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The Cluetrain Manifesto went online for the world on March 26, 1999. “People of Earth,” it began. Nothing modest about it. 

Chris Locke and David Weinberger both had newsletters with real subscriber bases (Entropy Gradient Reversals and JOHO, respectively). I had a good-size list of email correspondents, and so did Rick Levine. So we put the word out, same day.

And it spread. Like: whoaTom Petzinger’s Cluetrain column The Wall Street Journal called the Manifesto “pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant,” which threw gas on the fire. Instantly my email traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds a day, where it has remained ever since.

Interesting fact: the only reason I know Tom said that is because it was mentioned in a 2000 interview for Linux Journal that was too long to run at the time and remained buried like a time capsule until 2014, when it was exhumed and turned into this seven-part Cluetrain fifteenth anniversary piece. If you want to know lotsa shit about Cluetrain, including more of the origin story than I just told, that’s where to look.

There’s also deeper stuff in it. An example:

Part 2: The Red Pill Story

Linux Journal: What is “Business as Usual” and what’s killing it?

Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.

Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s what gives all of us pointy hair.

Linux Journal: Which is?

Doc Searls: There’s a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie’s premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we’re saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of “best practices” or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It’s the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.

Linux Journal: And that’s the red pill answer?

Doc Searls: That’s part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We’re not conscious of this programming because it’s unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn’t ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call “the new economy.” We’re still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.

Linux Journal: What are you saying isn’t real?

Doc Searls: Most of what we call “markets” are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territoriesspaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the “market” label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like “Men 25-54.” We also give it to characterizations like “upscale suburban Volvo drivers.” Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.

Linux Journal: Give us an example.

Doc Searls: The word “content.” It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did “content” suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are “content,” and every artist is a “content provider.” Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like “goods?”

Linux Journal: So, why?

Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we’re hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn’t stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let’s re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.

Linux Journal: So when you say somebody “adds value,” you’re using a shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Absolutely.

Linux Journal: What’s so bad about that?

Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren’t cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution’s conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn’t talk about “aggregating” and “capturing” them. We also wouldn’t talk about “moving content” through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.

Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?

Doc Searls: It’s absolutely different because it’s infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It’s the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.orgUntied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.

Linux Journal: So you’re saying there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn’t all that’s happening in the post-industrial world.

Doc Searls: Right.

Linux Journal: When does it end?

Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that “content” insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like “B2B” and ” B2C” — labels for “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? “B2B” might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition “to” was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.

Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor’s perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?

Doc Searls: It’s a fact. But it’s not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. “Consumers” aren’t a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That’s why it’s now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic “thank you for calling” voice from phone mail hell.

Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What’s relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn’t the modern world too radically different?

Doc Searls: It’s not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer’s market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn’t the case — at least not by traditional means.

Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn’t do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker’s methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don’t want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.

Linux Journal: It also isn’t just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a “customer support” 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We’re in a world now that’s very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver’s cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he’s too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It’s the same today on the Net.

Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?

Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There’s a good chance it labels an ancestor’s role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer… those names were earned by craft. Those crafts’ contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.

Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.

Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, “I’m a potter’s son.” And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.

Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an “interruption.”

Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We’ve long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.

The great irony of Cluetrain is that today—

—yet things are worse. You know that, of course, but to grok how fully bleak things have become, read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and/or Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Because Cluetrain was early by (it turns out) at least two decades. And mainstream media are starting to get the clues. I know that because last week I heard from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP and an HBO show. I normally hear from none of those (or maybe one, a time or two per year).

Something is in the water. It’s us, and the water is still the Internet.

Bonus link.

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.


So I just read about “a 50th anniversary Woodstock celebration that would include TED-style talks.” Details here and here in the Gothamist.

This celebration doesn’t have the Woodstock name, but it does have the place, now called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Since the Woodstock name belongs to folks planning the other big Woodstock 50th birthday party, this one is called, lengthily but simply, the Bethel Woods Music and Cultural Festival.

The idea of Woodstock + TED has my head spinning, especially since I was at Woodstock (sort of) and I’m no stranger to the TED stage.

So here’s my idea: Woodstock vs. TED. Have a two-stage smackdown. Surviving Woodstock performers on one stage, and TED talkers on the other, then a playoff between the two, ending with a fight on just one stage. Imagine: burning guitars against a lecture on brain chemistry or something. Then have @CountryJoe1969 yell to the crowd, “Give me a T…”

Just doing my part. Rock on.

Photo by Marc Holstein, via Wikimedia Commons.


fruit thought

If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?

