Writer James Gleick is a graduate of Harvard College, and he worked for 10 years as an editor and reporter for the New York Times. He has been a lecturer at Princeton University, and in 1993 Gleick co-founded The Pipeline, an internet service that offered the first full-featured graphical user interface for Internet access from Windows and Mac computers. He was Pipeline’s CEO until its purchase by PSINet in 1995. James Gleick has authored Chaos: Making a New Science, Genius: The Life of Richard Feynman, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything and What Just Happened: A Chronicle From The Information Frontier. He collaborated with photographer Elliot Porter on Nature’s Chaos, edited Best American Science Writing 2000 and has recently completed his biography of Isaac Newton. James Gleick lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with his wife, Cynthia Crossen.
Robert Birnbaum: What Just Happened is a book of collected columns, and yet in the prologue you announce that it is a credo:
“I may not believe in God or the NASDAQ, but I do believe in the network as global village and as global brain. I believe in privacy—and not necessarily in anonymity. Not withstanding the dangers of tidal hysteria and cacophonous discord, I believe that communication is inherently good. As for commerce, let it be an afterthought. From the start of this decade to the finish, I cared more about how Amazon intuits my likes and dislikes than about whether it would ever make money. I seem to have cared more about a single hot tub that went online in Ypsilanti, Michigan, than about the entire meteoric arc of Netscape Inc. The Internet is not a shopping mall, and for that matter the World Wide Web is not the Internet. The reader will see that I never put faith in the dot-com boom: nor am I troubled by the dot-com crash. I do believe that access to the network must be universal, for the sake of social health and political sanity. Like water, like electricity. Like the mail. The tools and standards of the digital world must be open and public.”
James Gleick: Yes, I do believe in certain things. Of course, I knew all along I did. Some of the pieces I wrote as polemic. Some I didn’t. Some were whimsical and some were very opinionated. I collected them for a reason. Maybe a vain reason, but I hoped that here is a picture here of a decade and that it’s not just a descriptive picture. It gives a point of view about how we ought to think about things and how we ought to behave. [RB’s dog, Rosie, jumps on the couch next to JG] (This is a really friendly dog. Or is it that she is just smelling my dog?)
RB: She’s selectively friendly.
JG: Since I finished the book I haven’t…almost everything in the book was published before. One of the pieces wasn’t and the prologue wasn’t. I don’t think I have written anything in this area in the year since I started preparing it as a book. The last piece is a year old. But I find that my opinions about things have gotten more fierce, less ambivalent. I find myself wanting to grab people by the lapels and wanting to shake them. And I am not doing it at the moment. But yes, I believe in something.
RB: My impression…I don’t know what I would have thought if I had been reading this in real time, when they were published. Reading them now I’m aware I have been to varying degrees, conscious of all these developments and issues. You haven’t told me things that I didn’t know about or gave a me a history that prompted me to say, “Really, did that happen?”
JG: I’m sorry to hear that. I hope that if you had been reading them in real time they would have seemed more surprising. I felt, looking back at it, that it was surprising. I felt and I still feel as a rule even for those of us who are pretty alert to this stuff—which everybody isn’t—of course, in equal degrees. We have short memories, and we forget how quickly these things happened and how different the world was just a few years ago. I wondered if people would read this stuff even if they hadn’t read any of it before. I assume that most people who read the book will be coming to this writing for the first time and think, “Wow, that was just 9 years ago that Microsoft was an upstart in the word processing business. Also, people didn’t understand what it meant to communicate with other people online and form communities.”
RB: Yes, those are facts that jump out and you do have to go, “Oh wow!” To me the issues are bigger, though. The privacy issues, the changing forms of money in commerce, privacy vs. anonymity and then your last piece on connectivity and pervasive computing, and it seems that these matters are in some kind of perpetual present.
