the following is the complete second chapter of
Copyright © 1999, 2001 Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger.
What Is the Web For?
We know telephones are for talking with people, televisions are for watching programs, and highways are for driving. So what’s the Web for?
We don’t know. Yet we put it on magazine covers, found businesses stoking it, spend billions on an infrastructure for it. We want it to be important with a desperation that can frighten us when we look at it coldly.
Who is this we? It’s not just the webheads and full-time aficionados. It’s the management teams who don’t understand it but sense an opportunity. It’s the uncles and aunts who pepper you with questions about all this Web stuff. It’s the seven-year-old who takes it for granted that when she speaks the entire world can choose to hear her. Our culture’s pulse is pounding with the Web.
This fervid desire for the Web bespeaks a longing so intense that it can only be understood as spiritual. A longing indicates that something is missing in our lives. What is missing is the sound of the human voice.
The spiritual lure of the Web is the promise of the return of voice.
The longing for the Web occurs in the midst of a profoundly managed age.
We believe, in fact, that to be a business is to be managed. A business manages its resources, including its finances, physical plant, and people in basically the same way: quantifiable factors are determined, predicted, processed, assessed.
But our management view extends far beyond business. We manage our households, our children, our wildlife, our ecological environment. And that which is unmanaged strikes us as bad: weeds, riots, cancer.
The idea that we can manage our world is uniquely twentieth-century and chiefly American. And there are tremendous advantages to believing one lives in a managed world:
Of course, none of these benefits are delivered perfectly. There are still risks, there are still injustices, there are still "outages." But these are exceptions. And when they occur, we feel cheated, as if our contract has been violated.
It wasn’t always thus. For millennia, we assumed that being in control was the exception and living in a wildly risk-filled world was the norm:
"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."
Today these awful words sound like one of those quaint, primitive ideas we’ve outgrown.
The belief in the managed environment is a denial of the brute "facticity" of our lives. The truth is that businesses cannot be managed. They can be run, but they exist in a world that is so far beyond the control of the executives and the shareholders that "managing" a business is a form of magical belief that gets punctured the first time a competitor drastically lowers prices, a large trading partner’s economy falters, a key supplier’s factory burns down, your lead developer gets a better offer, your CFO becomes felonious, or an angry consumer wins an unfair lawsuit.
As flies to wanton boys are companies to their markets. They pull off a company’s wings for sport.
How to Hate Your Job
A managed environment requires behavior from us that we accept as inevitable although, of course, it is really mandatory only because it is mandated. We call it "professionalism."
Professionalism goes far beyond acting according to a canon of ethics. Professionals dress like other professionals (one eccentricity per person is permitted -- a garish tie, perhaps, or a funky necklace), decorate their cubicles with nothing more disturbing than a Dilbert (formerly Far Side) cartoon, sit up straight at committee meetings, tell carefully calibrated jokes, don’t undermine the authority of (that is, show they’re smarter than) their superiors, make idle chatter only about a narrow range of "safe" topics, don’t swear, don’t mention God, make absolutely no reference to being sexual (exceptions made for male executives after the hot new hire has left the room), and successfully "manage" their home life so that it never intrudes unexpectedly into their business life.
Most of us don’t mind doing this. In fact, we actually sort of enjoy it. It’s like playing grownup. And having extremist political banners hung in cubicles or having to listen to someone talk about his spiritual commitments or sex life would simply be distracting. Disturbing, actually.
And yet... we feel resentment. Find someone who likes being managed, who feels fully at home in his or her professional self. Our longing for the Web is rooted in the deep resentment we feel towards being managed.
However much we long for the Web is how much we hate our job.
Just about all the concessions we make to work in a well-run, non- disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed environment have to do with giving up our voice.
Nothing is more intimately a part of who we are than our voice. It expresses what we think and feel. It is an amalgam of the voluntary and involuntary. It gives style and shape to content. It subtends the most public and the most private. It is what we withhold at the moments of greatest significance.
