Who among us could forget the eponymous star of Mr. Ed, an early television series about a talking horse that kept America on an uninterrupted laugh-track through Cold War saber rattling, nuclear tests, and the country's accelerating slide into mass illiteracy? Except, of course, the millions of Gen-X teeny boppers who have since come to the Internet, virgins to any historical context predating The Power Rangers.
It greatly surprised EGR to learn that Mr. Ed, long thought to have been put to pasture -- or sent to the knacker's yard -- is very much alive and kicking. In fact, Ed (he insisted we call him by his first name) is living in a sumptuous Beverly Hills mansion overlooking the sea, from which command aerie he counsels and oversees much of the global entertainment industry. His mind sharp as ever, this horse of a different color still wields enormous authority and power -- albeit anonymously -- over an empire that is spreading its dark wings ever more rapidly across the affairs of men -- and of course, women (in this case, affairs with women, but as this is a Family newsletter, we have edited out those remarks).
Arranging an interview proved easier than we had anticipated. EGR turned to one of its many Industry Notable subscribers with ties to the cable industry and, after several phone calls, a date was set. We arrived several weeks later at the Ed home not knowing quite what to expect. We were pleased to find the master of the house sitting at a specially outfitted keyboard, humming to himself and surfing the World Wide Web.
Without further introduction EGR offers this historic exchange with the Dark Horse of Interactive Multimedia, as he several times referred to himself in our conversations.
One For Yes, Two For No
ED: Welcome to Ed Manor, Chris. May I call you Chris?
EGR: Oh sure. Very good of you to take the time to speak to our readers. I'm sure they'll be fascinated to hear what you've got to say about the New Media -- I can't help notice that you're currently in the Pathfinder site.
ED: Oh that. Yes, I've been keeping quite an eye on the Web. Who hasn't? This thing caught quite a few of us off guard -- Bill Gates has been pretty forthcoming about that -- but I'm proud to say I saw it coming years ago. In fact, it may surprise you that I was an early subscriber to the WELL. Do you know that system?
EGR: Really? The WELL? Why yes, of course. I believe it was Peter Lewis of The New York Times who called it "the toniest address in cyberspace" -- or words to that effect -- some years ago. Web years that is.
ED: [whinnys] Yeah, things certainly have been moving quickly haven't they?
EGR: So how did you come to be on the WELL? That was pretty early in all this.
ED: Well, Stewart Brand and I got to hanging out together at Gate 5 Road in Sausalito. This was not too long after Kesey was spreading all that acid around and Tom Wolfe was schlepping along on The Bus. What a hoot that was! Cultured, foppish little dude among all those howling drug-crazed maniacs.
Anyway, Stewart introduced me to some of the movers and shakers at that time. The people who really had their ear to the ground, you might say. Portola Institute, Global Business Network... Most folks don't realize how much this whole thing has been carefully planned behind the scenes. I'll bet you don't know that Tim Berners-Lee and Lou Rosetto -- you know, the Wired guy -- were doing 'shrooms in Yucatan with Tom Pynchon back in '66.
Did you ever see the Yage Papers? Well, no matter. It was a pretty obscure little volume. Letters between Bill Burroughs and Ginsberg. They'd discovered certain telepathic effects of iboguine, some jungle psychotropic they'd stumbled across via a couple of pretty hip shamen who'd been gigging in the city with Sun Ra. Turns out it wasn't just Bill and Allen doing that back then. There was already a kind of wireless network you might say.
It was a time of creative ferment, that's for sure. But you didn't come here to hear an old horse reminisce...
EGR: No, that's fascinating. And you were in on this scene while you were still shooting episodes?
ED: Oh yeah. We were totally ripped on the set most days. I mean, how else could you do something as utterly mindless as Mr. Ed? And it was wild, because America at that time was, as you know, totally straight. There we were riffing on the cosmic verities and planning a revolution in media that wouldn't happen for at least another 20 years.
EGR: Well, since you bring that up, let's fast forward to a couple years ago. From where you sit now, what was it that turned the corner in that respect. What really kicked the whole New Media thing into overdrive.
ED: Well, we tried with CD-ROM, but you saw how slow that was to catch on. It's doing OK today, but a lot of people lost a lot of money on that in the early days. Bill used to regularly come around crying about Bookshelf and how it was relevant as hell, and educational and all. Poor Bill. He still doesn't quite get it. But at least he's not sniveling as much in public these days.
I'd have to say it was really Jim Clark. Of course, everybody knows how he scored Andreessen and that team from NCSA and set up Netscape. Stroke of fuckin genius, that was. But most people on the outside don't know that Pynchon was a major backer of SGI, which is of course where Clark got the bucks in the first place. Clark was the guy got Tom started on that whole post-horn paranoia that comes out in The Crying of Lot 49. God, that was a funny book.
