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October 18, 2007

Missed Opportunities

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For an arty guy with no technical gifts or interests, I smacked into the computer world at a relatively early stage. I don't mean "the computer world" in the absolute sense, by the way. When I was in high school back in 1970, for instance, computers were certainly around. But at that point they weren't of much interest (let alone of much use) to anyone other than extreme geeks.

In 1970, the idea of computers seemed futuristic in appealing ways. But the reality of computers was much less attractive. In the case of the high school I attended, for instance: Computing meant one small, airless room with a keyboard and punchcards, and a connection to what was mysteriously referred to as "the Dartmouth computer."

I poked my head into that computer room one time and one time only. Not pleasant: bad lighting, and full of geek b.o. and giggly social ineptitude. And why on earth would anyone think it was a big deal to be playing playing tic-tac-toe "with Dartmouth"? Since what I wanted from life was girls, movies, art, physical activity, and sunshine, computers in 1970 seemed like the opposite of everything I valued. They seemed like the antithesis of what I then thought of as "aesthetics."

No, for the sake of this posting anyway, what I mean by "computers" is computers in a somewhat later sense: computers at the time videogames and personal computers were starting to make a more-than-a-novelty kind of impact -- the early-to-mid '80s, roughly.

By then, computers and aesthetic matters didn't seem to occupy quite such opposite poles. Pong had long since given way to more complex games. Hard drives were beginning to seem like a plausible part of everyday reality. And when the original Macs came along -- in early 1984 -- the machines started to speak directly to the arty set. Right about then was when I woke up to the cultural implications of computing. I found myself on BBS's, for instance, caught up in debates about the impact of word processing.

For those who haven't encountered the philosophy-of- word-processing field: The advent of word processing hit a handful of culture-types very hard. Nearly all writers were delighted by the way the new tools enabled them to get their writing down so easily, of course. But a small band of culture-fiends also found themselves looking at the phenomenon from a longer point of view, and musing, "Hmm, you know, this word-processing thing might really change the whole 'writing' game at a very deep level ..."

It was a tiny world, this musing-over-the-aesthetic / cultural-implications-of-computers world. But for some reason I really zero'd in on it. For instance, I didn't just read Jay David Bolter and Michael Heim -- the philosophers of what word processing might mean in the big sense. I met and chatted with them.

In 1987, Apple's HyperCard gave non-techies a chance to mess with databases and programming. By the late 1980s, software created by Eastgate Systems was enabling experimentally-inclined writers to put together nonlinear literary creations. (Michael Joyce's "afternoon, a story" was the pioneer here.) The Voyager Company began publishing classy high-end cultural CD-ROMs. (Some of them can still be bought here.) Me, I played with the software. I attended HyperCard conferences and nonlinear-fiction seminars. I visited the Voyager offices and met with Bob Stein, its visionary manager, several times.

Hard to believe, but even as recently as 1990 there simply weren't many computer-wise culture-people around. (The World Wide Web didn't begin to make an impact on civilians until the mid-'90s, and wasn't launched until 1995. Even then the serious culture-set had its doubts ...) Some thousands, perhaps, but no more than that. Many culture-people had little time for computers, let alone for thinking about how computers would be affecting their fields. For most culturepeople circa 1990, email was kinda cool. Chat possibilities like the WELL appealed to some. But for most, especially in New York City, computers just weren't much. (People on the West Coast were far more open to computers, as well as to the possibilities they might be opening up.) Computers might enable culturepeople to do what they'd always done more cheaply, efficiently, and easily. But maybe not.

So those of us who did have a clue really bonded. One thing we bonded over was the question, Why was the mass of culturepeople being so dense? I remember meeting a professor who produced CD-ROMs, for instance. The two of us were soon hooting and laughing. It was such a relief to find someone else who "got" the computer-thing from a culture-and-arts point of view that we were literally pounding each others' back in happiness.

I recall still the question that we mainly connected over: A shared hunch that 1) the really important culture issue of the day was developing ways for civilians to interact with the cyberworld, and 2) the people who were doing the most important work on the problem -- in other words, the people who were doing the most important culture-work of that era, period -- weren't composers, poets, or conductors, let alone (giggle, snort) critics or intellectuals. Instead, it was the people who were designing video and computer games.