Not yet. Or maybe not really.

Either way, that’s the idea behind the urge by some lately to claim personal data as personal property, and then to make money (in cash, tokens or cryptocurrency) by selling or otherwise monetizing it. The idea in all these cases is to somehow participate in existing (entirely extractive) commodity markets for personal data.

ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of the ProjectVRM wiki is a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:

So we respect that work. We also need to recognize some problems it faces.

The first problem is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. (Rivalrous means consumption or use by one party prevents the same by another, and excludable means you can prevent parties that don’t pay from access to it.) Here’s a table from Linux Journal column I wrote a few years ago:

Excludability Excludability
Rivalness YES Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents
Rivalness NO Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works Public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting


The second problem is that nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation

Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is essential in a very human way.

The third problem is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data.

Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, even though it’s combustible.

Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist?

What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other combustible public goods, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.

Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. I do too. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.

Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something. It’s a helpful one.

Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage.

Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.

The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.

Alas, most of that $trillion is in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: a giant snake-ball of B2B activity wherein there is little interest in buying what can be had for free.

Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:

  1. Most of the time, such as right here and now, you’re not buying a damn thing, and not in a mood to be bothered by someone telling you what to buy.
  2. Companies paying other companies to push shit at you do not have your interests at heart—not even if their messages to you are, as they like to put it, “relevant” or “interest based.” (Which they almost always are not.)
  3. The entrails of surveillance capitalism are fully infected with fraud and malware.
  4. Surveillance capitalism is also quite satisfied to soak up to 97% of an advertising spend before an ad’s publisher gets its 3% for pushing an ad at you.

Trying to get in on that business is just an awful proposition.

Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?

Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)

And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?

What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.

It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.

It’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. It’s too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.

So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting our most human of powers to work.

The most basic form of agency in the digital world is control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.

Bonus links:





Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs. The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the worst she has ever seen, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January


Two graphs tell some of the story.

First is how often “nonviolence” and “non-violence” appeared in books until 2008, when Google quit keeping track:

Second is search trends for “nonviolence” and “non-violence” since 2004, which is when Google started keeping track of trends:

Clearly nonviolence wasn’t a thing at all until 1918, which is when Mohandas Gandhi started bringing it up. It became a big thing again in the 1960s, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led during the Vietnam war.

Then, at the close of the 60s, it trailed off. Not that it ever went away, but it clearly retreated.


Here’s the part of the story that seems clearest to me, and to the late Bill Hicks:

Spake Bill, “We kill those people.”

I was only a year old when Gandhi was shot, so I don’t remember that one; but I was involved in both the civil rights and antiwar movements in North Carolina when Martin Luther King was gunned down in June 1968, and Bobby Kennedy a few days later.

I cannot overstate the senses of grief, despair and hopelessness that followed those two assassinations. (And of Malcolm X three years earlier. And again when Nixon got elected a few months later in ’68.)

Two things were clear to me at the time: that violence won, and that the civil rights and antiwar movements were set back decades by those events.

Those observations have been borne out in the half-century since. Yes, there is still peaceful resistance, as there has been at various times and ways, going back at least as far as ahimsa in the Jain, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

But where is it now? Look for nonviolence in Google News and you’ll find some nice stuff, but nothing that looks like a movement to counterbalance the violence in the world, or the hostile prejudices that fuel it.

Racism and appetites for violent conflict today are hardly less embedded than they ever were, and are now emboldened within the echo chambers of tribalisms old and new—the latter thanks to online media, some of which seem purpose-built to gather, isolate and amplify hostilities. (Bonus link: Down the Breitbart Hole, in last Sunday’s NY Times.)

I can hear the arguments: “look at all the examples of peaceful marches” and so on. But nonviolence itself, as a virtue and a strategy, is back-burnered at best, and lacks a single exemplar or advocate on the scale of a Gandhi or a King.

Hell, maybe I’m wrong about it. If I am, tell me how. My mind is hardly made up on this.



Take a look at this chart:

CryptoCurrency Market Capitalizations


As Neo said, Whoa.

To help me get my head fully around all that’s going on behind that surge, or mania, or whatever it is, I’ve composed a lexicon-in-process that I’m publishing here so I can find it again. Here goes:::

Bitcoin. “A cryptocurrency and a digital payment system invented by an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It was released as open-source software in 2009. The system is peer-to-peer, and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Since the system works without a central repository or single administrator, bitcoin is called the first decentralized digital currency.” (Wikipedia.)