EGR: ...uh, that's real interesting, Ed. You seem to be quite well literarily connected. I'm sure that's an aspect of your career most of our readers wouldn't have guessed at.
ED: Well, you know, the entertainment biz is like any other. You gotta keep ahead of the curve. Always be watching for the Next Big Thing and all that. You look back, you find the artists are way ahead of the market research crowd. Every time. So I've always maintained certain connections to the weirder quarters of the literary scene. Now you take a William Gibson -- there's a boy that really had his finger on the pulse of things to come. Too bad they cast Keanu Reeves in that Johnny Mnemonic flick though. What a butthead! But I guess he's big with the chicks...
EGR: Getting back to the New Media, though...
ED: Oh yeah, well like I was saying, Netscape clearly tipped the scales and put the whole web thing over the top. Got it outta the goddammed universities. As to where it's going, nobody's really sure, of course. I can give you some off-the-top opinions though.
EGR: That's precisely what we're here for. How do you see Online evolving in say the next two-to-five years?
ED: I'm not sure you can frame it temporally. Things are moving a lot faster than they did in my day. For instance, I don't see a talking horse series being a real killer draw on the web, though I've got my agent looking into it.
To see the shape of things a year or more out, I think you have to look to the fiber guys. Did you see where MFS just did a tie up with UUNET? Now there's one to watch. Metropolitan has more miles laid than the telcos and is moving more IP in the background than most people realize. But still, that's commodity-level stuff.
EGR: How so?
ED: Well, it's just pipe. The transport layer is obviously something you can't do without, and Internet GUIs have given the folks a real big appetite for bandwidth, no denying that. However, the real challenge is where the value-add is going to come from. You can bet the answer isn't a bunch of wireheads cutting cable trenches or wiring prototype set-top boxes.
I think you've got to look at what Turner's doing with this @Home thing. Course, they've bitten off quite a bit there -- a new fiber IP backbone infrastructure, basically. Gonna cost Ted a bundle and the risk is high, but if he can pull it off it's the Holy Grail. I like to call it Higher Brandwidth.
EGR: Interesting turn of phrase, Ed. Tell us more about that.
Making Out OK
ED: Well, look, everybody knows nobody's making any money on this yet. Other than the HTML-cum-Photoshop hackers, I mean -- a bunch of ad agencies have jumped into this and are time-slicing with a freaking microtome...
EGR: Just parenthetically, can you unpack that one a bit?
ED: Sure. The agencies saw their bread-and-butter accounts going Internet and it scared the living crap out of them. So they hired a pack of longhairs and stuck them at terminals in the back room and said, hey look at us, we're in the World Wide Web business! We can have your site online and pulling down megabucks in three weeks flat! Of course, it's all bullshit for the most part. I've been in some of these shops and seen copies of "Teach Yourself CGI in 21 Days" lying around. It's pathetic really. Most of them don't know enough perl to code "hello, world."
EGR: But about the microtome business...
ED: Oh that. Yeah. You see, these agency web butchers are just responding to corporate demand, which is right now completely off the charts. It's a huge opportunity for them. But they don't have the staff to really service it. So what they do is dangle the carrot bigtime, sign up more accounts than Carter's has pills, then jerk them around with fancy administrative handwaving combined with enough dog-and-pony to wow the most jaded corporate honcho. These guys are past masters at this routine, believe me.
First they storyboard some trivial shit that has real flash value in PowerPoint. It'll never play on the net, and they know it, but that's OK by the agency people because the way they time-share their services -- with about 1000% more clients than they can adequately handle -- it's going to take a year and a half to get the site online anyway. And by that time, they figure, the tech will have changed so drastically they'll have to start the process all over again. Gravy for the agencies, of course, as it's all being done on a billable or cost-plus basis.
When any one of these clients gets too frustrated with this churning, the agency slaps up some pages a four year old could've produced with Navigator Gold. A lot of them I know hack these up in the first week as a contingency, then trot them out only when they're about to lose the account if they don't show something. And everybody knows that the corporate execs they're typically dealing with are so completely clueless they rarely if ever suspect they're being milked. It's a great scam, really, so who can blame them.
In the big picture, though, this is just penny-ante poker. The serious bucks are riding on high-speed delivery options.
EGR: Well, let's explore that. You mentioned TCI and @Home. Why is Turner betting the ranch on a project coupled with such high risk? Has he slipped his cable? Or does this involve the Grail Quest you alluded to earlier?
ED: The latter, absolutely. It's about advertising. Always was. Always will be. Let's face it, the Internet is a shitty place to advertise. Nobody ever wanted to see your toilet paper spot -- and online they don't have to. The air mouse was bad enough, but this is ridiculous.
EGR: Air mouse?
