(Editor's note: In the ongoing effort to prevent American voters from sinking into the poppy-filled fields of forgetting, here's another excerpt from my book about the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century, " 23 Roads to Mythville. " This chapter, "Denial of Access, " could have also been called, "I Should Have Known My Days Were Numbered When I Tried to Pitch That Story About Echelon Dot Calm. "")
The date is Dec. 13, 2000, and the Internet landscape is teetering on the brink of the big die-off. But McDaniel and his co-workers seem secure, successful, self-satisfied, most certainly self-congratulatory, on top of the e-publishing world. Or so they believe. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding the result of the presidential election for them all, ruling on that very day that all uncounted dimpled chads are null and void, they are so self-assured they barely even conceive of the dissonant vibrations emanating from the very core of the earth.
Gathered in a large enough quantity in a hotel meeting room, they, the full-time, well-paid employees of Access Internet Magazine, create a convincing air of self-confidence, of go-go e-business wiles, high on the Net-savvy narcotic of the zeitgeist vibe. Sure, some of them worried about rough times ahead. At least McDaniel did. Yet, even considering his natural pessimism, it would have been hard to imagine how quickly things could change.
So many start-ups, as in new magazines, whole living cycles, forests of ink and paper, so many all come and gone. McDaniel had done them all: multi-million dollar projects, national monthlies, regional rags covering sports and art, grass roots enviro’ ops out in the desert, entertainment weeklies, all gone. Killed by everything from the Gulf War to a Major League Baseball strike. And now, the looming dot-com bust. All due to the inherent liabilities of having too much investment capital to burn. Due to wannabe publishers who always believe they are capturing the so-called crest of the wave. Until, that is, the wave, the demo, crashes on the shore.
The next wave is on the way. But it’s too late. Ink on paper just can’t adapt in the stormy seas of the new century.
They are at the annual sales meeting for Access Media Inc., just before the lavish Christmas Party on the far end of a Boston suburb. It's December 13, 2000. Publisher Mike Veitch stands in front of the magazine’s blown up cover featuring then president Bill Clinton: who could likely barely work his e-mail. At least that's what the cover shot of the stumped and befuddled president seems to depict. As if he is looking into one of the impenetrable miracles of our time. Like he fit the demo of newbie readers to "America’s Guide to the Internet."
It's December 13, 2000, and if anyone had turned on any talk-radio station, they would have heard a war of words over Clinton and Gore, Bush and his Supremes, a howling that hadn't been heard since, well ... hadn't ever been heard.
But Access staffers, mostly those on the advertising side, had come from all over the country after a remarkable year of growth and, apparently, breakthroughs in publishing. It was a day to be catered and plump. You might have wondered, with so much growth in circulation so fast, from 4 million to 10 million weekly within a little over a year, if they had a bigger audience than the president on any single day of the week. Whole suburbs of newsreaders, gadget fanatics or, more likely, grandmas wanting to know how to receive photos by e-mail of their grandchildren, practical professionals wanting to know the latest investment site, moms looking for cooking sites and so on … a demographic that was nothing less than a cookie-cutter composite of the whole country: But the emanations of the earth, well, that was somebody else's business.
Access was riding the crest of the Internet wave, but it was trying to hit an impossible moving target. The first weekly publication of its time, it attempted to cover the entire mélange of the fab electricities in the air as they crossed over into the mainstream. But it was like chasing a lightning bolt with a dinosaur.
Even as Veitch was self-congratulating the rotunda roomful of attentive ears, maybe 150 people, for publishing Access on a weekly basis as the third largest weekly in the United States, a circulation of nearly 10 million, all distributed as an insert through newspapers across the country: something was wrong. Even as the hotel was notable, from the outside, for huge radio tower landmarks, much older than the Web, that served as testament to the long history of Route 128’s silicon valley of telecommunications wizards, mass marketers, open sourcerers, dot-com rebels and computer-related trade ’zines out the ying yang: something did not compute.
So powerful and amazing is Access, Veitch tells the group, one Access expose had uncovered some invasive America Online malfunction, which was then fixed by the safe-surfing company because it had been first criticized by one of the columnists.
"The simple and direct way we have helped people in their lives," Veitch says, "is what journalism is about."
McDaniel, inspired by Veitch's soliloquy, could barely contain his excitement. He thought of the 100 monkeys, and there they were, right in that room. The vibrations of the earth seemed to be churning in him, and he couldn't be silent anymore. When Veitch asked if there were any questions, McDaniel took his turn to speak in a rambling soliloquy of his own. The first part of what he said, he doesn't recall now, but he always knew how it was going to end.
