There is a marvelous scene in the Woody Allen
film "Annie Hall
" in which Allen's character, Alvy Singer, is waiting on line in a movie theater. An obnoxious man behind him is pontificating on the real meaning behind the writing of Marshall McLuhan
so Allen turns to confront him.
"...Marshall McLuhan? You don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan."
"Oh really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called "TV media and culture" so I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity."
Since the film director is all-powerful at blurring the line between reality and fiction, the real Marshall McLuhan happens to be standing in front of Woody Allen in line at the theater.
"Well that's funny because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here ... Come over here a second (To McLuhan). Tell him.
"I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work...How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."
Woody Allen turns to the camera and delivers one of the all-time classic movie lines directly to the filmgoer.
"Boy, if life were only like this."
I call them "pufferfish
," the boastful or self-aggrandizing types who visit the tavern for no reason other than to impress the occupant of the next stool or the poor bastard stuck behind the bar. I've endured them in their thousands and am largely unimpressed. In my experience it's the quiet ones that you've got to watch out for.
The most interesting person at the bar, or in real life for that matter, spends more time listening than talking and rarely makes a spectacle of themself. The prim, quiet woman across from you on the train this morning might well have been a Nobel Prize winning chemist but you will never know because she didn't advertise. Genuine Earth shakers don't pine for attention, you've got to draw them out.
When the dot com craze began, the bar was lousy with geniuses all of a sudden who were eager to expound on the real significance of the scene and their role in it. You couldn't swing a cat without hitting an Internet millionaire or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a limitless expense account and a falsely inflated sense of self worth.
The Internet phenomenon to them was little more than a vehicle of commerce, so their wealth was adequate evidence of their genius. I had to stand mute and prepare cocktails, enduring aggressively wrong-minded people blustering about the real importance of the Internet. I started to feel very alone in my poverty and my idealism.
It seemed to me that World Wide Web was the ultimate realization of the Open University, the death of elitism and proprietary knowledge. Focusing on the network as an agent of commerce is like saying that the automobile is a great invention because you can sit in the driveway and listen to the radio. I felt that they were missing the point.
I stopped making judgements about people based on their livelihood the third or fourth time that I ran into a savant
washing dishes. It never occurred to me to ask John what he did for a living or for a rundown of the highlights of his resume. I gathered that he was a computer person of some description and most likely a good one because he was quiet about it. If you sit at my bar I'll ask your name and what you're good at but how you make your money seems irrelevant.
John was the best kind of regular, the kind who shows up often enough that I can remember his name but with sufficient rarity that I'm genuinely happy to see him when he does. Business called him to Minneapolis a couple of times a year in the mid-1990s, during the heyday of Internet awareness and since he shared my enthusiasm for computers in general and the Internet specifically we formed a conversational bond.
I was afire with enthusiasm for the Internet and never tired of discussing its potential. When the National Science Foundation lifted the commercial restrictions on the Net they couldn't have anticipated the wacky growth of the thing but I did. A moment of epiphany showed me a world with a billion hosts communicating freely and I knew in my heart that it was the most important development in human affairs since language itself.
The most interesting thing about John was that in spite of his expansive technical expertise he did nothing to quell my childlike exuberance for the magic of the machines or the potential of the Internet. I felt my worldview vindicated when John was around because he knew more about computers than anyone I knew but had not yet given in to cynicism over their potential. I could spout the most outrageous opinions without fear of ridicule.
"I think the Internet is the end of war."
"You may be right."
It was a quiet night at the bar, one pufferfish, his bootlicker
and a young woman in a business suit who was alternating between admiration and disdain for the pufferfish. When the man paid her tab with a loud flourish she pretty much locked onto admiration. The woman was in town to interview for a job with General Mills
, traditional industry and breakfast cereal, solid but lacking glamour. The vocal success of the dot com millionaire
was throwing her off a little and she seemed to be contemplating a career change right there at the bar.
"You own the company? That must be very exciting."
"We went public in July," then a knowing wink to his bootlicker, "little beans compared to the merger we're working on."
The pufferfish was buying her drinks for all of the wrong reasons and the poor woman thought that she was interviewing for a job. I've been a reluctant voyeur to this kind of icky scene too many times and was wishing them all away when one of my favorite regulars showed up.