Our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, our visible enthusiasms.
Our business voice -- in a managed environment -- is virtually the same as everyone else’s. For example, we learn to write memos in The Standard Style and to participate in committee meetings in The Appropriate Fashion. (Of course, we are also finely attuned to minute differences in expression and can often tell memos apart the way birdwatchers spot the differences between a lark sparrow and a song sparrow.)
In fifty years, our corporate lives will seem no different than those of the 1950s. Whether we are Ward Cleavers or Dilberts, we all reported to work in look-alike rooms, wearing uniforms, speaking civilly, playing our parts at committee meetings. The fact that earth tones and Rockports have replaced gray flannel and wingtips isn’t going to separate us from our crewcut fathers.
Managed businesses have taken our voices. We want to struggle against this. We wear a snarky expression behind our boss’s back, place ironic distance between our company and ourselves, and we don’t want to think we have become our parents. But we have. And we’ve done so willingly.
Management is a powerful force, part of a larger life-scheme that promises us health, peace, prosperity, calm, and no surprises in every aspect of our lives, from health to wealth to good weather and moderately heated coffee from McDonald’s. We are all victims of this assault on voice, the attempt to get us to shut up and listen to the narrowest range of ideas imaginable.
It is only the force of our regret at having lived in this bargain that explains the power of our longing for the Web.
We don’t know what the Web is for but we’ve adopted it faster than any technology since fire.
There are many ways to look at what’s drawing us to the Web: access to information, connection to other people, entrance to communities, the ability to broadcast ideas. None of these are wrong perspectives. But they all come back to the promise of voice and thus of authentic self.
At the first InternetWorld conference, the vendors were falling over one another offering software and services that would let you "create your own home page in five minutes." Microsoft, IBM, and a hundred smaller shops were all hawking the same goods. You could sit in a booth and create your own home page faster than you can get your portrait sketched on a San Francisco sidewalk.
While the create-a-home-page problem proved too easy to solve to support a software industry, there was something canny about the commercial focus on the creation of home pages. Since you could just as adequately view the Web as a huge reference library, why did home pages seize our imaginations? Because a home page is a place in which we can express who we are and let the world in. Meager though it may be, a home page is a way of having a voice.
The Web’s promise of a voice has now gone far beyond that. The Web is viral. It infects everything it touches -- and, because it is an airborne virus, it infects some things it doesn’t. The Web has become the new corporate infrastructure, in the form of intranets, turning massive corporate hierarchical systems into collections of many small pieces loosely joining themselves unpredictably.
The voice that the Web gives us is not the ability to post pictures of our cat and our guesses at how the next episode of The X-Files will end. It is the granting of a place in which we can be who we are (and even who we aren’t, if that’s the voice we’ve chosen).
It is a public place. That is crucial. Having a voice doesn’t mean being able to sing in the shower. It means presenting oneself to others. The Web provides a place like we’ve never seen before.
We may still have to behave properly in committee meetings, but increasingly the real work of the corporation is getting done by quirky individuals who meet on the Web, net the two-hour committee meeting down to two lines (one of which is obscene and the other wickedly funny), and then -- in a language and rhythm unique to them -- move ahead faster than the speed of management.
The memo is dead. Long live e-mail. The corporate newsletter is dead. Long live racks of ’zines from individuals who do not speak for the corporation. Bland, safe relationships with customers are dead. Long live customer-support reps who are willing to get as pissed off at their own company as the angry customer is.
We are so desperate to have our voices back that we are willing to leap into the void. We embrace the Web not knowing what it is, but hoping that it will burn the org chart -- if not the organization -- down to the ground. Released from the gray-flannel handcuffs, we say anything, curse like sailors, rhyme like bad poets, flame against our own values, just for the pure delight of having a voice.
And when the thrill of hearing ourselves speak again wears off, we will begin to build a new world.
That is what the Web is for.