Cryptocurrency. “A digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure the transactions and to control the creation of additional units of the currency. Cryptocurrencies are a subset of alternative currencies, or specifically of digital currencies. Bitcoin became the first decentralized cryptocurrency in 2009. Since then, numerous cryptocurrencies have been created. These are frequently called altcoins, as a blend of bitcoin alternative. Bitcoin and its derivatives use decentralized control as opposed to centralized electronic money/centralized banking systems. The decentralized control is related to the use of bitcoin’s blockchain transaction database in the role of a distributed ledger.” (Wikipedia.)

“A cryptocurrency system is a network that utilizes cryptography to secure transactions in a verifiable database that cannot be changed without being noticed.” (Tim Swanson, in Consensus-as-a-service: a brief report on the emergence of permissioned, distributed ledger systems.)

Distributed ledger. Also called a shared ledger, it is “a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data geographically spread across multiple sites, countries, or institutions.” (Wikipedia, citing a report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser: Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain.) A distributed ledger requires a peer-to-peer network and consensus algorithms to ensure replication across nodes. The ledger is sometimes also called a distributed database. Tim Swanson adds that a distributed ledger system is “a network that fits into a new platform category. It typically utilizes cryptocurrency-inspired technology and perhaps even part of the Bitcoin or Ethereum network itself, to verify or store votes (e.g., hashes). While some of the platforms use tokens, they are intended more as receipts and not necessarily as commodities or currencies in and of themselves.”

Blockchain.”A peer-to-peer distributed ledger forged by consensus, combined with a system for ‘smart contracts’ and other assistive technologies. Together these can be used to build a new generation of transactional applications that establishes trust, accountability and transparency at their core, while streamlining business processes and legal constraints.” (Hyperledger.)

“To use conventional banking as an analogy, the blockchain is like a full history of banking transactions. Bitcoin transactions are entered chronologically in a blockchain just the way bank transactions are. Blocks, meanwhile, are like individual bank statements. Based on the Bitcoin protocol, the blockchain database is shared by all nodes participating in a system. The full copy of the blockchain has records of every Bitcoin transaction ever executed. It can thus provide insight about facts like how much value belonged a particular address at any point in the past. The ever-growing size of the blockchain is considered by some to be a problem due to issues like storage and synchronization. On an average, every 10 minutes, a new block is appended to the block chain through mining.” (Investopedia.)

“Think of it as an operating system for marketplaces, data-sharing networks, micro-currencies, and decentralized digital communities. It has the potential to vastly reduce the cost and complexity of getting things done in the real world.” (Hyperledger.)

Permissionless system. “A permissionless system [or ledger] is one in which identity of participants is either pseudonymous or even anonymous. Bitcoin was originally designed with permissionless parameters although as of this writing many of the on-ramps and off-ramps for Bitcoin are increasingly permission-based. (Tim Swanson.)

Permissioned system. “A permissioned system -[or ledger] is one in which identity for users is whitelisted (or blacklisted) through some type of KYB or KYC procedure; it is the common method of managing identity in traditional finance.” (Tim Swanson)

Mining. “The process by which transactions are verified and added to the public ledger, known as the blockchain. (It is) also the means through which new bitcoin are released. Anyone with access to the Internet and suitable hardware can participate in mining. The mining process involves compiling recent transactions into blocks and trying to solve a computationally difficult puzzle. The participant who first solves the puzzle gets to place the next block on the block chain and claim the rewards. The rewards, which incentivize mining, are both the transaction fees associated with the transactions compiled in the block as well as newly released bitcoin.” (Investopedia.)

Ethereum. “An open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality, which facilitates online contractual agreements. It provides a decentralized Turing-complete virtual machine, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), which can execute scripts using an international network of public nodes. Ethereum also provides a cryptocurrency token called “ether”, which can be transferred between accounts and used to compensate participant nodes for computations performed. Gas, an internal transaction pricing mechanism, is used to mitigate spam and allocate resources on the network. Ethereum was proposed in late 2013 by Vitalik Buterin, a cryptocurrency researcher and programmer. Development was funded by an online crowdsale during July–August 2014. The system went live on 30 July 2015, with 11.9 million coins “premined” for the crowdsale… In 2016 Ethereum was forked into two blockchains, as a result of the collapse of The DAO project. The two chains have different numbers of users, and the minority fork was renamed to Ethereum Classic.” (Wikipedia.)