John took a seat at the opposite end of the bar from the other three and ordered his typical glass of red wine. I was eager to escape the freakshow at the other end of the bar so I bent John's ear about a story in that morning's newspaper. It was a funny piece about the fragility of the nascent Web. A group of winos and transients had gathered beneath a bridge at the University of Minnesota, built a fire to stay warm and melted the fiber optic bundles that connected the Gopher State to the rest of the world.
He had seen the story on the Web and was opening his mouth to comment when the pufferfish loudly intervened.
"Give us all a Zima, set up the whole damn bar!"
Quite a gesture, I thought, on a Sunday night with four people in the lounge. I looked at John and rolled my eyes and he waved off the free Zima. I fetched three bottles of the nasty stuff from the cooler and delivered them to the loud man and his cohorts.
"What about the guy at the other end, give him a Zima too! Put it on my tab, son."
"No, thanks just the same, I'll stick to the wine."
"You should try Zima, it's awesome. Everybody's gonna be drinking it before long. I own a company that has the exclusive rights to advertise it on the Internet."
The bootlicker made a loud slurping sound as he extracted the last of his Tom Collins through a straw and eagerly grabbed his bottle of Zima.
"This stuff is awesome."
The businesswoman sipped the transparent beverage from Hell and grimaced.
"It's, uh, different."
"You bet it's different, sweetie, that's what people want. I'm gonna have the whole world drinking that stuff before long. Banner ads are the wave of the future."
I returned to the other end of the bar and John resumed the conversation interrupted by the rush on Zima.
"Maybe those winos knew what they were doing when they knocked out the Net."
My idealism about the Internet surfaces whenever John visits the bar. I've always believed that avarice
were the tag team enemy of mankind and that the best of all possible worldwide webs could defeat them both. If information is freely exchanged people will become too smart to be taken advantage of. I could talk to John about possible futures and he'd play right along.
"I can see a world where a complete University education is free on the Internet."
"It will probably happen sooner than you think. I saw an article on the wire today that the Library of Congress has devoted billions to scanning documents for free display."
The pufferfish overheard John and his sensibilities were offended.
"That's not free, friend, that's my tax money they're being generous with. This whole 'open source, let's all share' mentality is as dead as the dinosaurs. The Web will be all about counting eyeballs and making money."
"I wouldn't bet on that if I were you." John was confident but polite, "that bubble might burst."
"Well, I appreciate your advice, friend but I already bet on it and won big. I've been on the Net since they opened it up back in '91 so I think I know what I'm talking about. Get me another one of those Zimas, son."
The man had been playing the game of Internet longevity one-upsmanship so long and so successfully that he considered 1991 a conversation ender. John couldn't resist claiming seniority.
"Well, with all due respect, I've been on the Net since it was developed, closer to 1971 and I can tell you with certainty that it wasn't designed for commerce. The whole intention of the network was the uninhibited exchange of data packets. Open source isn't a mentality, it's the nature of the beast."
"Yeah right, everybody's an expert. I suppose you invented the Internet like Al Gore."
"Well, I wouldn't say I invented it. I was node number 12 at Urbana so the guys at node numbers one and two should get the real credit."
"Nodes? What are those, some kind of geek BBS you used in college?"
"No, the ARPANET project that created the Internet. The initial hosts were referred to by node number and mine was number 12. I was on the team that wrote the TCP/IP protocol though, so I suppose you could say I was there at the beginning."
"The T.C.I.C.P what? What the hell is that?"
"It's the language of the Internet. It's kind of complicated, you probably wouldn't understand."
I warned you that I would write a story about you and I have done just that. I refer to you
only as "John" in the story to give you plausible deniability but become more specific when I mention that you were node #12 at Urbana. The story is fictionalized so I put words in your mouth and hope that you are not offended by it.
Hey, good to hear from you! and reminds me that it has been far too
long since we talked. I am going to have to find a reason to go to
Minneapolis. Actually I do have, last summer I mailed 16 boxes of my
archives to the Babbage Institute.
Anyway the only reaction I have to your story is to quote the
dedication to his father of Mark Salzman's Lost in Place: "....
whose reaction to this book was to say that he enjoyed it but felt
that my portrayal of him was inaccurate. I put him, he complained,
in an excessively positive light."