The lowest form of popular culture -- lack of information,
misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the
reality of most people's lives -- has overrun real journalism. Today,
ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.
RageBoy's IntroductionBack when we used to give a shit, David Weinberger interviewed us, ostensibly for Wired magazine. After many months of what we can only imagine was deep and penetrating cogitation, the editors there came close to running this, then changed their minds at the last minute for reasons we'll never know. Possibly it was something they ate.
This was before David began publishing the now infamous Journal of the Hyperactive Organization upon which EGR has recently launched a major electro-memic offensive. In keeping with this ad hominem inter-website warfare, this issue of EGR seeks to make Weinberger look foolish by re-introducing a note of high moral seriousness into the discussion, thus making it appear that we have been sober and thoughtful all along and that it is he, not ourselves, who is responsible for the gratuitous surrealism that has lately been perpetrated on the hapless readers of both publications. While he today publicly complains that JOHO has been invaded by space aliens, he must have forgotten the line toward the end of the current interview where we provided ample warning about "radically blurring the boundaries of what's inside and outside, yours and theirs..."
As this is an older, heretofore unpublished piece, we should explain that we are no longer at Displaytech, though we are still good friends [Talking Heads, Television Man]. Also, so as not to give offense, we have disguised Dr. Weinberger's participation in what follows.
David Wired-Burger's IntroductionWhile Chris Locke (http://www.panix.com/~clocke) says he has "zip in the way of formal credentials," he has managed to be years ahead of the crowd in AI, SGML (which begat HTML), the Internet and the Web. In 1983, he was a bankrupt building contractor in Boulder. Six months later, he was the only American working inside the Japanese Fifth Generation artificial intelligence project. Following stints at Ricoh, Fujitsu, Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, CMP, Mecklermedia, MCI and IBM, Locke is now vp business development at Displaytech in Boulder (http://www.displaytech.com). Under a very different hat, he is also the unrepentant perpetrator of Entropy Gradient Reversals (http://www.rageboy.com), an e-zine that serves up his twisted reflections on the Web, organizational devolution, and the secret role of Mr. Ed in the Global Infotainment Industry.
The Inverted-Reverse Panopticon
Wired-Burger: You were among the first to see the emergence of the Web as significant to industry, yet you also warned of how it differed from mass media. As businesses come to realize the Web isn't generating the immediate revenues they hoped for, intranets are suddenly being eyed as the infrastructure that could bring real benefit to business. How important are intranets?
Proto-RB: Very. But, as usual, 98% of corporations are missing the point. Too many see them as a way of defending themselves from customers -- the focus is on the firewall that keeps the market at bay. Smarter companies realize that intranets are an opportunity to participate in their markets in new ways. You could say that intranets entail a sort of reverse inversion of the old Panopticon idea.
Wired-Burger: Obviously. One question, though: What the hell is a Panopticon?
Proto-RB: It's an old Kafkaesque vision of a prison in which the inmates can be seen at all times, but can't see their jailers. Mass media inverted this in the sense that the imprisoning TV Eye saw nothing, yet we all watched it for clues to our cultural identity. Now imagine that each of these prison cells somehow gets wired to all the rest and the inmates can now observe their overseers. Not only see them, but speculate about their motives, compare notes on their intentions. That's what the Internet does. Suddenly the overseer is like an insect mounted on a pin for all to view. While corporations online are only marginally aware of what's being said about them, they are uncomfortably aware that these conversations are taking place -- and that the control they had in the days of broadcast is simply gone. We're not just watching the ads, we're publicly deconstructing them. In this context, firewalls and intranets naturally look like saviors, a form of corporate PGP designed to insulate against a scary new kind of marketplace. It's paranoia.
Wired-Burger: A paranoia with a history longer than that of the Web.
Proto-RB: Absolutely. It's roots lie in the worldwide fractionation of markets. Industrial-era companies were predicated on command-and-control infrastructures that served the goals of mass production, with mass markets, mass media and mass culture serving as handmaidens. Once upon a time, all necessary design and process knowledge could reside in the head of the Top Dog. Think Henry Ford. But that was then -- it's been a long time since you could manage through the tiered distribution of work orders. The information doesn't reside at the top anymore. The core has melted down.
Wired-Burger: Whereas the Internet and intranets are profoundly decentralizing and individuating.
Proto-RB: Well, the Internet is -- the jury is still out on intranets. Historically, the explosion of niche markets caused a demand for knowledge beyond what could be supplied out of the executive suite, and this accelerated a trend that predates the net. In the 70's, the Total Quality Movement drove designers to the shop floor because that's where genuine process knowledge is. Only the person running the drill press knows that you can't get a clean hole through 5/8" laminate with this particular machine because, despite the manufacturer's specs, the clamp has a 7/8" footprint.
