The Optimist

Kevin Kelly has long been among my favorite prophets of modernity, one of that crazy gang of Northern California WELL-heads who’ve contributed so much to cyber culture. I first noticed his work in the late 1980s when he was at Whole Earth Review, and followed his words when he became a founding editor of Wired Magazine in the early 1990s. Thus I read with delight, and yet not without some dissent, his We Are The Web essay in the current Wired. It celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO as the claxon of the Web evolution, and describes the marvelous ways in which it has connected millions of people, creating the pathways for a global consciousness, “a new type of thinking — part human and part machine — found nowhere else on the planet or in history.”

Yet even as I smiled at his many trenchant observations, particularly the opening anecdote in which he described meeting that mad genius Ted Nelson, who alpha-tested hyperlink by scribbling notes on index cards which he cut-and-pasted together, I have always felt that Kelly hailed from the techno-optimistic side of the spectrum. Kelly tends to see the world and the future at a 30,000 foot flyby. And while his tech-amplified powers of observation make many of his insights keen and true, insofar as they go, I’ve always felt they glossed over the pain that I, perhaps because of the surly circumstances of my own life, see all too often in the faces of those who live with us in what the Chinese used to call interesting times.

Yet who can doubt that society stands at an inflection point. “The revolution launched by Netscape’s IPO was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge,” Kelly writes. “At its heart was a new kind of partcipation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.” Later Kelly cites some of the phenomenal, unforeseen developments, such as eBay, which we now take for granted. “We have an open global flea market that handles 1.4 billion auctions every year and operates from your bedroom.” The Web has enabled an even greater and more fertile explosion of self-expression. “In fewer than 4,000 days,” he writes, “we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people.” We have created, Kelly says, “the community of collaborative interaction that futurist Alvin Toffler called prosumption.”

And that is where I begin to differ. Because while the Web has surely set us on a path to sharing, the fruits of human endeavor remain divided in a grossly unequal fashion. Whether you look at the distribution between the developed and the developing world, or the stratification within our own society, there is neither rationality nor fairness in the system — either new or old. On a global scale perhaps things are equalizing. Outsourcing may be lifting the Indian and Chinese, and if this hits our working and middle classes there may yet be some good come of it.

But is it my imagination or are the rich getting richer than even their greediest dreams? We hear that we live in an Ownernship Society, an Opportunity Society, and if my only input were Kelly’s essay, I might imagine that we were on our way to the next stage of human development. But there keep occurring these nagging events in my own life that cause me to view the world with a somewhat jaundiced eye.

Take last night for instance when unionized journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle — where I have worked since 1990s — voted overwhelmingly to ratify a five-year agreement that strikes me as less a labor contract than a surrender document. But shame on me for criticizing that in which I played little or no part. For while my colleagues were wrestling with bad and worse, I was voting with my feet, having a drink with my friend and journalist-turned-blogger Tom Foremski, talking about the crumbling business models that are today’s mass media. Yet it is from that crumbling model that I have thus far derived my pay, my health plan and all the other support structures that have not yet been architected into the sharing system that is rendering content, and so many other goods, more widely and cheaply available. I don’t know where all this ends, either for the world or for me. I do know that I’m a darn site less optimistic than Kelly. In fact, this morning I feel a deep sense of shame.

We all have myths about ourselves, and a central element of the Tom Abate myth began on the streets of Brooklyn some 40 years ago, when one of the new kids in the Catholic grammar school that I attended, a fellow Italian-American, was set upon by some of the Irish boys who predominated in our neighborhood. It was not deadly stuff, just playground bullying, but I saw this walking by and, without much thought, because I could not let a paisan go down, I ran across the street and launched myself into the air sideways against the pack, who scattered, as surprised as I was by the tactic.

Ever since, I don’t know that I’ve ever backed down from a fight. To the contrary, I have sometimes been more belligerent than would have been wise or necessary in any given circumstance. But last night I let my paisan go down without so much as the benefit of my company. I refused to make the decision that was foredained. And this morning, I feel as mini as I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and my eyes fill with tears.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media