Ink by the barrel

By a strange coincidence, Wired’s Fred Vogelstein and I were both on Microsoft’s Redmond campus in mid-January. He was there to finish reporting the story that just exploded on TechMeme, and I was there for my new employee orientation. Here are some key perspectives: Chris Anderson (Wired), Fred Vogelstein (Wired), Jeff Sandquist (MSFT, my boss), Frank Shaw (Waggener-Edstrom), and Mary Jo Foley (ZDNET). Bottom line: Vogelstein writes a “transparency” story about Microsoft’s Channel 9, an internal assessment of Vogelstein is inadvertantly forwarded to him, the irony becomes the story.

For me, there are some other Wired-related ironies swirling around here. I have long believed that we’re moving toward the Transparent Society foretold in David Brin’s seminal book. When I attended the Highlands Forum the other week, I learned a bit more of that book’s backstory. I’d known that it was a popular Wired story in 1996. I hadn’t known that the seed of that story was a talk given at the Highlands Forum a few years before.

The transparent society envisioned in that book is profoundly radical in ways that we’re only beginning to appreciate. For example, I was until recently an industry journalist who was studied by Microsoft and Waggener-Edstrom in the same way that Fred Vogelstein found out he was being studied. I’ve since found such reports about me floating around on the Microsoft intranet. As many of today’s commentators have noted, the existence of such documents should come as no surprise to anyone who’s played the journalism game on either side of the fence (or on both). Those documents weren’t published, either accidentally or on purpose, but if they had been, nobody would have been harmed. In fact, I’d have been interested to know how my views were coming across, and I might even have sharpened those views accordingly. That’s one example of a new way of thinking that David Brin’s book has opened up for me.

Here’s another. When I speak in public about the emergent blogosphere, I try to steer clear of the tired old debate in which bloggers and journalists are cast as antagonists. What today’s TechMeme cluster shows is that they are in fact collaborators. Wired doesn’t own this story, everyone involved has a piece of it, and all of those pieces are discoverable and interlinked. It’s a wonderful thing to see.

This will become my new benchmark example of network-based storytelling but, ironically, the old example I’ve been using for years also involves Wired. Five years ago the magazine ran a short piece about Mitch Kapor’s Chandler project entitled The Outlook Killer?. That was precisely what Mitch did not intend. “I don’t want to play into the meme that Chandler is an Outlook killer,” he wrote in an email which he also blogged. Later he elaborated that the headline “firmly bracketed the article in the David vs. Goliath trope I got agreement would not be used,” and concluded:

It’s fortunate that a weblog is a wonderful, alternate, and complementary forum in which to speak directly, thus by-passing the intermediation of formal media.

Back in 2002 his reaction wasn’t as visible as it would be today, but it got noticed, and that was a leading indicator that the famous saying “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel” — attributed variously Twain, Liebling, Wilde and Dr. Johnson — was due for revision. Five years on it’s even clearer that ink — happily for the trees we used to sacrifice to it — matters less, electrons matter more, and the playing field is closer to level.

It’ll never be completely level, nor should it be, because society requires a healthy balance between professional storytellers who synthesize the work that other people do, and amateur storytellers who are the ones doing that work, all operating within a sphere of relative transparency. We have made remarkable strides toward achieving that balance.

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4 thoughts on “Ink by the barrel

  1. Why is it happy that “ink matters less, electrons matter more” in today’s world? Paper disintegrates a helluva lot faster and more completely than computers and associated hardware. Also, computers use up billions of tons of plastic, basic metals and heavy metals in their manufacture, stuff that can’t be reclaimed except at extraordinary and probably counter-productive cost. Before we start glibly bashing “old technologies,” let’s think more carefully and thoughtfully about the impact of the new, as wonderful as they are for creating, storing, and disseminating knowledge and information. Fast forward 20 years — What the hell are we doing to do with the hundreds of millions of computers that have become obsolete but fill our dumps, backyards, closets and basements and have no lost their purpose? At least we can farm new trees with nature’s blessing. We can’t farm computers the same way.

  2. “We can’t farm computers the same way.”


    “Paper disintegrates a helluva lot faster and more completely than computers and associated hardware.”

    I think paper tends to outlast hardware, which is why digital archiving is such an interesting topic. To guarantee the migration of bits across generations of storage media requires more than hardware engineering, it requires social engineering too.

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