But we also bonded over our feelings of regret about how 90% of the traditional culture world was completely oblivious to all of this. On they went manufacturing buggy whips -- and being picky, snobbish, and pompous about the business of buggywhips -- even while the automobile industry was roaring into earth-changing life. Our arts-colleagues were being so square that we shared a sense of shame. After all, weren't the arts -- the field to which we were both devoted -- supposed to be exciting, fresh, and fun? Would we even have gone into the arts had we known in advance that the field was by 1990 going to be behaving in such a dreary fashion?

A couple of modest words before I return to the chest-beating: Obviously, I was 'way behind the real geeks in catching on to all this. I was also 'way behind the real digital-culture visionaries.

In fact, I'd stumbled into the whole thing more or less by accident. By the mid '80s, movies in the "arts" sense had lost their excitement, books were looking dumpy, and the new art seemed a lot like the old art. Art in the general sense was losing its luster and its sexiness; finance and careerizing had grabbed the spotlight away from them. If you were like me, a culturefan hanging out in the cultureworld, you might find yourself thinking, "So, culture-wise, where is the real action?" I sniffed around some, and I found computers. I got the implications instantly. Databases? Omigod! Nonlinearity? Holy fuck!

What's of more interest than my own awakening, though, is this: how the people in the culture world who I brought this news back to reacted. Pretty much en masse, they turned their noses up.

I remember telling one distinguished literary woman about hypertext, for instance. Her response was first to question -- rather rudely, I thought -- whether I knew what I was talking about. When she found that she couldn't shoot me down on the facts, she changed tack and turned the conversation into one about whether she thought hypertext was a good or a bad development. She was, after all, a Cultural Arbiter, and this is what Cultural Arbiters did. They ran seminars; they decided how "we" should react to new cultural developments. (Remember those days? Funny how some people's minds are still locked in those patterns, isn't it?)

I remember staring at her in disbelief. Finally I said, "Look, your opinion about this really doesn't matter. It's a huge train steaming down the tracks towards us. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing is completely unimportant. The only questions available to us at the moment are, Do we get on board? Do we get out of the way? Or do we get run over?" She dismissed me at that point. The Cultural Arbiter had been told that her opinion didn't matter -- and she didn't like hearing that.

A couple of the conclusions that I was forced to reach by such experiences. 1) Many culturepeople are flat-out dumb. 2) Many culturepeople are stuffy and entrenched in ways that can be hard to fathom.

How to explain how resistant they were to the news I was bringing them? In the first place, they didn't have the feet-on-the-ground experiences that I'd given myself. They hadn't played with the programs, and they hadn't met with the creators. So perhaps they just didn't know.

In the second place ... Well, perhaps they also found the notion that huge changes were coming their way threatening. They'd worked hard to get where they were, after all. Skills had been mastered, connections had been forged, hurdles had been overcome. The results were, as justice would have it, paychecks and respect. If that whole set of arrangements and rewards was going to be upended ... If a whole new set of characters was taking over the spotlight ... If, very soon, anyone -- just anyone -- was going to be able to create and link and publish and yak ... Well ... Well, basically they really didn't want to know about it.

I suspect that they found the developments I was telling them about upsetting and depressing, in other words. In fact, I have friends who are still turning their backs on these developments. They want nothing more than to write their books and paint their paintings, dammit. And they wish the world would behave in response to their activities as it once did. As a practical matter, I'm sorry to say, this attitude isn't serving many of them well. Many are sliding into depression and inactivity. It must not be a nice feeling, having history pass you by.

But back to me-me-me. So there I was: arty, informed, tuned-in, and gasping with amazement at the era we had entered. Culture was going digital, the process was well underway and was happening faster and faster every day, and there was no getting around any of these facts.

From my point of view, this story made every other culture-story that I encountered look very small. Who could get worked up about whether Michael Ondaatje was any good when the very basis of publishing -- when the very nature of reading and writing -- was changing? Who could bother working up an opinion about the work of the latest hot movie director when movies as we'd always known them were coming to an end? (I haven't been the only person who has been struck by this thought ...)

Now I'm going to prey on your sympathies just a little. Imagine me in the position I've just described. I'd awakened to the biggest cultural story of the era. (Perhaps the biggest one since the invention of TV, or movies, or maybe even the printing press, in fact.) I was a passable writer ... I had a good background in trad culture ... I had access to editors and publications ... I knew the players and I had the contacts ... AND I COULDN'T PERSUADE ANYONE TO LET ME WRITE ABOUT THESE TOPICS.

