Summer Reading

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“The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.”

~ William Gibson

Summertime, for me, always includes an annual rite of intellectual refueling. I try to work through a dozen or so books of different tone, outlook and subject matter in the hope of grabbing a handful of key ideas and themes to share and build on in the long, cold months ahead. This summer I lit on two titles that touched something quite deep for me, and it was in the synthesis of these books that some very powerful ideas emerged. The first book is all about the visionary past; the other takes a historical look at our future.

“WIRED, A ROMANCE”
By Gary Wolf
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375502904/qid=1060263513/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-6291705-2625436?v=glance&s=books

Being an early “Wiredling” myself – I opened the company’s New York operation back in 1994 – I was insatiably curious about this one. As the title implies, this is more than just another cartoonish ’90s tale of wretched excess. Gary Wolf looks back on the early days of Wired Magazine and HotWired with a mix of wistfulness and affection; not necessarily for the people involved, but certainly for the outrageously big ideas they espoused. Wired was always about far more than the Internet. It was about the power of digital technology and networks and how they would completely reshape the way we live. This may all seem a bit obvious now — perhaps even quaint. But remember that Louis Rossetto was saying all this in 1993, a year before the first commercial web browser would become available and e-mail was used by only about 3% of the population. He may as well have been wearing animal skins and eating locusts in the desert.

Ten years later the web is ubiquitous, hand-held computers are commonplace, digital editing has reshaped the film industry and… and the founders of Wired are virtual non-entities today. So there’s an element of tragedy here as well. How could Rossetto have been so right about so many of the big ideas and yet unable to parlay that vision into business success and intellectual triumph? (Despite being the very first commercial website, HotWired was — ironically — slow to embrace the true nature of the web; it limped along and was ultimately sold to Lycos. The assets of Wired Magazine were sold to Conde Nast and Rossetto and his partner, Jane Metcalfe, were cashiered and shown the door.) In the pages of Wired: A Romance, you’ll get all the details. But the truth is that the founders of Wired were not so much ahead of their time as they were ahead of the generation that would end up living their vision. Which leads me to title number two:

“MILLENNIALS RISING: THE NEXT GREAT GENERATION”
By Neil Howe and William Strauss
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375707190/104-0042676-4947148?vi=glance

Last month I had the pleasure of working with Yahoo! to plan
“Born to Be Wired,” an advertiser conference and research initiative exploring the relationship that today’s teens and young adults have with digital media and technology. To help understand this generation, we brought in Neil Howe, who – along with co-author William Strauss – virtually coined the term “Millennials” (the generation born between 1982 and 2002.) In listening to Neil and in reading this fascinating book, I began to finally understand who the “digital vanguard” would really be – and why those Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who gave life to Wired and voice to the big ideas couldn’t take them further than we did.

Howe and Strauss are historians and economists, so in exploring the nature and interplay of these generations they take a long view…and they back up their case with numbers. The first thing they tell you about the Millennial generation is that the mainstream media have it all wrong. While the media obsesses about Columbine, Ecstasy and Marilyn Manson, youth violence, teen pregnancy and high-risk behaviors are all on the decline.

Statistically, this is a generation that’s well grounded, focused and optimistic about the future. And why shouldn’t they be? Starting in the early 1980s – the age of the mini-van with the Baby-on-Board sticker – we started nurturing and doting on this generation in a manner that hadn’t been seen in nearly 100 years. And we haven’t stopped yet. But please don’t call them “Generation Y.” Millennials are radically different from Generation X, a group characterized by relative isolation and disillusionment. (As we get worked up about the music, movies and TV that Millennials consume, it’s important to remember that it’s all being financed, produced and written by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers.)

Millennials are also the first generation to grow up surrounded by the web and all forms of digital media and appliances. The “Born to Be Wired” research study, commissioned by Yahoo! and Carat Interactive, found that Millennials see the web as the center of their media universe…the starting point and connective tissue for a radically different pattern of information and entertainment.

THE BIG IDEA

The creation of Wired and HotWired ten years ago is an interesting narrative. But it’s even more fascinating as an allegorical tale of generations. Louis Rossetto – a Baby Boomer – saw the media experience as something to be controlled. “What people want from HotWired is our point of view, our mix, our insight, our personality.” To Louis, the web was the new Guttenberg press and he was in the business of hammering out a new kind of broadsheet.

Much of the tension in “Wired: A Romance” stems from the generational battle between Boomer Louis and the wry Gen Xers of “the Grotto,” where HotWired was conceived and created. (Many of the bright lights of HotWired were, in fact, creating their own sites on the side, stealing not only Louis’s time, but also a fair amount of his bandwidth.) But in my opinion, they didn’t get it right either. To the Xers, the web was a megaphone for pure self-expression, self-satisfaction and irony. “Look at me! Look at how clever I am!”

Little did we know in 1994 that the first members of the real “digital vanguard” – those who would realize Wired’s vision of the world – were only in middle school at the time. The first Millennials are graduating from college this year and to them the web isn’t about publishing or protest; it’s just the center of the universe, the foundation for all they do, learn and say. Millennials also tend toward a higher level of cooperation, collaboration and teamwork than those in Gen X, which is borne out in their use of cell phones, IM, blogs and more.

Marketers and media purveyors who appeal to teenagers, tweens and younger kids have already experienced the tectonic shift in media usage and media attitudes among their customers. As the Millennial generation slides into young adulthood, its true social, financial and cultural impact is just beginning to be felt.

Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing today, please know that you were right about all the big ideas. And know that your kids are the ones who will make it all happen.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver

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