The March Issue of Wired, the computer industry's utopian fashion monthly, declares its wish to supplant the Web with media more suited to advertising. In a “special bulletin” by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, and with its customary overstatement and retinal-torture colors, the magazine devotes its cover and the eleven pages that follow to “PUSH! Kiss your browser goodbye: The radical future of media beyond the Web”--a manifesto on the “emerging universe of networked media that are spreading across the telecosm.”
This universe doesn't exist yet, so Wired evokes its promise with the language of a sci-fi movie trailer: “Think video. Think text flickering over your walls. Think games that work. Think anything where a staid, link-based browser is useless.” Imagine “a zillion non-page items of information and entertainment.”
The Web, sadly, is just “an archive medium”. It's “a wonderful library,” Wired says, “but a library nonetheless.” Hey, who wants to surf in a public building? What today's Netizens really want is “a land of push-pull, active objects, virtual space and ambient broadcasting.”
This land won't rise from the work of the ordinary schlubs who now fill the Web's library with goods that offer rather than push. No, this Shangri-La will be summoned from the void by “20-year-old hot shots in the labs of PointCast, ESPNET, SportsZone and CNET.” Thanks to their pioneering genius, the browser is already “dying as the main event, to be reborn as a subsumed function and occasional option.”
Even though “the design of what is emerging...is now neither clear nor important,” Wired is sure it will let you “move seamlessly between media you steer (interactive) and media that steer you (passive).”
Let us pause to observe that the notion of media that steer you was never part of the Net's—or any other media's—appeal. The Internet's success owes exactly nothing to those who would use it for manipulation.
But I'll hand it to the editors of Wired: when they sell out, they go all the way. Not long ago, the magazine wrote an April Fool piece on “The death of the Web”. Now they mean it. “It turns out only a handful of us are up for the vigorous activity of reaching out to engage the world,” they say. “Most of us are still addicted to passive media.” Which, it turns out, is a good thing, because “there's a little couch potato in all of us.”
Pity the poor spuds forced to face “information framed on a two-dimensional hypertext page,” and to “navigate blind clickable links and search engine requests, drilling down to try to find what they want.” No wonder such labor-intensive tools are “retreating into the bowels of the Net.”
Wired wants your inner potato to enjoy “a more full-bodied experience that combines many of the traits of networks with those of broadcast.” This combination is what our young farmers call push media: “content is pushed to you, in contrast to the invitational pull you make when you click on the Web.”
“The central mission” of this new agriculture “is to shoot every conceivable media flavor across, through, in between and around a network that includes every possible hardware device.” What you get will be “in-your-face, immersive, experiential push media.”
The editors say “at first glance all this looks a lot like the revenge of TV.” At last, from beneath the Web's riot of voluntary vegetation “the subterranean instincts of couch potatoes rise again!”
Wired tells us “push” has been with us since the Dawn of Art. In journalism, for example, “once you dive into a story...the author pushes you along, and the magazine steers.” At movies you “surrender to the director's manipulation of your emotion and your mind.” Indeed, art is a pushy business.
And thankless too. Consider the pitiless consumers whose constant rejection the pushers endure. “In the competitive jungle of 500,000 channels”, today's pushiest media are subject to “the relentless interactive tick of the zapper.”
“That almost neurotic urge to zap,” Wired says, “has falsely led people to think that what viewers want is more zapping, more control, more steering. What they want instead are more ways to zap.” Enter “the emerging postbrowser interfaces” that “create different ways to play human attention.”
Sadly, the Web is too demanding for the average spud. “Web users suffer a sense of being lost and overwhelmed.” More than half of them have given up surfing, Wired laments, because they just hit the same old sites, or they find “the signal is camouflaged by all the noise.”
That noise is made by spuds whose web content is second-rate, or worse, kind of a hobby. They've turned the Web into a craft fair of bad watercolors and lopsided ceramic bowls, where such in-your-face ties as those created by the artisans at Wired are all too rare.
“Yeah, rolling your own is very rewarding, but often we'd like someone else to slip us a ready-made. Even though it may not be as nifty as the one we made. Or maybe because it is niftier and better made.”