"The real question isn't how we are going to turn all of this paper into gold," he told the group. "The real question is: How do we turn this gold into soul?"
This was followed by a long, slow, deep, most surely stunned, silence.
When the group broke up, no one spoke to McDaniel. In fact, they didn't even look at him.
Maybe a week later, in the red brick office park that was somewhat secluded on the Charles River in Needham, Veitch would call McDaniel into his office. It wasn't for an executive-to-employee lashing, exactly, more like a "come-to-Jesus." Veitch boasted about how Access was conceived of, as a business plan, on a single sheet of paper, a metaphor for the integration of all media.
"Access is the first fully integrated mass medium of the post-Internet era," he says.
McDaniel responded with 50 ideas of his own, none of which would fit on a single piece of paper, then dutifully returned to his cube: the human search engine.
Being an editorial staffer at Access was like being the subject of some unprecedented behavior experiment. They were, basically, paid to surf. Paid to be led through the bottomless eddies and channels of the World Wide Web. Visitors to the office, especially journalists from other newsrooms, often commented about how creepy the whole thing felt. Newsrooms, after all, are usually boisterous places. Considering how tightly Access staffers were packed in after growing from 24 or so to nearly 100 employees in less than a year, it was if nothing else an intimate situation. By this time, Access Media was an atypical cube farm of too many employees cramped into a honeycombed beehive. Basically, what you could get with a $27 million venture capital investment, spent over a year and a half or so. Yet, even with so much electrified density, even with so much juice, it could be quiet as a library.
Employees were more likely to interact from the computer, often by Yahoo’s instant messenger service, often without speaking to anyone, in person, all day. Human search engines paid to be hooked into machines and surf the Web. Like something out of "The Matrix." But it wasn’t as if there weren’t plenty of people in their lives. They weren’t disconnected from humanity. In fact, McDaniel may have never come in contact with so many people in his life. It seemed to work, until, for McDaniel, more than 100 e-mail messages were received one day, many of them from struggling dot-coms in need of publicity for their shopping sites, especially before the Christmas push. Or from other editors, wondering why he hadn’t gotten back to them. McDaniel tried to respond back to them with missives about his doubt and fears about what was really happening in the Noosphere.
Considering the extent of its weekly circulation, maybe 20 million people in affluent suburbs across the nation who may have been actually looking at it at the same time, and the high-priced talent (USA Today online staffers, mainly) who were brought on to head up a new Web-page undertaking, one might have hoped that it could have accomplished more than the mere tweaking of your home computer’s keypad control. Considering all of the computerized wizardry of the place, it could have accomplished pretty much anything it wanted. For McDaniel, it was as if Access were a kind of revolutionary force bringing the liberating Web to the masses. That was the best of what he could hope for.
He kept thinking: How do we turn all of this gold into soul?
But forces much, much larger than a mere circulation of 10 million were at work, almost invisibly. The big die-off first sniffed out by Fuckedcompany.com was becoming apparent. First, Access Internet Magazine scaled back its online operations, laying off 21 employees shortly after the beginning of the year, mostly those who worked for accessmagazine.com, about 25 percent of Access Media’s payroll.
Veitch would eventually be pastured into a role as an adviser to the company and board member. John Jay, president of Access Internet Magazine, and Larry Sanders, president of accessmagazine.com, left the company.
Sanders came from USA Today online wars to start up the Access Web site’s expansion during the Internet gold rush heyday. They were predatory times. So he tried a sticky hit style, the "roach motel" approach, attempting to "drive them" like cattle. That was common nomenclature in Access executive culture: This whole idea that people, somehow lacking any choice in the matter, could be "driven" into its Web of multimedia ventures. For bizarre reasons, the site never drove huge numbers, and for a long time ended up with fewer hits than most alternative zines, especially considering the self-marketing possibilities of sending out 10 million flyers ... that is, the magazine itself, with the Web site’s URLs at the top of each page and the banner. For whatever reason, readers felt little need to get the same thing at the Web site, too.
By the end of 2000, the company had been working on plans for a national online advertising network and new e-mail products, but scaled back as the Internet tide changed. A new investment from General Atlantic reportedly served as a blood transfusion of less than $1 million. Access had previously raised money in August 2000, when investors contributed $17 million. Employees were always told $27 million, but who knows how quickly $10 million bucks can go up in smoke. Other venture investors in Access Media included Sequoia Capital, One Liberty Ventures, and Labrador Ventures. Individual investors included former Time Warner co-CEO N.J. Nicholas Jr. and E-Trade founder Bill Porter.