As the all-caps screaming would indicate, I feel a little exasperated about this still. At the time, though, I felt cross-eyed with frustration, rather like a foreign correspondent who has run across a startling war or disaster, and whose editors back at the home office refuse to run any stories about the topic until they've seen similar stories in other publications.

What a waste, or a shame, or something. Gilbert Seldes was there for radio and television, Tom Wolfe was there for the zaniness and upheavals of the radical '60s, Pauline Kael was there for the movies of the '60s and '70s ...

After all, it takes more than just talent to make for great cultural writing. Seldes, Wolfe, and Kael were monster talents who also found fab subjects and who were then given the opportunity to publish their observations and thoughts about what they encountered. Talent plus subject matter plus opportunity -- that's the ticket.

In my small way, I was ready to do my bit for the early years of culture's transition to a digital basis. It was all in place, almost. But where Seldes, Wolfe, and Kael lucked into (or found, or created) receptive and supportive editors, I encountered pained smiles, flat-out refusals, and offers to write profiles of the latest hot actor instead. I had enough talent, I had genuinely great subject matter ... But the opportunity never came my way.

No use crying over spilt milk, of course. Who knows how many other alert, culture-observin' types have had wonderful opportunities denied them. And, to be fair, I deserve much of the blame for my little failure. I wasn't determined to have a pro career as a culture-observer in the first place. I had little drive to be a pundit. So it wasn't my way to apply a lot of pressure. Where peddling myself as a culture-observer went, my attitude was always a little too much along the lines of: "You aren't thrilled by my idea? Well, your loss."

(In my defence, it was partly my floaty disengagement from the usual culture-scene concerns that enabled me to locate and investigate the transition-to-digital story. Had I been a more focused, hard-driving type, I wouldn't have had a clue; I'd have been thrilled to write that profile of the new movie star. I mention this not merely to dwell on myself but to illustrate a conundrum. The news business is partly in the business of finding and passing along something called "the news," of course. But what happens when the real news is something that's really new? At such moments, a devotion to the usual business of the news can mean that the news establishment misses the real news entirely. That's what I think has happened with the transition-to-digital story.)

In any case, a lot of what has needed to be covered and said has been done by other kinds of writers: business, science, and tech reporters, for instance. Trade reporters too, who are often far wiser to economics and business, and to how things are changing and why, than the usual critics and intellectuals are. Trade reporters have to be alert, after all; there's no way to report about publishing or cinematography today without getting up to speed with digital technology. As a consequence, in recent years I've gotten a lot more cultural thought-fodder out of following Publishers Weekly and the cinematographers' magazines than I have out of the NYT Book Review Section or out of Sight and Sound.

All that said, I'm going to muse for a second about what my experiences might mean or reflect. The main thing: Lordy, but editors can be square, and can have their heads stuck in the sand. In the minds of too many editors, arts critics review movies, books, and music, while cultural reporters talk about advances, feuds, box office, and personalities. There seems to be no place in the usual art-coverage roster for someone who keeps his eyes open for larger, tectonic changes.

But perhaps the editors were right: Perhaps there was no demand for discussions and musings about the cultural implications (and effects) of digitization. Still, given that they never tried this angle out, how could any of us know for sure? Hey, why aren't any economists taking note of this particular market failure and trying to make sense of it?

Still: Sigh. I could have done such a good job of covering the world-is-going-digital story from a culture and cultural-implications point of view. I coulda made some real contributions to the general culture-conversation. I coulda had myself a rep and a career, too, instead of having to spend all these years plugging away as a flunky, deferring to people with opinions about Michael Ondaatje. It was a big opportunity lost, and the likes of it aren't likely to come around again, at least not for me.

(That's OK! I'm over it!)

On a less self-centered note: The world could certainly have used someone covering these developments and questions, darn it, even if it wasn't me. Ideas, observations, and facts badly needed to be put on the table for discussion.

The arts world could have used such a figure too. For one reason: Biz, tech, and science people, and trade reporters, as good as they often are, usually aren't equipped to discuss and / or evaluate cultural-arty facts, implications, and effects. For another: Being so slow-to-awaken and behind-the-curve has made the arts world look comically out-of-it. The arts have come to seem stuffy and silly, even reactionary. Art-and-culture used to have some sparkle, and some sex appeal. These days ... If what I pick up from the kids, er younger adults, who I encounter around NYC is any indicator, the arts (in all but the digital-pop-arts sense) have become completely irrelevant to their lives. This didn't have to be the case.