Wired-Burger: And intranets seem like an ideal way to gather and distribute that information, from the ground up.
Proto-RB: Only if corporations figure this out. John Seely Brown at Xerox PARC talks about how the most valuable information often gets transferred over a cup of coffee as service people trade war stories. This often tacit knowledge can't be "rationalized" or automated, but can only develop through unstructured, bottom-up, ad hoc conversations. Intranets are great for that. Fixed-field databases suck. You have to actually participate in conversations that feel like they're being held outside of the sanctioned corporate view. That's precisely the unappreciated potential of the inverse reversed Panopticon -- but only if you get rid of the notion of prisoners and overseers, only if you can jettison the old addiction to command and control. Then, with everybody wired, the organization can use these conversations as a vital source of information about real market needs and perceptions, as well to gather process savvy.
Wired-Burger: But it's a cacophony. Can we use software to capture this information...
Proto-RB: If you want to go back to the 19th century, talk to a software company! When all you've got is algorithms, old-style workflow and "intelligent agents," then everything looks like an "automation opportunity." Give me a break! Manufacturing saw through this 25 years ago. They bought into AI programs that showed transformations and decision nodes as black boxes. But when you opened these boxes, inside was either the person working the drill press down on the shop floor or -- and this was more usual -- grossly inadequate information. You can't automate that level of expertise. For one thing, it's changing too fast. You don't even know enough to ask the right questions.
Unlike the automated information systems designed for mass production, intranets could facilitate the kind of conversational knowledge exchange we're talking about. Two caveats though. First, companies need to ask and listen, not demand compliance with foregone corporate knee-jerk conclusions. Second, you can't put artificial boundaries around these things.
Wired-Burger: Including keeping intranets within the firewall.
Proto-RB: Right. In fact, with "extranets" organizations open up a window on their internal goings-on -- and this is going to be the best type of advertising a company can do: instead of putting up images of what the corporation would like people to believe, they'll open up a window so people can see what's really going on.
Wired-Burger: Like a Greek restaurant where they take you into the kitchen to show you the food.
Proto-RB: Yes. Sometime soon, companies will have to open up significant potions of their Intranets -- while still protecting their few genuine secrets -- in order to create relationships with their markets, rather than barriers against them. Otherwise, it's the tired old not-invented-here syndrome -- "We know everything we need to know. Why should we look beyond our own borders?" That's just plain wrong, and everybody knows it. Especially your workers and your customers. If you doubt this, take a closer look at what's going down on the nasty dirty underbelly of the net. Nobody's taking any wooden nickels down there anymore.
Wired-Burger: So an indication of a company that's figured it out is that we'll see fewer Usenet signoffs that say "My views don't necessarily represent those of my employer."
Proto-RB: Exactly. I've seen -- let's call it Company X -- whose employees were all over certain Usenet groups, not as PR hucksters, but saying things like "Here are six things you might try, but don't do this other thing because it's a rat hole." Very helpful. At the same time, at competing Company Y it was as if there were a directive to the effect that "you shall not participate without the permission of the VP of corporate communications." This quickly got these newsgroups asking "Where the fuck is Company Y? Don't they even know we're here?" In that period, Company X picked up a very significant share of market. This isn't a hypothetical case. Or any accident. In fact, "Company X" was run by a guy named Clark. He later launched an internet startup whose name begins with "N" -- perhaps you've even seen this letter on certain web browsers...
Wired-Burger: It sounds like the very notion of "the corporation" is challenged by this direct connection to the market since an online conversation with an engineer may be the closest we ever get to a company.
Proto-RB: Yeah. When CEOs have glorified secretaries who cruise online for them and send them faxes about what's going on, how can they be credible or effective? Companies say they need to protect their intellectual property, but the PR group doesn't know enough to be able to sterilize the information going out! It's a real structural-epistemological problem. At some point you've got to break down and trust people both inside and outside "your" organization. And the Web is largely responsible for those quotation marks -- it's radically blurring the boundaries of what's inside and outside, yours and theirs. The only way companies can be authentic is to empower people with the knowledge to disseminate it. And from here on out, that's always going to mean a two-way street between workplace and marketplace.
Wired-Burger: Authenticity for corporations. The term "authenticity" is so rooted in radical individualism that it's hard to see how it can apply to corporations.
Proto-RB: Maybe it can't. But if not, we're in for some truly monster changes that will make the current web hysteria look like the historical semicolon it really is.
Entropy Gradient Reversals
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Entropy Gradient Reversals CopyLeft Christopher Locke firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.rageboy.com
"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..." John Lennon
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