I was lucky enough to sit down recently with the original Mr. Digital. I caught up with him at one of his rare public appearances, just outside a neighborhood Starbucks. Apparently, he doesn’t get out much anymore, and knows almost nothing from bridge or tunnel tolls.
We sat down over $5 coffees. “Never thought I’d see it,” he told me.
“See what?” I inquired. “A $5 coffee?”
“No,” he said. “Facebook at 30.”
“Tell me about the early days of digital,” I said.
“The early days of digital,” he began, “were characterized by the rise of the MBA and the demise of common sense. Apparently, the atom bomb, Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger weren’t enough to persuade us that too much education ain’t always such a great thing.”
He paused to stir his coffee and check out a pretty girl seated across from us. “The early days of digital were all about the introduction and evolution of the electronic spreadsheet as the dominant medium,” he continued. “The spreadsheet is where we deposited our dreams as we moved away from the linear confines of a literary culture to the sexier screen-based cultures of Wall Street and the entertainment industry. By the late 1980s, everyone was speaking the language of spreadsheets. We hardly had a chance to pack.”
“It was also the age of disco,” I said.
He nodded. “Yes. And we thought the '50s made no sense. Then again, lots of things stopped making sense in the confluence of cable TV and the spreadsheet. By the mid-1990s, the advertising and marketing dialogue had shifted almost entirely away from reaching the audience to targeting the audience, away from the message to the medium. The rise of the modern MBA -- a technocrat equally conversant in marketing and technology -- gave rise, in turn, to the Wall Street culture as we know it today.
“Not to mention The Real World,” I added.
“Now you’re talking impact,” Mr. Digital said. “The entire world was about to take off, like Chuck Yeager, test pilot extraordinaire. Young billionaires like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in high-tech corridors like San Jose and New York City were to the 1980s and '90s what Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr and Edward Teller were to the 1930s and '40s in Chicago and Los Alamos.”
“And we all know how well that turned out.”
He nodded. “By the mid-1990s, we’d long become tools of our tools and the stage was set for one of history’s most transformative moments. In marketing and advertising terms, we were about to wreck the joint…and throw some great parties, too.”