (the introduction to a discussion of movie piracy — on videocassette):
Information Wants to Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, “intellectual property,” and the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.
I’ve started a second Tumblr — This Old Book — devoted to interesting, obscure or forgotten books that have been kicking around on my shelves for decades now. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep it up, but I do have quite a few artifacts I’d like to share, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I remember when I first bought this one in a used paperback store in the 1970’s in Utica, N.Y., where my mother would take me after a visit to the allergy specialist. The book was originally published in 1949 and has been reissued periodically, but tends to go out of print. This appears to be the 1966 Ace Books version, priced at 75 cents (as the poem on the back attests). Silverlock is shipwrecked and find himself on an island where heroic tales have come alive (if I recall, he seems quite unaware of the stories, or he would have figured out what to do in a few cases). I reread it dozens of times as a teenager. Somehow it survived years of culling of my books. I have no memory of the quality of the prose, but I’m pretty sure it was a pleasing adventure yarn. I am hesitant to ruin the good but fading memories by cracking it again. For years, the book and its author were a mystery to me, for I would have gobbled up more, but could never find anything. Now, through the miracle of Wikipedia, some of my questions are answered. There was apparently a sequel in 1981, but I had moved on.
This belonged to my father. The copyright page lists the copyright date as 1918, but it may have been a type of textbook series (“The Modern Student’s Library”) that my father bought in the 1940’s, while he was in graduate school at Columbia after the war, courtesy of the G.I. bill. He penciled his name in the cover, along with a notation about some other literature. Most people remember Stevenson as the author of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Treasure Island,” if they remember him at all. These 24 essays on Thoreau, Pepys, Whitman, idlers, marriage, reading in general and other topics were written before his fame, and some are quite fine. My father scribbled notes in the margins of some, notably “Crabbed Age and Youth” (1878) and here is Stevenson’s humbling wisdom, a shout 130 years into the future:
"In short, if youth is not quite right in in its opinions, there is a strong probability that age is not much more so. Undying hope is co-ruler of the human bosom with infallible credulity. A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusing that he is at last entirely right."
Dr. Lewis Thomas achieved some fame as an essayist for The New England Journal of Medicine, perhaps most famously with the collection “Lives of a Cell.” But for whatever reason it was “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” that has survived on my shelves since I purchased it in paperback some 28 years ago. I remember being affected by his death in 1993, perhaps because mortality and doom was so often his topic, and I was a young man in my 20s and therefore overly obsessed with both topics. My mother had died in middle age right after I graduated from college, and I imagined my own death could not be far off. This book opens with a meditation on Hiroshima and ends with the title essay, about the threat of nuclear destruction from an exchange of missiles between America and the Soviet Union. This was a real prospect that we lived with every day, and it was a given belief among people in my generation that we would probably all die in a horrific world explosion some day. His late night thoughts on the missiles are bracing, and thankfully he has been proven wrong so far by the unexpected turns in history that would come in the years after he wrote these words in the early 1980s:
- I am old enough by this time to be used to the notion of dying, saddened by the glimpse when it has occurred but only transiently knocked down, able to regain my feet quickly at the thought of continuity, any day. I have acquired and held in affection until very recently another sideline of an idea which serves me well at dark times: the life of the earth is the same as the life of an organism: the mind contains an infinite number of thoughts and memories: when I reach my time I may find myself still hanging around in some ort of midair, one of those small thoughts, drawn back into the memory of the earth: in that peculiar sense I will be alive. Now all that has changed. I cannot think that way anymore. Not while those things are still in place, aimed everywhere, ready for launching.
Yesterday was an exciting and mostly unproductive day in the world of traveling…just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. In a less kind country or era, I might be writing this down from the confines of (to use the words of one of my friends) a jungle prison somewhere, on the back…