What the experience has mainly left me wondering about, though, is this: How many other great stories are we not hearing enough about, simply because Those Who Decide What's News are being close-minded and unresourceful? Any hunches from anyone about what the underreported, under-acknowledged Great Stories of Our Era might be?

And how about you? What has your own greatest missed opportunity been? Let's keep it to professional or semi-professional matters. Those sweeties in high school and college who we really should have made a play for? Well, that's a great subject too. But let's save that one for another posting.



posted by Michael at October 18, 2007


"Those sweeties in high school and college who we really should have made a play for? Well, that's a great subject too. But let's save that one for another posting."

You are a mind-reader.

I don't think "we" are missing much now, those of us who frequent the blogosphere. Sometimes I wish I could miss some "new developments", but BoingBoing won't let me.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on October 18, 2007 6:54 PM

Oh, yah. There's PLENTY out there. You read about those little $100 computers for third-world kids? No one really knows what will happen when they begin to chatter. In fact, some older folks are having second thoughts.

In fact, some -- not just in China either -- are having second thoughts about even letting ordinary people post at will and network and put VIDEO of things you aren't supposed to see on YouTube.

And in the meantime, out here in Montana, institutions like the state library are planning to lock their doors and make everyone contact them only through computers. THEN maybe they can get some ORDER out of the chaos. Just get all those needy people out of the building. And so, in one more way, the poor, the old, and even the blind that the library was supposed to help are shut out.

Meantime, the feds want to number ALL the animals: cows in feedlots, horses on the range, pigeons in the dovecot, guinea pigs in pet shops. We want everything numbered -- disease control, you know. And cameras on the people -- security.

The next step is not the consequences for art. It's social consequences -- not just economic, but in the way we sort ourselves out and how we defend ourselves. If we can.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 18, 2007 10:58 PM

My greatest missed opportunity? Turning down a ticket to Harvard signed by the retired head of their biology department. I'd worked with him studying honeybee dance communication on the Salt Marsh on Cape Cod for two summers.

But by the end of high school I was leaning towards creative writing and away from biological field research. And a university degree in the humanities was obviously a great swindle. Plus I was stubbornly determined not to take money for education from my family.

So I moved into my own place at 18, got a job, and wrote nights and weekends. Some years later, when my contact had passed on, I realized a biology degree from Harvard might not be a bad idea for an aspiring Science Fiction writer...

...but at least I've never had any student loan debt!

Posted by: Nate on October 19, 2007 8:29 AM

Databases? Omigod! Nonlinearity? Holy fuck!

I think quite possibly my biggest missed opportunity was not writing the above phrase first. Damn you, Michael Blowhard!

Interesting, b/c I've been putting off writing an essay on regrets. Truthfully, I don't have many: how can I regret what's contributed towards putting me in the happy place.

However, those few I have do gnaw away at me, albeit in tiny nibbles. Why, for instance, did I waste 3 years of youth in crazy-80s NYC writing ads in a rat-infested Madison Avenue sweatshop? Why did I finish school a semester early blow in between selling schmattes? And while we're at it, why didn't I f*ck the TV star?

I guess my biggest dumbass crime was not giving in to my muse earlier. I was so hell-bent on being respectable, even while I was busy telling myself I was subverting the dominant paradigm by working from the inside. Ha. Hahaha.

Ah, well. I've (mostly) given up beating on myself over my weaknesses. Why bother? Clearly, I wasn't up to the task. That's like yelling at a five-year-old for being bad at quadratic equations. Talk about wasting time and annoying pigs.

I do wish you'd gotten it out there back then, MB, if only because I might have discovered these wunnerful computers a wee bit sooner. Can my biggest missed opportunity be the 50 times we ran into each other at Chock Full O Nuts and never said "hi"?

Posted by: communicatrix on October 19, 2007 10:36 AM

My first job out of college, in 1971, was working as a purchasing agent for what later became the Digital Computer Lab at the University of Illinois. I had to be persuaded to take this job. Nobody want it. The liberal, hippie zeitgist of the time was that computers were dehumanizing, gray machines.

By the time I hit NYC in 1976, my mindset had changed dramatically. I could earn (in 1976 dollars!) 30 to 60 bucks an hour to do word processing, or to write BASIC precedures.