Decentralized Autonomous Organization. This is “an organization that is run through rules encoded as computer programs called smart contracts. A DAO’s financial transaction record and program rules are maintained on a blockchain… The precise legal status of this type of business organization is unclear. The best-known example was The DAO, a DAO for venture capital funding, which was launched with $150 million in crowdfunding in June 2016 and was immediately hacked and drained of US$50 million in cryptocurrency… This approach eliminates the need to involve a bilaterally accepted trusted third party in a financial transaction, thus simplifying the sequence. The costs of a blockchain enabled transaction and of making available the associated data may be substantially lessened by the elimination of both the trusted third party and of the need for repetitious recording of contract exchanges in different records: for example, the blockchain data could in principle, if regulatory structures permitted, replace public documents such as deeds and titles. In theory, a blockchain approach allows multiple cloud computing users to enter a loosely coupled peer-to-peer smart contract collaboration.(Wikipedia)

Initial Coin Offering. “A means of crowdfunding the release of a new cryptocurrency. Generally, tokens for the new cryptocurrency are sold to raise money for technical development before the cryptocurrency is released. Unlike an initial public offering (IPO), acquisition of the tokens does not grant ownership in the company developing the new cryptocurrency. And unlike an IPO, there is little or no government regulation of an ICO.” (Chris Skinner.)

“In an ICO campaign, a percentage of the cryptocurrency is sold to early backers of the project in exchange for legal tender or other cryptocurrencies, but usually for Bitcoin…During the ICO campaign, enthusiasts and supporters of the firm’s initiative buy some of the distributed cryptocoins with fiat or virtual currency. These coins are referred to as tokens and are similar to shares of a company sold to investors in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) transaction.” (Investopedia.)

Tokens. “In the blockchain world, a token is a tiny fraction of a cryptocurrency (bitcoin, ether, etc) that has a value usually less than 1/1000th of a cent, so the value is essentially nothing, but it can still go onto the blockchain…This sliver of currency can carry code that represents value in the real world — the ownership of a diamond, a plot of land, a dollar, a share of stock, another cryptocurrency, etc. Tokens represent ownership of the underlying asset and can be traded freely. One way to understand it is that you can trade physical gold, which is expensive and difficult to move around, or you can just trade tokens that represent gold. In most cases, it makes more sense to trade the token than the asset. Tokens can always be redeemed for their underlying asset, though that can often be a difficult and expensive process. Though technically they could be redeemed, many tokens are designed never to be redeemed but traded forever. On the other hand, a ticket is a token that is designed to be redeemed and may or may not be trade-able” (TokenFactory.)

“Tokens in the ethereum ecosystem can represent any fungible tradable good: coins, loyalty points, gold certificates, IOUs, in game items, etc. Since all tokens implement some basic features in a standard way, this also means that your token will be instantly compatible with the ethereum wallet and any other client or contract that uses the same standards. (Ethereum.org/token.)

“The most important takehome is that tokens are not equity, but are more similar to paid API keys. Nevertheless, they may represent a >1000X improvement in the time-to-liquidity and a >100X improvement in the size of the buyer base relative to traditional means for US technology financing — like a Kickstarter on steroids.” (Thoughts on Tokens, by Balaji S. Srinivasan.)

“A blockchain token is a digital token created on a blockchain as part of a decentralized software protocol. There are many different types of blockchain tokens, each with varying characteristics and uses. Some blockchain tokens, like Bitcoin, function as a digital currency. Others can represent a right to tangible assets like gold or real estate. Blockchain tokens can also be used in new protocols and networks to create distributed applications. These tokens are sometimes also referred to as App Coins or Protocol Tokens. These types of tokens represent the next phase of innovation in blockchain technology, and the potential for new types of business models that are decentralized – for example, cloud computing without Amazon, social networks without Facebook, or online marketplaces without eBay. However, there are a number of difficult legal questions surrounding blockchain tokens. For example, some tokens, depending on their features, may be subject to US federal or state securities laws. This would mean, among other things, that it is illegal to offer them for sale to US residents except by registration or exemption. Similar rules apply in many other countries. (A Securities Law Framework for Blockchain Tokens.)

In fact tokens go back. All the way.

In Before Writing Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform, Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes, “Tokens can be traced to the Neolithic period starting about 8000 B.C. They evolved following the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming…The substitution of signs for tokens was the first step toward writing.” (For a compression of her vast scholarship on the matter, read Tokens: their Significance for the Origin of Counting and Writing.

I sense that we are now at a threshold no less pregnant with possibilities than we were when ancestors in Mesopotamia rolled clay into shapes, made marks on them and invented t-commerce.

And here is a running list of sources I’ve visited, so far:

You’re welcome.

To improve it, that is.