JG: Yes, I agree. It is still in the present. All these things you are mentioning are still very much up in the air. They are still just as unsettled as they were when I started writing about them. Privacy and money—if anything I jumped the gun with the piece about digital money and acted as if it was going to happen overnight. Now, it’s five years later and you could write the same piece. I would write the same piece. I still think it’s going to happen and still think we need to, collectively, pay attention and make some choices because there is going to be electronic money of some kind. I’m saying this about electronic money, but it applies just as well to everything else I’m writing about. It’s going to happen and we can just let it happen without thinking that we have any choices to make or any control for the direction of things. Or we could suddenly put our feet down.
RB: Who is the ‘we’? The citizenry? Users?
JG: The citizens of the world. Varying from to case to case. We Americans, at least, are supposedly powerful citizens of a democracy and we are supposed to express our opinions about things. A moment is going to come—for me, it’s in the past, you tell me where it is for you?—but a moment is going to come for everybody when they are just so disgusted with the contents of their inbox, that they are going to demand that somebody do something about it. Now, who? The Internet, as everyone loves to say, is an international thing and we don’t want the US government to be controlling it even if it could. But, that doesn’t mean that we should just sit back and let big companies make the decisions instead of the government. I am saying I am in favor of telling Congress, “We do want spam outlawed. Corporations do not have a right, in my opinion, to unfettered access to my mailbox. Nobody has a right to control my mailbox except me.” Well, there is a lot of confusion about that and it’s not an unreasonable first approximation that the 1st amendment protects the people’s right to send you mail even if you don’t like the message. It’s important to think about these issues and I don’t think it’s too late. Everything is in such flux.
RB: If there is no national resolution there won’t be an international resolution. The US doesn’t have a good track record in international cooperation.
JG: That’s true. And that’s a problem. But it doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands, either. For example, the European parliament has just voted to outlaw spam.
RB: What is their definition of ‘spam’?
JG: They’ve defined it very carefully, and they carved out a loophole that’s not too bad for companies that you do business with electronically. These companies are allowed to—I forget exactly what—do something once. But it’s pretty narrow. Now is it enforceable? I don’t know. I’m not an expert and they are in a new situation too.
RB: I have one mailbox that is the recipient of all the golfball, Viagra, lower mortgage rate, penile enlargement spam.
JG: I get exactly the same mail.
RB: And it’s the one that I daily scroll and delete such emails from. Doesn’t that solve the problem?
JG: You have a different mailbox that your friends use?
RB: I have a number of mailboxes. One gets a preponderance of spam, the one I set up before I thought about what was going to happen. That one gets 90% of this junk.
JG: I’m in exactly the same position. I have a variety of e-mail addresses and I have one that is relatively private and it’s not too bad, I get occasional spam. I don’t know how they are finding it. The main one, I don’t want to give up on. I did once, I abandoned it because I couldn’t stand the spam. That was 5 years ago and switched to this one which is Glieck@Around.Com, and I don’t want to give in and just blow it off because I get real mail there. Some people send me mail that I want. Well, we don’t need to belabor the point. You know as well as I do how futile technological solutions are and it’s just one example, but it’s important because the principle is we’ve created a kind of space where we are participants in communities where information is flowing very freely. More freely than has ever flowed among human beings before and we don’t know what the rules are going to be and the old rules apply sometimes and don’t apply sometimes. It’s confusing. One of the old rules is, if somebody wants to mail you a letter they can mail you a letter. They can put it in the post box, the post box is public and it will come to you. So why shouldn’t the same thing be true of email? Well, it’s different. It’s free. There is still a little bit of a cost for somebody to send you junk mail, real mail. It doesn’t mean that I am thrilled with all the real mail I get but at least there are limits. You can’t be a total lunatic trying to enlarge my penis and send that message to 10 million people. You can’t afford to do it. It won’t be cost effective. But you can do it online. It’s not just different in degree, it’s qualitatively different.