Trust your inner potato. “Seinfeld viewers know what we're talking about.” Television succeeds for a good reason. “You dial it for a mainline fix of unadulterated push. It's great for that universal plunge into the Thing Larger Than Myself.” (Seinfeld? Are we that small?)
And so “we are now about to arrive at television (push media), before we finally emerge into what interactivity is really about.”
Ah, so all this push business is really just television, only better—more “ambient”, more “ubiquitous”, more “sexy”, more of a “warm, familiar, fuzzy convenience”. Well, that brings us to the big question: Who is going to pay for all this?
Advertisers, of course. “Advertisers and content sellers are very willing to underwrite this,” Wired says, even though they would be wrong to “happily back push media in hopes that the spells that work on TV will work there too.” But hey, advertisers are easily hypnotized, too. “Push has advertisers transfixed,” the editors say. “In the short run, advertisers can be counted on to pile in.”
This from a company that hasn't been able to sell an IPO because even the ravenously credulous investors who are driving stock prices to the sky don't buy their magazine's inflated estimates of itself.
Well, let me tell you about advertising.
Before some of today's push geniuses were born, I co-founded what is now one of Silicon Valley's biggest advertising agencies. My name is still on the door. That agency does many millions of dollars in annual billings, mostly in print. Some of it, I suppose, runs in Wired.
Advertising is a product of scarce access to large numbers of customers and prospects. Since the Dawn of Advertising, The Media have been the sole providers of that access, and they've charged a lot for it.
But when companies find ways to interact directly with customers and prospects, they will shoot resellers, distributors, retailers, advertising media and every other margin-demanding intermediary that stands in the way. In fact, the shooting has already started. The result is a new trend called disintermediation. It's a lot more scary than downsizing, because it starves whole companies and business categories, rather than just a few employees.
The most threatened businesses are the ones that depend on advertising. This is why the last thing ad-supported media want is an efficient market for product information. But that's exactly what the Net provides.
The lights Wired sees at the end of the Web's dark tunnel are miner's lamps of countless companies digging toward their customers. They're digging with the same Internet tools Wired now demeans, including the Web, browsers and e-mail. These tools cost squat, and they do an amazing job.
In the face of this, advertising has an existential choice: help dig or get shoveled aside.
The shoveling will be easy. The advertising we all know and hate is a huge and often wasteful expense that most CEOs can downsize or ax with few immediate penalties. Some executives and suppliers might lose their jobs, but the SEC and IRS won't even notice.
And don't think the Big Boys aren't looking carefully at the issue, even if they share Wired's da-glo wet dreams about “immersive media” and “ambient advertising”.
Two years ago at PC Forum, John Warnock of Adobe observed that ads in The Wall Street Journal waste lots of trees and deliver no obvious results, while a single notice on the company's web site brings thousands of downloads and countless useful customer relationships. And Warnock is one of the guys who appreciates image building, branding, positioning and other advertising arts.
The Net shortens the distance between supply and demand, both for products and for information. What Wired calls “a vast unmapped cave of documents” is the most powerful marketing resource ever created, because it can deliver deep and rich marketing content on demand—especially once it's mapped.
Does Wired really think “spelunking” with search engines is the terminal stage of network organization, and that what traditional LANs call “directory services” won't show up soon? (For clues about where all this going, check out Netscape's LDAP White Paper and a Bulldozer Through the Intersection in Reality 2.0: http://www.batnet.com/searls/bulldozer.html.)
There is something huge happening on the pull side of more markets than Thomas Register can list. It's not creating dumb web pages and not surfing around for entertaining distractions. It's demanding useful information, contacting suppliers directly, and treating as garbage everything that doesn't add value. That garbage will include much of today's advertising and the media that depend on it—unless, of course, they evolve to life forms that survive what in TechnoLatin we might call “the emerging demand-driven information environment”.
By demeaning both the supply and the demand sides of markets for everything other than narcotic entertainment, Wired sets new altitude records for stupidity and arrogance. If the magazine had any moral content in the first place—and I have to believe they did, given a masthead that still includes Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow, Esther Dyson, John Heileman and other advocates of freedom and self-worth—they forfeited it with this contemptible tract.
What Wired editors hail is really a postmodern Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It treats Netizens not only as vegetables, but as hosts for its advertisers' pods.
Fortunately, advertisers live in reality. I hope they give these fools a dose of it.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal