Just because you have a computer doesn't mean you can't be stupid.
-- Beavis & Butt-head, quoted in Everything I Know I Learned on Acid, by Coco Pekelis
Self-examination through writing is a proud literary tradition in this country, a far-reaching conceit dating back to Ben Franklin riffing on the subject of his own farts. In the past 30 years, America seems to have thrown up its arms and accepted the perpetual presence of those writers obsessed with themselves.
We've not only endured but heaped praise upon essays by Norman Mailer about Norman Mailer realizing the thought processes of Norman Mailer. We've followed 1970s rock music critics into bars, hoping that perhaps they might get around to writing about the concert before they run out of room on the page. We've riffled ceaselessly through those old 25,000-word, self-indulgent diary entries in Rolling Stone that confused spew with New Journalism.
Riding smugly in this well-worn groove of navel-gazing is John Brockman's Digerati: Encounters With the Cyber Elite, among the first of the new titles from Wired magazine's book division, HardWired. Journalist Paul Keegan, author of articles about cyberculture in Details and the New York Times, was originally approached by Brockman to write the book, according to HardWired editor Brad Weiners, but when Keegan's schedule got too crowded, Brockman decided to do the book himself. And it is fortunate for the genre of self-obsession that he has done so.
Digerati roars right out of the chute with the author's prologue, which describes Brockman sitting on a park bench in 1966 at the age of 25, reading an article about himself on the front page of the New York Times. Brockman's introduction continues his curriculum vitae throughout his incredibly enriching and fortunate life, dropping name after name as though his livelihood depends on it. In fact, it does. Brockman is a New York literary agent, and, according to the HardWired catalog, is the "Michael Ovitz of the New Intellectual Elite." According to the book jacket, he "rubs heads together until they produce heat and light." Most of the people in the tome are either heat-producing clients or friends.
The main body of the book consists of chapters on various businessmen and personalities of this new digital vanguard -- wizened, chin-scratching nerds like Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow, David Bunnell, Bill Gates, Howard Rheingold, Paul Saffo, and many other names you may have heard in connection with computer this and cyber that. Brockman videotaped each person discussing his thoughts and visions of computer culture, then transcribed the words to create the meat of each chapter. He assigns each an important-sounding nickname -- Barlow is "The Coyote," Saffo becomes "The Oracle," Kevin Kelly is "The Saint" -- introduces each person with a saliva-dripping prologue, and ends each chapter with a sprinkling of quotes from other members of the digital vanguard, describing their impressions of this particular person:
"Ted is a marketing extravaganza."
"Scott's a remarkable business strategist."
"Paul's middle name should be Homework."
Although their ideas can be interesting, Brockman has packaged them together so that the collection reads like 33 Barbra Streisands, impetuous egos yakking away about themselves. They obviously didn't impress Jonathan Katz, media critic of HotWired, the Website sister company of HardWired.
"[Y]ou will rarely read so much self-serving nonsense in all your life," he writes. "It's time to move past the circle of adulation. The digerati may be as revolutionary as they themselves think they are, but Digerati is shameless."
Underneath Katz's blistering review of the book, a HotWired editor has tapped in the words, "Whaddya think, is Katz just jealous, or what? Say your piece, in Threads."
A HotWired reader named Steven Shults checks in with a healthy scowl: "None of these advances, each one as inevitable as the next, has ended poverty and starvation. None of these has brought an end to disease. None of our technological advances has created peace between people. None of these things has brought an end to homicide and suicide."
Another reader named Stephen Gilliard follows this with a nasty addition:
"If you place 100 people in a room to represent the world's population, one has a college degree. One. Only 33 have access to a phone. In the United States, if you put 100 people in a room, while 40 have regular access to a computer, 12 are online. That means 88 percent have no connection to the digital world, including the majority of computer owners. The digerati vision of the world is so limited, so narrow, it's almost silly. ... If people want rock star adulation, play a fucking instrument."
Katz himself posts a note saying that several of the "digerati" later e-mailed him to say they hadn't realized how they were going to be portrayed by Brockman. When I ask Katz if he received any backlash in the Wired camp, he says he did not, but did receive a few private thank yous from the magazine's staffers.
Down-to-earth Wired denizens can take some solace -- even pride -- in a couple of the other recent offerings from their otherwise overhyped sister shop.
HardWired has produced Mind Grenades, an interesting visual collection of manifestoes, and Reality Check, a tour-de-force timeline of the near future, adapted from the column of the same name in Wired. But it is Digerati that's getting everyone in a hissy fit.
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