You've kind of left out the financial part of this, Michael. I found a way to make a substantial living working 20 hours a week! (Back in those days, I rented a floor through in Brooklyn for $325 a month.) I earned enough to support a family and still pursue my ambitions as a musician. I financed my first recordings by working a little overtime.

My prowess with the computer brought me into contact with business people I had never known. Previously, I had sealed myself within the liberal cocoon of academia and the arts. I discovered, much to my amazement, that corporate lawyers and investment bankers are people!

These days, I've assembled a sound and video studio in my home. This is great. I think that what is more important is that I learned to respect technology and the people who create it and finance it.

In the large scale, grand way of looking at things that the left loves, I learned some very odd lessons. Marxism didn't deliver on its promise of freedom and plenty. Old fashioned American capitalism and technology did! The left seems still unable to absorb this lesson.

I continue to enjoy freedom beyond the imagination of my father and grandfathers. This freedom is financed by my gun slinger skills as a programmer and multimedia developer. In reality, my MO has not changed in 30 years. Nothing can stop me from practicing my art.

What an amazing place is this America!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 19, 2007 11:33 AM

A few years ago I got miffed at waiting to be recognized at a commercial real company.

My immediate supervisor (hired over me after I had been with the company for 6 years, and he had been out of the real estate market for over 10 years) was an alcoholic misogynist. I didn't think I could take another day working with this obnoxious, snake-oil salesman.

The field of commercial real estate is extremely male-dominated, and I guess I just didn't have the cojones enough to fight back harder.

Long story short - I quit, left the field, and the company is now in the midst of developing several city blocks worth of construction (high-rises, retail, parking lots and a major player hotel). Very. Big. Deal.

A conversation with my old boss recently made me realize I jumped ship too soon, and would have been given a lot more money and responsibility if I had toughed it out a little longer.

(The butthead chauvinist supervisor got in a bar fight and was fired a month after I left the company.)

Moral of the story?

Don't make career choices while in a tizz; given enough rope, every worthless butthead supervisor will eventually hang himself.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 19, 2007 11:35 AM

You know, I forgot about the missed opportunity bit.

If I had stayed at the Digital Computer Lab, I would have been a contemporary of Marc Andreesen, and the other boys who developed the first web browser.

Back in those days, I was still dumb struck by the big lights and the big city. I didn't understand at all that a general de-centralization of intellectual power was taking place.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 19, 2007 12:25 PM

The biggest unreported story of 2007? Modern molecular biology, in particular modern genomics.

I heard George Church come by Caltech a few years ago to describe his plans to make machines that would allow anybody on earth to get their own genome sequence for $1K. We're close to that goal now, and will be there in a few years.

To put it mildly, technology of that sort is going to make 2027 very different from today. But it's mostly being ignored, because it's, well, not something the Cultural Arbiters want to hear about: it doesn't involve them, but really nerdy guys with hard-science degrees drudging away in fluorescent-lit labs at all hours; and the practical results are likely to be politically quite incorrect.

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on October 19, 2007 12:53 PM

As usual, my tale is on the small-beer end of the scale. I spent about 22 years working for one government or another. The last, 12-year, stint ended only a year ago, so it wasn't like gummint folks were oblivious to computers. No, the problem was that the computer thing was (gasp!!) bureaucratized.

The agency wanted some data products, but if computerized (and they had to be -- no other way to do it), various "standards" had to be observed. Perfectly reasonable standards from a computer science perspective, I might add. But the programming backlog for core agency stuff was such that none of the IS staff could be spared for the work my section wanted.

What to do? Why program the stuff myself using an oddball, unsanctioned array-processing language (initially APL, but mostly the J language, a cousin of the super-speedy K systems used on Wall Street). So I wrote the systems, cranked out the needed data and management reluctantly had to live with it because they had no alternative. In fact, they recently had to use one of the clandestine systems to crank out their latest set of population projections. Because there's still no software system that meets the bureaucratic ideals.

Not a tale of missed opportunity, but more like Michael's experience with editors and arbiters -- a tech frustration tale related to fixed mindsets.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 19, 2007 2:42 PM

This topic reminds me of James Burke’s “Connections” and how world events and technology build off each other. It seems some of us can see the bigger picture while even the most self-professed “open minded” people cannot (or will not).

Posted by: lordsomber on October 19, 2007 6:13 PM

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