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Inter@ctive Week Commentary

July 27, 2000
He's No Nick Copernicus
By Lewis Z. Koch Special To Inter@ctive Week

The grand repository of Internet celebrity history is Wired, the magazine that redefined cool and hip for the digital age and transformed a generation of techies and nerds into a colorful new aristocracy. That these latter-day knights and lords wielded the power to create enormous wealth was, in Wired's view, inherently righteous.

But in the last two years, Wired has become a tired satire of itself, a gaudy purveyor of endless hype served up as epiphany. For proof, you need look no further than the August issue's cover story, a profile of 29-year-old Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape Communications and now "leading the red-hot [Silicon] Valley start-up Loudcloud."

Wired proclaimed: "This kid could really go places." The playful irony of that statement, of course, is that "this kid" has already gone places - to the highest echelons of Internet entrepreneurism as a co-founder of Netscape, then on to the cleaners thanks to Bill Gates and Microsoft's free Internet Explorer browser. Even before that, he was part of the legendary team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early '90s who developed the first browser, Mosaic, to exploit Tim Berners-Lee's newly invented World Wide Web.

So the guy's resume drips with pedigree, and the point of the story is that Andreessen is back, touting a new business. But thanks to Wired's happy hype machine, the lasting impression is that Andreessen is surrounded by sycophants who can't wait to testify about how smoothly he walks on water. For example, the article quoted Chuck Katz, Loudcloud's general counsel, as saying: "Whatever Marc does is electrified - it just is. Even if he's not setting out to change a paradigm, it happens. It has to do with the compression of time."

The writer himself declared: "Katz may be right." Scott Dunlop, Loudcloud's head of product management, is even more effusive. "Marc recounted how the Internet has changed the concept of time," he revealed. "Then he showed, step by step, how Loudcloud is going to again compress time, and not by a trivial amount. Time will change again now, this time by a magnitude of three to five. Well, here was the guy who started the whole thing, and he was back for more. Another paradigm shift was coming."

Paradigm shift?

Loudcloud, according to its Web site "provides instant infrastructure services for Internet businesses. This means we manage the software, hardware, network and operations infrastructure of your online business as an ongoing service, 24 by 7." OK. But when you're talking "paradigm shift," you're into stuff of Copernican proportions. Neither Andreessen nor Loudcloud qualifies. The term "paradigm shift" was coined by science historian Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolution. A paradigm is a certain set of beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs are so fundamentally ingrained that society accepts them as given, with religious fervor. It is only when such a belief system crashes with a mighty roar, literally changing our view of the universe, that we experience a paradigm shift. This occurs when science, often by dint of the sheer power and magnitude of some discovery by one extraordinary thinker, forces a transformation of the human perception of how the world works. Nicolaus Copernicus went against nearly 2,000 years of accepted truth when he rejected the idea that the sun revolved around the Earth, insisting instead that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. Paradigm shift.

Isaac Newton, with his theories of gravity, triggered a fundamental readjustment in our perception of the physical world. Paradigm shift.

Albert Einstein demonstrated that Newtonian physics described barely the surface of an elegantly balanced universe. Paradigm shift.

Charles Darwin found our origins, Sigmund Freud our subconscious. Paradigm shifts.

Andreessen started an unproven software business that allegedly helps companies run their businesses. But even if it works as promised, it certainly won't compress time by a magnitude of three to five, nor cause us to change our fundamental perceptions of the universe. Not a paradigm shift. Not even close. But if you believe the hype Wired has bought into, then Andreessen probably has some stock he'll want to sell you.

Who gets the credit? If Andreessen has even a minor role in any paradigm shift, it's one that began thousands of years ago with the invention of number-crunching and culminated in the "group-think" that fueled the development of the computer. To whom do we assign computer parenthood? The unknown creator of the abacus? Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the 9th century Persian mathematician who developed the concept of the algorithm? William Oughtred and his slide rule? Joseph-Marie Jacquard, who invented a loom automated with punched cards? Charles Babbage and his mathematical, celestial and navigation tables? Vannevar Bush and his 1928 differential analyzer? Alan Turning and his theories of artificial intelligence in 1937? Bell Labs and the transistor? The ENIAC team in 1943? John von Neumann's work at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study in 1948? The UNIVAC team in 1951? IBM in 1953? It's a history in which Andreessen is a mere footnote.

Some perspective

Two books, both published this year, stand out as antidotes to the Wired hype. Paradoxically, Paulina Borsook, the author of the first, was a writer at Wired in its early days. Her book, a skeptical, high-heeled strut over the underbelly of the beast titled Cyberselfish, is a Norman Mailer-esque critique that mostly names and always skewers the libertarian denizens of Silicon Valley. Borsook is wonderfully unrelenting and hardheaded in her pursuit of nuance, which Mailer claimed was often more revealing than the mere fact. The other book is Jeff Goodell's Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family - his own. Living at the privileged epicenter of the Fountain of Plenty, the Goodells represent the millions who prove Leo Tolstoy's observation that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

We need Borsook and Goodell to bring us back to Earth, to remind us that new products fueled by greed and market forces do not a paradigm shift make. Borsook reveals that the emperors have no clothes. Goodell reminds us that though most of us live in the treadmill world of Sisyphus - pushing boulders up hills only to watch them roll down again - a good, decent and worthwhile life can be had amid the toil. In the pages of those books one may find some truth - or at least a more honest perspective than Wired's profile of a man who once acknowledged himself a "media whore."

paulina b.

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