Thinking today, with great appreciation, about my father, Allen H. Searls, who served twice in the U.S. Army, first in the Coastal Artillery and again in the Signal Corps, during World War II.

As I put it in the caption under that photo,

Pop hated not fighting in The War. So he re-enlisted even though he had already served in the Coastal Artillery. Grandma wrote on the back of this picture… “Pvt Allen H. Searls, 42103538, Camp Croft, S.C., Spartanburg, March 1, 1944.” He was promoted to corporal thanks to having served once already, and assigned to the Signal Corps in part because he scored 159 on the Army’s IQ test. He never bragged on that, by the way. (Though I will.) It was also very hard to get it out of him. Not that we needed to. We all knew how smart he was.

Among other things he—

  • Arrived in the second wave at Normandy.
  • Lost some of his hearing from laying communications wiring forward of cannons, as his unit advanced.
  • Was involved in liberating at least one concentration camp.
  • Served as one of Eisenhower’s phone operators after the war ended.

Like most veterans who were involved in combat and other unpleasantries, he didn’t like talking about that. Instead he talked about his buddies and interesting technical details about how things worked, places he enjoyed seeing.

Maybe my sister (another veteran, in this case of the U.S. Navy) can weigh in with some other details.

Main thing is honoring Pop. He was a great patriot and a great dad.

docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.


shot this picture with my phone on the subway last night, while no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.

I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.

We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s was and remains Marshall McLuhan‘s main point. The us is both singular and plural. We get shaped, and so do our infrastructures, societies, governments and the rest of what we do in the civilized world. (Here’s an example of all four of those happening at once: People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground. From Quartz.)

Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, telcos and the other feudal overlords* that sell us our rectangles and connect to the world? (*A metaphor we owe to Bruce Schneier.)

The deeper question is whether we’ll finish becoming dependent serfs to sovereigns with silos or start becoming self-sovereign as free-range human beings in truly open societies.

The answer will probably be some combination of both. In the meantime, however, one clear need is for greater independence and agency, at least at the individual level. (There are similar needs at the social, political and economic spheres as well, but let’s keep this personal.)

Obsolescence will help.

Within the next two years (just like the last two and the two before that), most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony, text, audio and video, and much more cool (and perhaps scary) new shit (VR, AI, IA, CX and other two-letter acronyms, to name a few off the top of my head and my screen).

Just as surely they’ll also give us new ways to shape what we do and be shaped as well. Perhaps by then mass media will finish turning into the mess media it actually is already, though we don’t call it that yet.

One big Hmm is What comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles)?

Everything gets obsolesced, one way or another, eventually. But that doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsolesced tech still hangs around in a subordinated, subsumed or specialized state. Print did that to scribing, Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, subsuming them all and stretching their effects to the absolute limit by eliminating the distances between everything while pushing costs toward zero. (See The Giant Zero for more on that.)

Thus, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity and no distance. Since progress is the process by which the miraculous becomes mundane, we already experience these two states non-ironically and all at once. And een this isn’t new. Here’s what I wrote about it in The Intention Economy, published in 2012:

Story #1. It’s 2002, and the kid is seven. As always, he’s full of questions. As sometimes happens, I don’t have an answer. But this time he comes back with a simple demand:

“Look it up,” he says.

“I can’t. I’m driving.”

“Look it up anyway.”

“I need a computer for that.”


Story #2. It’s 2007, and we are staying overnight in the house of an old family friend. In a guest bedroom is a small portable 1970’s-vintage black-and-white TV. On the front of the TV are a volume control and two tuning dials: one for channels 2-13, the other for 14-83. The kid examines the device for a minute or two and says, “What is this?” I say it’s a TV. He points at the two dials and asks, “Then what are these for?”

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. The beauty of stars would be legend, Emerson said, if they only showed through the clouds but once every thousand years. What would he have made of commercial aviation, a system by which millions of people fly all over the globe, every day, leaping continents and oceans in just a few hours, while complaining of bad food and slow service, and shutting their windows to block light from the clouds below so they can watch a third-rate movie with bad sound on a tiny screen?

The Internet is a sky of stars we’ve made for ourselves (and of ourselves), all just a few clicks away.

McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:


Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

These are posed as a heuristic: an approach to help us understand what’s going on, rather than a way to come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.

So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound, invisible, unnoticed. We all smell something. Is it our human frogs boiling? The primordial ooze out of which we are evolving into creatures other than human? What is that?

Here’s a hmm: what will obsolesce smartphones?

I don’t have answers; I’m just sure there will be some—and that we’ll have passed Peak Phone when they come.

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