A Brief History of Digital

Nothing they told you is true...

[Author’s note: This essay was first published back in 2010.]

“In a society of default addiction and excess, the quality of life becomes a function of deliberate subtraction.” - Jeff Einstein

Turns out nothing we’ve been taught about the rise of digital is true…

As a digital media pioneer turned apostate I’m sometimes asked to explain how we got from the garage-legend introduction of early PCs back in the late 1970s to the completely immersive digital oligarchy we live in today.

Of course, popular culture by definition cannot tolerate critical self-examination. It simply cannot pause to turn the spotlight inward, nor can it spare the requisite time to fashion any meaningful historical narrative. Like a shark in the water, popular culture must always keep moving forward or die. Thus is history in what I call the Great Age of Mediation — an age in which virtually all of our personal and institutional relationships are conducted through electronic intermediaries — rendered essentially stillborn and inert, at best a temporary respite from the clamor of the present.

That said, I feel a personal obligation to set the record straight and to provide an explanation for how we suddenly woke up one day to find ourselves so firmly ensconced as hapless addicts in the digital 21st century. As is often the case, however, the truth bears little resemblance to popular myth and legend. Though brief, what follows below is wholly unabridged and completely factual…

The 1980s
It may seem hard to believe these days — especially when our personal lives are so crammed with so many digital devices — but the digital revolution didn’t begin at home. It didn’t begin at home simply because there was no functional or otherwise compelling reason for consumers to buy personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Accordingly, what everyone thought would be a robust home market for PCs fizzled out soon enough, and didn’t re-emerge in strength until the mid-1990s (this time as a commercial medium) with the rise of the Internet and broadband.

Instead, the digital revolution began in the office, where applications for PCs were patently obvious, one of which — the electronic spreadsheet — became the dominant corporate tool virtually overnight. The sudden ability to project and manipulate corporate numbers with a facility and scale previously impossible and un­im­agined delivered immense power to the captains of industry and finance and gave rise to exponentially amplified Wall Street and media cultures whose influence and dominance continues to grow virtually unabated in direct relationship to the power and ubiquity of the chips and devices that drive them.

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” — Marshall McLuhan

The sudden flurry of M&A activity, the Black Monday stock market crash of October 1987, and the collapse of the savings and loan industry later in the same decade were all early manifestations of an overly enthusiastic corporate rush to adopt and deploy a digital tool whose inherent power and sudden ability to project immense scale far surpassed our limited ability to mitigate and moderate any associated risk.

Meanwhile, the introduction of cable TV in the early 1980s fragmented urban audiences and forever changed the commercial media landscape. In lieu of the ability to reach mass audiences like their established broadcast counterparts, the fledgling cable networks sold the ability to target their audiences much more efficiently instead. Suddenly, agency media planners and buyers were besieged by armies of cable network sales reps, all of whom extolled the virtues of effective targeting based on extensive data-driven audience research. The working vernacular of advertising and marketing began to change accordingly as the primary industry focus, infrastructure and billing mechanisms shifted away from creative execution and moved towards media, a tool-driven migration made possible and powered by the wholesale adoption and application of the electronic spreadsheet. The sheer number-crunching power, appeal and corporate ubiquity of the electronic spreadsheet all but guaranteed the corresponding migration of agency resources from the message to the medium and — true to the sage observation of pioneer media ecologist Marshall McLuhan — the medium indeed became the message.

Still, someone had to sell the surging Wall Street and digital media cultures (not to mention all the requisite hardware and software) to Main Street America. Enter the production-line template for the post-modern MBA, a thoroughly digital technocrat formally schooled in both marketing and financial disciplines. It’s no mistake that the equally rapid ascents of the Wall Street and digital media cultures coincided, as both were driven by graduates of the same MBA programs of the same schools. Both were favored stepchildren of the exact same tool: the electronic spreadsheet — without a doubt the most powerful, persuasive and thoroughly abused corporate tool of all time.

The 1990s
The explosive evangelism of the World Wide Web as a commercial medium and the financial promiscuity of the brief dot com era that rode shotgun with it were entirely consistent with the characteristics of a media-driven youth movement, not unlike the one that spread rock and roll and free love around the world via commercial radio and TV in the 1960s. Between the years 1995 and 2000, legions of youthful MBAs — most with little or no actual hands-on experience in marketing and advertising — assumed all but complete control over what would soon become history’s most potent and powerful medium.

Despite the counterculture hype, these were hardly the rogue advertising madmen of yesteryear. And they weren’t equipped with mere slogans and taglines. These were highly motivated, highly educated and highly financed young MBAs equipped with the most powerful business tools ever devised, tools powerful enough to eclipse (and eventually humble) even the hard-driving ambitions of those who deployed them. The young dot com evangelists were the 1990s versions of the highly motivated, highly educated and highly financed young physicists and scientists who gathered in Los Alamos during World War II to build the first atomic bomb. This generation, however, wasn’t hired and funded by a wartime government and didn’t crunch their numbers with slide rules, chalkboards and mechanical calculators. This generation was hired and funded instead by huge technology and media companies, by rapacious venture capitalists and by covert intelligence agencies. Their calculations were powered by a billion microchips. And just as the young physicists and scientists of Los Alamos ushered in the Nuclear Age, the young technologists and MBAs of the Silicon Valley in California and the Silicon Alley in New York City ushered in the Great Age of Mediation.