The cost of newsprint (about a half-million dollars per edition) and the decline of the Web as an item worthy of mass media interest, especially in terms of potential advertising dollars, were also to blame.
It could have been, and very often was, a media project that exemplified the realm of possibility for its time. Access could be just about that, access to the new world of megamedia, to the glittering electric palace of wisdom (at least as far as the Internet could provide). But the focus group directives thought otherwise. Such events, with so-called readers paid and given a sandwich to say "yeah, sure, I read the magazine," revealed an apparent need for the editors to dumb-it-all down. The average reader, apparently, could barely grasp a slice of what was going on out on the Web. The focus group directive became a tiny little hole indeed, a limitation for depicting what was really out there on the Web. If you are less outrageous than the FOX Network when dealing with Web topics, well, you get the picture …
But in December of 2000, even as Florida presidential election embroglio roiled on, and angry e-mail bounced around in incredible viral swirls of angst, McDaniel and the editors of Access Internet Magazine were debating whether or not to veto listing the URL for a short, but relatively dated, "South Park" film depicting a rumble between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, an animated fight between animated good and animated evil. And while the real Internet buzzed with conspiracies, overworlds, underworlds and terabytes of skin, it was decided the short film was just too riske’ for the supposed audience of Webizens they were trying to reach.
McDaniel argued (and argued): The Web is far, far weirder. And the geeks and wizards are moving into the mainstream.
As it turned out, nobody really got the shot in the arm they were looking for. Access included. But maybe in some small way, the Noosphere moved just a little further along. In a little more than six months after the beginning of the new year, Access suspended publication. The last posting on its Web site read: "Access Magazine has suspended publication, due to the continuing uncertainty in the economy." Apparently the business of producing a for-print mag announcing the dawn of a new media era is just a little too much like being a Trojan horse. McDaniel guessed once readers figured the Internet out, "they just don’t need ink on paper anymore."
A few days after Dec. 13, 2000, a mere six months before the magazine's demise, such statements increasingly began to rankle McDaniel's bosses. The whole "gold into soul" episode was no doubt still on their minds. His gloomy pronouncements about the imminent demise of shopping sites that were about to be touted in the Christmas shopping issue; how the whole shebang would be up by the end of the first quarter of 2001; how the ever expanding network of geeks would be the only ones worth writing for when it was over; it all led them to write him up on the "Vision" thing.
One day he came to the office, muttering something about how he'd seen a solar storm over the Merrimack River Valley. " I saw a lake of fire in the sky," he said. He rambled about how Verizon rhymed with Urizen. How the nation could be divided right down the middle between the techno-haves, who lived in the cities on the coasts, and the more conservative have-nots, the landlocked crowd, and how the presidential election had split the electorate the exact same way. Liberalism on the Internet, he said, was spreading like a virus, but the forces of Urizen were working, even as they doddled on the latest new doodles, to take it back. He railed about how the Hopis were going online, and this signalled the end, for sure.
All true, but scattered, a victim of too much information. Like the Web itself, his mind became a human search engine's cache of non-linear connections.
On January 1, the Frankenstein that Access created was let go. Sent, once again, falling into the Void. In a pathetic act of vengeance, he went home, closed the door, turned on the computer, and posted the following message to everyone he'd ever met on the World Wide Web:
"Predicting the future is only an act of hubris, and it’s a symptom of spending too much time on the Web to believe you are better at it than, say, throwing darts on the big target of possibilities. Techno-savvy prognostication is standard practice for the highly sought out members of think tanks and leading edge members of the digerati fringe. As one attains greater tools and more power and believes something other than simply being human is happening to him, as he deigns himself to have a greater awareness and insight into things, it’s nonetheless an act of folly. Still, we try.
"It’s no accident that the spirit of Prometheus, that Greek deity who gave fire and the alphabet to human beings, who then went on to speak and build things, much to the consternation of Zeus, is now recognized among many techno-wizards and members of digerati to be a technology god who is sometimes referred to as 'one who sees far.' The hubris is derived from the resulting megalomania inspired by tools that provide a supposedly superhuman reach across the networked world. Which is what made Zeus angry and perhaps a little jealous, incensed enough, at least, to bound Prometheus to the rocks on the shore: His real concern that humans, believing themselves to be Gods, just might foul up the whole hierarchical system of nature. But Prometheus refused to bow to this higher power just as many of us refuse to recognize that, despite the heady intoxication of so much technology converging on our desktops at lightning speed, we are all still pinned to one big rock in space.
