I started my journalistic career as a rock critic, and in some
ways a rock critic is what I remain. Since I have barely written
a line of actual rock criticism in the last five years, however,
this assertion requires some explanation. So let me explain.
criticism first occurred to me as a career option, I saw it
as a way of breaking down barriers between realms of culture
that had been artificially, and oppressively, separated. Our
culture, I believed, was a kind of apartheid system, with high
culture held distinct from popular culture more or less for
the express purpose of making people who loved popular culture
feel bad about themselves and their desires. At the time, this
was easy for me to believe. I was in college, at Yale University,
where hundreds of people with Ph.Ds spent their days drawing
up and maintaining the lines between cultural realms, and where
- as I had discovered early on to my dismay - there was no major
in popular music.
I did what
I could to compensate for this deficiency in the curriculum.
I took whatever courses came up that even remotely touched on
the subject of pop music or popular culture. I started a student-run
pop-music quarterly, and in it wrote stirringly of the need
to break up high culture's hegemonic monopoly on the attention
of intellectual bastions like Yale. I dreamed of the day I would
go professional, and work toward the creation of a more democratic
culture by the mere act of writing thoughtfully and intelligently
about the contents of the Top 40 in the pages of thoughtful
and intelligent publications.
a romanticism to all of this. I thought I was onto something
new, that I was helping break exciting intellectual ground.
And in the context of mid-80s academia, I sort of was. The field
of cultural studies, which proceeds from the assumption that
the categories of high and low culture are no longer of much
analytical value, is now well ensconced in American universities.
But back then it was just a speck on the horizon. Inside the
academy walls, high-flying, French-fried literary theory was
as ground-breaking as it got, and I never heard the deconstructionists
say much that wasn't vaguely condescending about the Top 40.
Once I got
outside those walls, however, I found myself beginning to wonder
about both the novelty and the urgency of my vocation. Not long
after graduation, I got a job as a copyeditor at the Village
Voice, and I started writing my thoughtful, intelligent
record reviews for publications like the Voice and Spin.
And in the process I came to see that this was not a business
that was just about articulating the joys and complexities of
loving pop music; it was a business that was also about business.
I was now, even if peripherally, a participant in the vast postindustrial
machinery that helps circulate recorded music through our economy
and our lives. And considering from a closer perspective the
huge amounts of money and hype that greases that machinery,
I couldn't help feeling that perhaps pop music was not exactly
the oppressed cultural form I had hitherto imagined it to be.
out in the world of professional rock critics, I was no longer
any kind of pioneer. The great founding notion of rock criticism
- the discovery that pop songs with backbeats were art, and
could be written about as such - was already a well-established
tenet of the field. Rock criticism's golden age of innovation,
stretching from the late 60s to the late 70s, was long over.
The titans of rock criticism's first wave - the Robert Christgaus
and the Greil Marcuses and the Lester Bangses -- had carved
out the basic outlines of the profession, and all that was left
for us latecomers was to fill in a few details and doodle some
filigree in the margins.
almost as soon as it had begun, the romance was over. Rock criticism
became a job. A job I did with enthusiasm and respect, but a
job all the same. What I needed now was a new vocation. And
lo and behold, a vocation was delivered unto me, right on schedule.
in the form of the most exciting technological purchase I had
made since I bought a stereo system with my paper-route money
in the eighth grade. The new gadget was a modem, which I had
procured as a handy way to get my record reviews to my editors
without having to get on the subway, but which turned out to
open a portal into a realm of culture entirely undreamt of in
the philosophies of the Yale comp lit department or Polygram's
boardroom or the weekly editorial meetings at the Village
was cyberspace. Which in 1988, if you found yourself outside
the walls of the academy, was Compuserve and whatever small
constellation of 8-line basement bulletin boards run by hobbyist
geeks happened to be in your dialing range. The overt content
of these boards was for the most part nothing too thrilling.
In the few nooks and crannies where participants weren't debating
the merits of various hard drives and graphics cards, they were
talking about bowling or cats or Megadeth or any of the thousands
of small passions that form the woof and warp of the American
this overt content lay a message that was thrilling indeed.
The message was the medium, which to me looked a lot more like
an advertisement for democratic culture than pop music now did.
