You’ve seen the post here and elsewhere—from time to time—lamenting the future while remembering the past. Specifically the early days of the World Wide Web. Super specifically towards the days when blogs were bountiful and mostly contained posts and comment threads about web design and development.
This is not one of those blog posts.
Matt Webb, creator, and author of the blog Interconnected (which you should all be following and reading), recently posted about some research he did on the early days of the industry of electricity. He shares about reading “every issue of Electrical Review magazine from the 1880s and 1890s.” It was a time when implementing electric infrastructure was in its infantile stage. Matt writes about the parallels of that world to the one we are working in—living in—now regarding the Internet.
At this time with electricity, it wasn’t clear what datapoints were salient. Was it important that the bowl was scorched in the lightning report? Unknown! So report it anyway! The scientific method: gather observations; taxonomise and hypothesise; predict and iterate. This era was step 1 going into step 2.
It’s obvious to us now that electricity does not thin the veil between this world and the afterlife – but in an era where a power used to replace crankshafts in factories was then used to transmit the written word between continents and then, bizarrely, provide artificial light, well, who is to say what would happen next.
So the boundary of electricity was as-yet undefined. Oversharing was a virtue.
I love this era of a new field. Not just the possibility of surprise round every corner, but the collective, heady nature of the endeavour. We’re making these discoveries together!
And we’re making new discoveries by wildly building new things and reporting back what happened. Theory and practice in a tight and lively knot. The best place to spend one’s days.
The best place indeed.
In the first chapter of his book The Art of Rebellion, John Couch writes about the early days of his career in the late 90’s working at the epicenter of the Internet—Wired magazine.
As I lurched forward through my career, I looked for companies that had cultivating environments and cultures that fostered creativity and provided community. I didn’t find any until I worked at Wired.
It was there that I learned how a strong vision (we were the voice of the digital revolution) could unify and galvanize a culture. It was there that I learned to love futurism: Kevin Kelly (Out of Control) was our maven; Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) and William Gibson (Neuromancer) could be found wandering the halls. I shared an office with Douglas Coupland (Generation X) for a stint. Avant-garde tech artists like Lynn Hershman Leeson would be seen in the lobby, talking to Mark Pauline, creator of Survival Research Laboratories, famous for building massive robots and machines that destroyed each other with flamethrowers and hydraulic saws.
The Internet was new, and most of us used Netscape to navigate through this brave new world. It was the ultimate democratization wherein everyone had a voice, everyone could be a publisher, and the magazine’s techno-libertarian founders, Louis Rossetto aznd Jane Metcalfe, encouraged exploration and an ethos derived from the coding community of demo or die. It wasn’t perfect at Wired. It wasn’t a utopia (turns out no place is), but it was my graduate school, so to speak.”
John’s note about graduate school is interesting because what makes the “era of a new field” magical is the ”making [of] new discoveries by wildly building new things and reporting back what happened.” Learning and teaching are required skills during this time.
Note that in both of these accounts, monetization is not included in what makes this moment. The “Golden Hour” of a nascent technology or innovation is not predicated on revenue or growth hacking. John writes that what made the culture at Wired so great started to fall apart as soon as they tried to offer an IPO.
I write this as I look at what the next 5, 10, 20 years hold. I used to think that I wanted part of my old career back. Even though I knew it was pointless. Now, I am starting to wonder how I can find more “eras of a new field.” And another, and another, and so on. All without hearing another @#$%ing word about crypto and Blockchain. If I have to hear about one more way TechBros have come up with another way to launder money and record it in a “register,” I’m going to have to nut-kick some people.