Safe to say that neither generation was particularly inclined to ponder the long-term consequences of their respective efforts and technologies, as youth on a mission rarely are. Hence, the Young Turks of the dot com era didn’t think twice about what might happen to our lives and our lifestyles as they engineered and fast-tracked the migration of immensely powerful digital office productivity tools of scale — like laptops, PDAs and mobile phones — from the office into our homes. No one pondered what might happen once most of the functional distinctions between the office and the home were obliterated, or what might ensue as the pace of our private lives accelerated to match the speed of our own office technologies, suddenly ensconced in our homes and lives as highly narcotic consumer gadgets. No one paused to consider how the promise of immense digital scale might soon all but eliminate institutional accountability and erode the public trust, nor were there any Surgeon General warnings affixed to any of the digital devices we slipped in and out of our pockets and purses dozens of times each day like packs of cigarettes…

WARNING: This device is exceptionally addictive. It was not designed to improve the quality of your life. It was designed specifically and explicitly to increase productivity, destroy your privacy and turn you into a mindless consumer zombie. Prolonged exposure will guarantee profound unintended consequences — some of them not so good.

Of course, no one thought the dot com boom would ever end, either. At least not until it came crashing down in the spring of 1999. But by then the damage was done: commercial media poured unabated through the digital pipeline and flooded absolutely everything. By the end of the dot com era our lives had been vastly accelerated and forever changed — not necessarily for the better.

The 2000s
While high-tech investments in the mid-to-late 1990s focused primarily on building out the essential commercial architecture and infrastructure of the Internet, the first decade of the 21st century was mostly about three things:

1. The consolidation of wealth and power.
The first decade of the 21st century was one of immense mergers and acquisitions among already enormous media franchises, especially online. In addition, huge amounts of investment capital were put to work on commercial technologies that would a) rapidly expand and set the stage for broadband access and b) track, analyze, optimize and sell consumer behavioral data online. Sure enough, broadband access soon became the de facto standard while the digital advertising and marketing industry — in response to legitimate consumer concerns about the volume and integrity of the behavioral data tracked, analyzed, optimized and sold — solemnly promised on a stack of shrink-wrapped user manuals to regulate itself, and embarked on a mission to educate consumers not to worry so much about potential abuses of personal data. Your data, they promised, are safe, and the fact that we track, analyze, parse and sell them to anyone who asks is merely the price you pay for a far better and far more efficient online experience. “Trust us,” they said. “This is for your own good.” Besides, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, soon after 9/11 government security and intelligence agencies were granted broad powers by Congress and executive order to deploy the same basic digital tracking technologies in the war against terror with the same basic refrain: Your data are safe, and the fact that we track, analyze, parse and share them is the price you pay for a secure homeland. “Trust us,” they said. “This is for your own good.” Meanwhile, the government directive to the commercial high-tech and media industries (increasingly indistinguishable) was likewise simple and to the point: “We now have the legal right and legitimate excuse to subpoena and examine your customer data pretty much whenever we want.” they said. “So let’s do lunch and partner up.”

“Sounds good,” replied the digital captains of industry and newly anointed protectors of our civil liberties. “What about those tax subsidies?”

Thus we were taught by industry and government agents alike (also increasingly indistinguishable) not to worry about all of the digital tracking and spying technologies we couldn’t see at work behind the scenes. “Pay no attention” they told us, “to the man behind the curtain.”

Meanwhile, those who stood the most to gain by selling digital technologies and media to everyone on the planet evangelized the liberating, lifestyle-enhancing and presumed democratizing effects of their products and services, and proclaimed the entire world on-demand and at our fingertips. True enough, perhaps, but behind the scenes the real byproducts of so much digital power in the hands of so many huge institutions were…

  • the accelerated polarization of wealth and the corporatist collusion of immense private and government interests on a massive scale,

  • the accelerated rise of a super-surveillance deep state and the end of personal privacy,

  • the militarization of urban police forces, and the perfection of soft power via the deliberate manufacture and sale of a meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital as the default social condition, the rule rather than the exception and

  • the end of institutional accountability and the rise of fascism — the old face of the New Left.

The medium was the message and the true message of digital media was buried far beneath the graphic user interfaces that whisked us like magic from one virtual reality to another. The medium was the message and the true message of digital media was far less about the democratization of media and personal empowerment as advertised and far more about the consolidation and expansion of institutional wealth and power among institutions — corporations and government agencies alike — already far too powerful and far too wealthy.

“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
— Benito Mussolini

2. The supremacy of on-demand video and HDTV.
By 2005 high-speed Internet access was already the rule rather than the exception, and what hadn’t yet been obvious to some soon became obvious to everyone (at least to anyone who thought about it for more than two minutes):

  • that broadband Internet access was in fact all about commercial TV via video on demand, and

  • that video on demand — especially HDTV — was by far the most powerful and influential narcotic in history. No surprise therefore that by the end of the 21st century’s first decade, virtually every digital device on the planet came equipped with an HDTV screen, more than half of all Internet bandwidth was devoted to uploading, downloading and streaming on-demand video and HDTV was the broadcast standard mandated by governments worldwide.

3. The introduction of the smartphone.
The introduction of the smartphone — history’s most perfect narcotic — liberated on-demand video and all but completed our enslavement as media addicts. We now had access to our favorite and most reliable media narcotics 24/7 — sitting, standing or flat on our backs — whenever we wanted, wherever we went.

Of course no brief history of the 21st century’s first decade would be complete without mention of the great housing collapse and market crash of 2007 and 2008 — only the latest of several systemic breakdowns to occur in the debut generation of the electronic spreadsheet. Rather than explore our own complicity in the tool-driven nature of each financial debacle, however, we conveniently added three zeros to the national dialog and debt after each crash, crunched the new numbers and partied on — all of which seemed a pretty livable arrangement until late 2008, when we suddenly ran out of zeros because no one knew what to call a thousand trillions…