Every five years or so I start too seriously reflect on my life in terms of the world around me. Where am I? How did I get here? And what am I contributing toward it all? For me, it helps to put it into perspective with a story. A narrative of events often surfaces answer to questions that seemed murky without context.
I’ve written my personal narrative once before while working for the Public Radio program Marketplace. I was the leader of team that built and maintained Marketplace.org. Our charge was to translate this popular radio program with its district sound and voice to the digital space. Most of the time it was hard work. For example, radio journalists are great orators and storytellers and they have no need for excellence in spelling. On the Internet, bad spellers will struggle to achieve excellence.
So rather than rewrite my narrative, here’s an excerpt of that original report to get it started:
When I was four, in a dark basement hallway of the college science building where my dad kept his biology lab, I first saw the Internet. It was just about as old as I was.
During the summer semesters my dad gave us free rein of his college biology building – I loved the dry ice machine and closets full of glass beakers. My oldest brother, meanwhile, spent his time in the basement.
He reluctantly let me follow him sometimes down the long dark hallway where a row of blinking computers with flashing green text lined a cinder block wall. I watched as he logged in to the black screen with pounding clicks on a keyboard. As he typed, he explained to me that there were people from all over the world writing back at the other end. Like a telephone, but with words.
I didn’t really understand it at the time, but later in life during a tour of UCLA’s computer science building by a man named Leonard Kleinrock, I would learn that it was called ARPANET, and it was essentially the first version of what we now call the Internet.
The next summer the personal computer arrived in my home, and my life was really disrupted. It was an Apple IIe and I remember its flimsy, oversized floppy disks well. My favorite was a game called Olympic Decatholon. To move your athlete across the pixelated screen required pounding furiously on the left and right arrow keys. In my favorite event, hurdles, you had to hit the space bar while operating the left and right arrow keys to leap over each hurdle. (My parents didn’t know at the time, but I attribute my keen hand-eye coordination to those hours of game play.)
Power to the People: The desktop publisher
When the first Macintosh computer came out in 1984, my Mom dropped $3,000 on one for our house. She ran a small business in town and she chose the expensive but stylish computer so she could run a desktop publishing program called PrintShop. It allowed her to design colorful signs and banners for her store windows, and she could print out her entire store mailing list onto reams of sticky labels – thousands of them – more quickly and for a lot less money than a professional service.
The sound of the dot-matrix printer churning through the alphabet of names is burned in my head forever. But my brothers and sister and I loved it. Mom paid us $.05 for every label we stuck on a 4×6 postcard announcing some holiday sale or special event. I stayed up past midnight honing my sticking technique to earn more money, more quickly.
A generation gets connected
In 1988, the public middle school I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area upgraded all of its electric typewriters with Windows PCs. Typing class was replaced with computer lab, and my graduating class was the first to take the newly required course. We mostly learned the keyboard by typing letters as they fell from the top of the screen. If a letter hit the ground, you lost a point. My friends and I had great fun competing for the best scores. Meanwhile, I learned how to professionally type 75 words a minute and navigate windows with a mouse and quick commands.
I got my first email address in the Fall of my freshman year in college: MattBerger@calpoly.edu. I also signed up for a new free service from Microsoft called Hotmail, and I checked both accounts multiple times each day with a Netscape browser on the Apple Powerbook 180c that my dad got me for high school graduation. It was Apple’s first color laptop. It weighs about 12 lbs. I still have it on my office desk and love to see people’s expressions when they see it for the first time.
A career path disrupted
After I earned my bachelors degree in Journalism, the Washington Post wouldn’t have me, but I quickly found work in the technology news business in San Francisco, where a disruption in the media industry was furiously underway. Online startups were challenging old-school publishing business models, and the advertisers needed to make that happen were spilling money out their pockets.
This worked out well for eager young j-school grads like me. If I was willing to write about the Internet and technology start-ups, they would have me. The editors needed content to create more pages to handle the overflow of ads streaming in. I first went to work for a magazine called Upside. Some of our issues topped 250 pages — bigger than a Vogue Fall Fashion issue.
When Upside went downside during the tech bubble of 2003, I found a new place to write and report. This time for a more established publishing company called IDG. It owns MacWorld and PCWorld. It also publishes the trade weekly InfoWorld, which was the first magazine in the U.S. to truly disrupt the business by abandoning its print edition to go online only.
Monopolies vs. Free: A battle for the future
At IDG I reported on software and operating systems and all of the companies that played in that space. That meant the big one: Microsoft, which was heavily entrenched at the time in an antitrust lawsuit against the U.S. state and federal governments and the European Union.
That’s when I learned to write the plural “state attorneys general” because Microsoft was being sued by nearly a dozen of them for its monopoly hold on the multi-billion-dollar desktop operating system business. The San Fransisco District Court was home to several of those hearings, where I earned my stripes as a court reporter.
But there was another story I covered that was equally as important brewing at the time, about a real digital disruption taking place. It was a story about a handful of really smart software engineers who didn’t give a crap about making monopolies out of operating systems. In fact, they wanted just the opposite.
They called it “Free Software.” They made it for free on their free time, and they protected it with a free license that said you can have every bit of the code and do with it what you please, as long as you share your changes back to the community so that everyone can benefit from your innovations.
That was a bold idea at the time when the goal of a software company was to sell more software and make more money. In contrast to Microsoft’s authoritarian licensing agreements, the concept of free software was profound.
But more than a decade later, it has stuck around and in many cases won out. That’s because while the code is free, a lot of people have made bundles of money building custom software and applications that in turn have great value. Other businesses and institutions are using it to save money – replacing entire proprietary networks with free servers and software.
All I’ve known is digital
As I look back on three centuries of my life, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the world has been digitally disrupted. Look around you and you will see it everywhere. You’re probably reading story with your smartphone on a subway.
I happened to be lucky enough to be born to a generation at the forefront of this disruption. I still remember what a dial pay phone looks like; I put together my college newspaper the old-fashioned way with a paste-up wax machine and printing press. But I also eagerly embraced their technological replacements, the mobile phone and the digital printer and Quark XPress.
And it is with this new blog, on this new website, that I plan to tell more of these kinds of stories about digital technologies that are disrupting the way we live and do business, and the people who are behind these disruptions.
And I’m always looking for your feedback. So post a comment. Say hi. Find me on Twitter. I don’t mind the disruptions.
Second verse, same as the first
Picking up where this story left off, I spent a few years at Marketplace before leaving for a new career at Apple, working inside the Product Marketing department with the charge of producing marketing content about Apple users that demonstrate the value and ultimately sell iPhones and iPads to business, education, and government customers. Being inside the belly of the Silicon Valley beast was an eye-opening experience. That’s a story for another day.
But I’m happy to report that the narrative continues. I left Apple this month and next week start yet another new adventure. This one involves a home office, more of that open source software, and the opportunity to help write a new story for the future of journalism, digital media, and content publishing. Right about now, they could use the help.