"In 2001, the architecture of the Web will continue to evolve by the very same seemingly random patterns, the ebb and flow of living things and forces that dictate events on big rock in space. By known economic and social patterns that repeat throughout history. By natural currents that are all quite mysterious to even the most profound and comprehensive thinkers about what’s going to happen next in cyberspace, which is as equally pinned to the real world as Prometheus. In fact, many of these mighty ones are falling, or about to fall, even as I write this, because they believed they had the secret key to the Emerald City, convincing a lot of others to come along.
"In the upcoming year, many of the most notable pioneers of e-commerce will lose their grip and slip into the abyss. Only to replaced by the vultures and transformers of their best ideas, usually by corporate nation-states that had long recognized the strength of being tethered to material things. In short: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. If you don’t believe it, look at the revenge of the brick and mortar stores as they restore order at the online shopping mall. It has always been that way. Why should the Web be any different?
"In 2001, the Web will seem more human, but only because humans will seem more robotic, that is, they’ll morph into cyborg citizen-servants to the emerging order of the electronic beehive. Space will continue to fuse ubiquitous cyberspace to the collective mind of the earthbound. Reality and unreality will become harder to discern. Especially for those who don’t have a proper grounding in the physical and metaphysical laws at work on both ends of the spectrum. Many might believe, for example, that Martin Sheen really is a good president. Others, seeing this trend, will take advantage by creating all kinds of multimedia assurances that, if propagated to enough people, will enable them to achieve any cynical end they might desire.
"The next-generation Web will seem more virtual, and the real world will be more often referred to as 'just like the Internet.' But by the end of the year, closed networks and intranets will be more prevalent. From that point on, the World Wide Web will become fractured, disordered, and many will complain. Hyped all year already by those it might serve, for calling for security and privacy, the Web will become less a tool for communication, more often a function for those who command, those who control. Most will comply and register for the Mark. Greed and self-interest will rule a society dictated by this fact: Bar code is law. Technological man will, after all, have no choice if he wants to feed from the mutual marketplace of e-commerce.
"This loss of a sense of an online community, this descending into electro-tribes, set into motion whenever a comprehensive hegemony dissolves, will be reinforced by gated communities created out of the desire to re-establish bonds with our fellow man. The digital divide will widen. The technocrats will only get stronger. As resources become more and more scarce, and global warming moves closer to its inevitable redline say, 50 years from today, those who dictate the architectures of technological space will find themselves to be increasingly able to drive people like cattle to the diminishing safety zones of survivability.
"Conflict will arise out of the resistance to this, but the system will only fracture more as a result of this literal cyberwar between the competing hierarchical layers of technocrats, corporate interests, governments and its cyborg servant class trying to just keep up and survive. It will be too bad. We could have all got along. We could have put the automobile to pasture. Finally, a large number of enlightened ones who are scrambling, even now, to discover practical ways to unplug from this insanity we like to call 'civilization,' will find a way to connect in a mutually effective, quite spiritual way. The wisdom of this passion for self-sufficiency will only become apparent when the lights go out, when dwindling resources for fuel and then, cheap electricity fails to feed the system, which collapses from the weight of too many voices, too many demands, too much desire for more civilization, more production, for its own sake. The neo-Luddites, though quite techno-savvy, will be the meek who inherit the eventual earth. After all, small is big, slow is fast, spirit is all that remains, and ever shall be, on terrain both cyber or dirt real.
"Of course, since I’m only a mere human casting you this Web of apocalyptic imagery with a gnostic’s mysterious writing machine, quite the opposite is equally likely to happen. What do you think I am, the Wizard of Oz?"
His message to the New Year complete, he then crumpled into a ball. When he awoke, he found himself unable to lift himself out of bed. Information overload was a real disease, he'd decided, then and there. Within days, his entire life blown apart, he bought a train ticket to take him far out West, careening down a slice of rail line into the Void as waves of invisible solar storms pounded the earth, casting untold vibrations into the very core of the wired century. He jumped on the train, leaving pretty much everything behind but his laptop; leaving everything, turning it all in, lugging his machine and still wondering: "How do I turn this gold into soul."
An excerpt from "23 Roads to Mythville," a "reality lit" novel by Douglas McDaniel