RB: Yes, that is the greater revelation, which is that these large changes usher in qualitative changes. We don’t really know what the changes are. Let’s back up a little. What is the PC penetration in this country?
JG: I hope you are not going to quiz me on facts—because I don’t know.
RB: I’m trying to understand how many people are really affected by these issues and what their sensibilities about them are? Especially, because of what you describe as pervasive computing, which I don’t see as computing at all. Earrings talking to earrings or your phone communicating with your kitchen appliances…
JG: Devices talking to devices. That distinction doesn’t bother me so much. This is what computing has turned out to be for almost all of us. That is, they are communications devices. Sometimes, my computer is sitting there running and it’s got some screensaver going, displaying some fractals or doing something that requires a lot of computation, and I think that when I was working on Chaos, not so long ago—this is the kind of speech, that whenever I start it, kids I know say, “Yeah I know when you were a kid you had to walk a mile to school.”— there was a time when everybody thought computers were machines meant to solve math problems. That’s what they were good at. No one thought that we would all have them on our desks. And now we all do. It’s not because we are all suddenly interested in math. It’s because suddenly they are doing things to connect us. I think this going to be true of the devices too. You are right it doesn’t matter that they are computers. What matters is how it changes the way we interact with each other as people and our environment.
RB: And what I want to connect to is the fact that our world is changing, has changed a lot. The quality of our lives has changed. Perhaps even our consciousness had changed, ushering in new problems, begging for solutions. And so, who is the citizen constituency that is going to resolve these problems?
JG: That’s the scary question. Where are the grass roots movements for each of these things? I don’t know the answer to your question. Everybody is so new at this. My parents are online in some way. Much more than they think they are. But they are not ready to get upset about the stuff that is going wrong because they are still at the stage of thinking that it must be their fault or something they don’t know. So they are not going to be signing up for Common Cause or whatever the equivalent group is going to be.
RB: I would worry that we may leap frog past the possibility of grass roots groups having any influence or making any difference.
JG: I totally agree. That’s exactly the thing to worry about. One of the recurring themes of this book is Microsoft, the problem with Microsoft. A perfect example because when I started to worry about of Microsoft it wasn’t from the point that they are going to screw Netscape. Poor Netscape. I didn’t care about Netscape. It was from the point of view of individuals who are damaged by Microsoft in ways that are not so obvious. There never was time—even though there were lots of vocal Microsoft customers, pro and con, when there was any kind of grass roots movement that had any political effect. All the pressure on the government to act, did come from competitors. So Microsoft was able to portray that battle as Microsoft against its competitors, not against consumers. I think consumers have suffered from a lack of innovation, from a lack of choice in the market place. You are right, there is no obvious constituency there.
RB: Microsoft aside, your piece on the explosion of patents, which is an end run around copyright, who allowed that to happen?
JG: I am really depressed about that. Since I wrote that piece the situation has only gotten worse. I’m not the only person who has noticed that this is a problem. A lot of smart people in the software community realize that this is absolutely ridiculous. But nothing has gotten better. The Clinton Administration has been replaced by the Bush Administration but it was under Clinton that Commissioner of Patents was, as I described him in the piece, a guy who felt that his clientele was the body of corporations that apply for patents and not the citizens of the country at large. He was a corporate patent lawyer. It wasn’t under Reagan, it was under Clinton. I don’t know. You are depressing me.
RB: You wrote the book! (laughs)
RB: I just do simple things with my computer and try to communicate. I still use the mail.
JG: I love a lot of this stuff. I am optimistic, sometimes I think I am too optimistic about things. But you are right, I see a lot of things to worry about too. The things that I worry about in What Just Happened are all live issues except Y2K. That one we settled.
RB: That was a glorious example of Apocalypse then and now.
JG: I’m going to have to take your dog with me. My dog doesn’t do this.
RB: (laughs) She’s a contented dog. If you talk about shifts in quality and hypothesize a possible shift in consciousness or some kind of epistemological shift, is it possible morality has gotten dropped out of the big picture?