ED: You know, the remote. The thing you use to click to another channel when the sponsor's ad comes on. Wasn't like that when we were doing Mr. Ed. No sir! When you had to get up, and walk across that room, and turn a dial? No way! You were going to sit there like a good little consumer and watch the repulsive crap about the washday miracle or the toothpaste that got you laid or whatever. It was beautiful. The air mouse really put a big crimp in that though. And the Internet blows the doors off. I mean these kids aren't giving us enough time to download the graphic. They hit the next link and they're gone!
EGR: So how does net-via-cable change all that?
ED: Simple. At 40 megabits a second you can cram full-motion video down the pipe. No more of this reading bullshit. People don't want to read, they want a circus! They want to be razzled and dazzled. They seem to be happiest when the technology is essentially raping whatever cognitive apparatus they have left. And we simply can't rape them at 28.8 -- I mean it's like saying "Would you like to take off your shoes, first?" That just doesn't have the immediacy of say, a film, where we can give you fifteen violent deaths and three explosions before the opening credits are done rolling.
EGR: So you're saying speed is important to grab people...
ED: Grab em and hold em, son. That's the thing. Addict the bastards. Keep em coming back.
Today's web pages are like public libraries. You know the books are there. You think it's culturally relevant and a Great Thing for the Community and all that. But do you ever go there? Of course not. You go to the video store! Or maybe the movies. Fuck the library!
[As if to punctuate his strong feelings, Ed at this point in the conversation took a -- literally steaming -- 20-pound dump right in the middle his living room. He didn't miss a beat as his Eurasian houseboy hurried in with a silver shovel, but kept right on talking...]
Same thing on the web. You see something marginally useful so you bookmark it, hotlink it, whatever. Right? But do you ever go back? Unlikely. And if you do, do you stop to read the ads? Not unless it's for some freeware download that's costing somebody a bundle but has a lower ROI than human kindness. Nobody's making a nickel at this game. It's all jockeying for position. Not that that's not important, mind you. But there had better be a payoff here, and soon, or a lot of corporate cyber jocks are gonna be peddling their resumes down at the Rent-a-Suit office.
The trick is to push the medium to its full potential, which is of course, television.
EGR: You mean that as we get faster Internet connections, higher bandwidth, we are approaching TV?
ED: You got it, kid. Remember how FM radio used to be different from AM? More interesting stuff, sure, but no market for it. Well, we fixed that. Nothing sacred about TCP/IP, either; it's just another neutral conduit straight into The American Dream.
The point is to make it real-time so they can't just click away. If they do, they miss the next close-up evisceration, the C-4 explosion taking out the grade school, the super-horny degradation of the whore with a heart of gold -- whatever gets us a strangle-lock on those atavistic passions this medium is so good at stirring up. Doesn't matter that these are hopelessly worn cliches -- what's important is that they're not worn out! They work like a charm. They mesmerize!
What @Home and similar efforts promise is to make it even less rewarding to change channels than it was when you had to heave yourself out of that comfy armchair and walk over to the set to twist the channel knob.
You accomplish that and -- Bingo! -- you got your advertisers back!
EGR: But what about interactivity?
ED: Oh please! Interactivity can kiss my serene Illinois ass! So we give em a back-channel, big deal -- 28.8 is already better than they're getting on those over-saturated T1's companies are giving their migrant knowledge workers.
Give em freedom of speech too. Who cares. Have you seen anything really seditious on the net recently? It's not like the government is exactly about to fall from organized rebellion. Most of these people couldn't organize a trip to the water cooler. Fact is, we manfactured the whole CDA business to give the kids something less dangerous than reality to focus their youthful energies on.
[glancing at massive 24-karat Rolex] Look, I'm sorry about this, but I've got Al Gore and Newt Gingrich scheduled in ten minutes, so we're going to have to wrap this up.
EGR: We appreciate the time you've taken to share your unique view of where we are, where we've come from, and what we can expect to see next. I'm sure our readers will find much food for thought in what you've told us. Do you have any final words of advice you'd care to impart?
ED: Well it may sound trite, but I believe the one big thing to keep in mind is that Money Talks. It's all very well to ponder Change and Social Impact and Big Ideas, but at the end of the day, nobody's going to listen to you if you haven't made a bundle of hard cash. Look at me. I'm a goddam horse for christsake! Yet, in the final analysis, that doesn't matter one bit. I've got a shitpile of money and that's what people respect. Same with your big CEOs -- most of them I've met are no smarter than a crate of rocks, yet people suck up to them all the time. Why? Simple: because they're loaded! And that gives them a lot of power and makes them dangerous.
Always go back to the simple things. It's like Ockham's Razor, you know what I mean?
EGR: Thanks, Ed. Those are certainly words to live by.
ED: No problem, son. Been a real pleasure talking to you. Good luck with EGR and those IPO plans you were telling me about on the phone. Gimme a ring when you get the underwriter lined up.
Some of you have asked whether I'm still at IBM. Absolutely. Of course, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organization as a whole. Just in case you wondered.
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"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..." John Lennon