JG: That’s a very big question. It’s beyond the scope of the book. The answer is yes. It’s exactly the thing to worry about, but it is not just about technology and it’s not just about this New World.
RB: What I have ticking along in the background is the notion that —which you have written about in Faster—an accelerated life allows for people to excuse themselves in any number of ways and rationalize moral considerations, that ethical discourse is a luxury for dinner table conversation—
JG: Give me some examples?
RB: The most blatant thing is that in the frenzy of business start ups and speculation and an onslaught of IPOs it seemed to me it was what Oliver Stone showed in his cartoon, Wall Street—greed run amok. I thought people created businesses because there was a need. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer. Companies are created based on a belief that a need can be manufactured.
JG: I feel differently about it. There was a lot of greed in that bubble. But there was lots of idealism of a kind. A lot of the people that were starting companies and working for these companies, the technical people and the creative people— yes, they wanted to get rich, they wanted to get rich really quick—but there were also people who wanted to do something cool, something interesting and create something. They were excited to be involved in a moment of history where there was a lot of turmoil and things were changing very fast.
There is nothing ignoble about that. Meanwhile, as for greed, the dot-com economy didn’t have any monopoly on it. That’s why I was saying that it is beyond the scope of the book because everything else in our economy is greed oriented too. Enron and yesterday it’s the president of Tyco—don’t you read the paper everyday and wonder how these people look at themselves in the mirror?
RB: No, because they appear to practice what is acceptable in business culture. I think the reigning value is “don’t get caught.” And, yes I think the dot-com technological upsurge didn’t monopolize greed and illicit activity but there was an acceleration in the pace of life that has been introduced by the ability to compute and connect, that pushes aside a lot of thinking that we used to associate with human beings. So—
JG: I understand that. In a way we are on my previous book. There is a lot to that but I think that it is also true that there is a lot of—it’s not true that ethical thinking has vanished from our discourse. From online discourse. There is a lot of moralizing of various kinds, in various contexts and—
RB: Lots of blogging.
JG: Yes, a lot of people are finding their voice online and have opinions that you would categorize as very moral—whether you agree with them or not. There are still lots of ethical rules, and sometimes they bump up against each other and come into conflict. And then there are places where the rules need to be rewritten. One of the things that I think about in this book is what happens to people’s behavior when they are anonymous online. My view is it gets bad, and deceit becomes the rule, and people get carried away with their ability to hide behind masks. They behave in ugly ways that wouldn’t exist or flourish if everybody had to use their real names online. That doesn’t mean that deceit has become the order of the day.
It does mean that people are a little unsettled on how to behave and what to do because there are lots of places online where people do use their real names and behave honorably and have figured out what the rules are. I think that’s a good thing.
RB: I am not—though it may sound like it—whining about the precipitous decline of civilization.
JG: No, you don’t want to do that because if you do that you are always led to a certain point. Which is, the worth stuff thinking about in an online context is just a mirror of the rest of the world. Parents say, “I’m disgusted by this stuff and saw what my kids are looking at and I decide I have to keep them away from the computer.” On the one hand I want to say, “Get a grip.” But then on the other hand I completely understand. They don’t need to spell out what they stumbled on. I can imagine it all too well. The only real answer is, “That’s the world. And they are seeing the world. There are a lot of ugly things in the world and that’s unfortunate.” It’s another example of friction being removed from the equation so that it’s a lot easier for even a 10 year old to find stuff that they would have been able to find before but they would have had to work at it. There is no easy answer to this stuff.
RB: Clearly. In part, because we are still in flux on these issues. It isn’t like we have completed the first epoch of cyber reality. In putting this book together you had to review these issues against a current climate. What do you intend to do?
JG: Well, let me tell you. I just a wrote a biography of Isaac Newton. I just turned it in. So I was working on that all during the end of this period and it was so weird and refreshing. I have never written a book before that didn’t involve reporting in modern times, interviewing live people. This was a new experience for me. Everything I did about Newton was colored by my awareness of how the world is changing now—because the world was really different then. It sounds idiotic to list the ways in which it was different. But it really mattered to the course of Newton’s life and to the course of history that it took days to convey a message from Cambridge to London. And when the message was conveyed that was the only copy of it. Unless somebody was willing to spend an hour to make a copy of it with a quill pen. It’s worth thinking about how that made the world function differently. So I just finished that and now I don’t know what I am going to do but part of the thing about that question for me is that when this book opens there weren’t that many people writing about things that had to do with the online world. The Internet—nobody had heard of it. The first pieces I wrote for this book, I felt as if I had the territory all to myself, I’d be the first person writing about. I could write about some guy putting his hot tub online without having to worry that the technology sections of 100 newspapers had already written that same story. Now, I can’t do that. When I wrote about spam or Y2K—I’m not saying that I was the first person to write about these subjects—but close enough that my editors at the Times were reading about them for the first time and I had to explain everything. There was nothing to cover 10 years ago and then suddenly there was—everyone knows that now.
RB: Do you see yourself as an advocate/activist on some of the issues that you deal with in What Just Happened?
JG: You judge for yourself whether I am. I have a feeling that I am too schizophrenic, too ambivalent to be a good activist, even though I am very passionate about some of these things.
RB: I suppose it takes a certain kind of personality, but at least you have laid the groundwork for advocacy here.
JG: When I wrote that patents piece [Patently Absurd, March 2000], that’s as pure a polemic as there is in the book. I had an opinion and said what it was. It was an opinion about what they ought to do and I hoped that people would wake up. People such as congressmen. Not that every congressman is unaware of this but most of them are and nothing happened.
RB: So you are a man in search of a project?
JG: I just finished so I am not feeling too guilty about it. I’ll do something else. It won’t be this again.
RB: Are you still writing columns for the Times?
JG: No, I have been on deadline with the Newton book.
RB: How big is it?
JG: It’s small. It’s for the Penguin Lives series.
RB: It’s a biographical essay?
JG: Well yes, but I spent three years on it. I worked really hard on it.
RB: I’m reminded of a Jefferson observation. “If I had more time, I would have written something shorter.”
JG: It’s not always like that, but that’s what we hope for.
RB: What’s a dream project for you?
JG: Any book is a dream project. If I knew what I was dying to do I would do it.
RB: Would you want to make films?
JG: Could I make films? I love films but I don’t know anything about how you make films. I have a lot of respect for films. If I were starting over, maybe. I seem to have followed a certain path. Which was I was a journalist. You were a journalist, right? I wanted to be a journalist. That was what it was. It wasn’t being a writer. I wasn’t one of those people that imagined that I could sit in a room and ever write a novel. I still know that I couldn’t. So it was all about finding stuff out and writing it. So it still is. Even though there was no journalism involved writing Newton. I write about things that I am interested in. That’s the joy of it. That’s most of the joy of being a journalist in the first place. If you are lucky, you get to pick the thing you want to learn about and then you learn about it.
RB: In your acknowledgments you mention your editor, Dan Frank.
JG: He was the editor of my first book and I stuck with him. He was at Viking and he moved to Pantheon and I moved with him.
RB: I thought the conventional wisdom saw a diminished role for the editor/writer relationship, no longer the Maxwell Perkins’ style of nurturing his writers?
JG: Dan is not a celebrity editor. He is very low key. He loves books.
JG: Well, I’m glad this could be a Dan Frank appreciation thing.
RB: Well, let’s see. You’ve finished your Isaac Newton book. You are a man adrift. You don’t feel guilty.
JG: I think we have just ended.
JG: You just summed it up. Man adrift, doesn’t feel guilty. Okay [to Rosie], now you have to get off.