Here was punk rock's invigorating ethic of DIY - or do it yourself
- writ large. Here was a broad-based and infinitely extensible
forum for expression, a cottage publishing industry in which
every participant was both consumer and, potentially, producer.
And best of all, here was a cultural form that, to judge by
the coverage in the kinds of cultural publications I wrote for,
I had all to myself. In essence, I could do all the things with
it that I had wanted to do with rock criticism. I could break
down barriers between cultural realms, showing the culture vultures
of Manhattan and beyond that technology was no longer just for
geeks, that it was something that in the long run was going
to matter more and more to the arts and ideas that mattered
to them. I could celebrate a medium that was reconfiguring cultural
hierarchies in a way that, if things unfolded as well as they
could, might end up being profoundly liberatory. And last but
not least I could be the kind of intellectual pioneer the titans
of rock criticism's golden age had been, carving the outlines
of a journalistic subprofession in the making.
Maybe someday the academy would even invite me back within its
walls, summoning me to sit up on the stage of some elegantly
upholstered theater on a cozy Thursday afternoon and tell the
tale of how it all happened.
by my new vocation, I began to press for assignments that would
let me pursue it. And these turned out to be not terribly difficult
to get. Hacker stories, for instance, were particularly appealing
to the kinds of places I was already writing for. They were
full of rock and roll themes - good-guy outlaws, teenage heroes,
passionate subcultures - and because the hacker narrative was
easy to sell as a struggle between institutions and individuals
over the control of knowledge, it fit in cozily with the vaguely
left-libertarian politics of publications like Spin and the
Voice. My first big cyberspace story, in fact, was a piece for
Spin on teenage hackers from Brooklyn. "Cyber Thrash"
was the headline they gave it. My next big one was a cover story
for the Voice on the New York City hacker crew MOD. "Rebel
Hackers" was the coverline. The head: "On Line and
Out of Bounds."
went on and cyberspace grew, looming larger on the cultural
horizon with every passing year, room for other kinds of stories
opened up. In 1993 I did a cover story for the Voice on cryptography
and the cypherpunk movement. Remarkably, newsstand sales spiked
for that issue, even though - or maybe even because - the cover
art consisted entirely of a segment of jumbled ASCII text taken
from a PGP-encrypted file. Later that year I had another cover
story, now a somewhat famous one, called "A Rape in Cyberspace,"
which was about a so-called virtual rape that took place in
the historic online community of LambdaMOO. No piece I had done
before had managed to convey as vividly to readers the fact
that there was something wild and different going on online,
something that might profoundly alter the way they related to
words and communication and culture in general. But that was
only the highlight of a year in which I had written articles
and columns exploring how cyberspace might affect our relationship
to television, to music, to maps, to money, to identity, finding
in each new spaces of possibility and peril, and generally having
the time of my professional life.
in 1994, the story of cyberspace became, irrevocably, the story
of the Internet, and the story of the Internet went mainstream
in a big, big way that has only gotten bigger in the years that
followed. And I confess that ever since then I have been at
a bit of a loss as to how to cover that story as a journalist.
partly because I have spent most of these years working on a
soon-to-be-published book, My Tiny Life, which is a continuation
of the "Rape in Cyberspace" story and which kept me
relatively sidelined while cyberspace went on evolving in its
breakneck way. It's also partly because the mainstreaming of
cyberspace convinced me it made some kind of sense to move from
the Village Voice to Time magazine for a while, a somewhat bizarre
move with a breakneck learning curve all its own, and one I'm
not sure I ever quite got the hang of.
main reason I have felt unsure of my footing in the last few
years is simply that the journalistic landscape beneath my feet
has changed so much. The wide open spaces I beheld when I first
hooked up my modem have gotten at once much wider and much less
open. Because the social import of cyberspace has grown so much
more obvious and substantial, its narrative is no longer just
a boring old technology story that some lucky textual poacher
like myself can come along and turn into a cultural story. It's
also now a legal story, a political story, and above all a business
story. And all of these tend to muscle out the cultural story
when competition for page space gets fierce and the chips are
a certain amount of journalistic sense, of course. There's a
lot less hard news in the cultural story of cyberspace; and
as for the most exciting aspects of that story, the big ideas
about where cyberspace is taking us as a culture -- well, they're
big ideas, and big ideas don't tend to change rapidly enough
to keep a weekly newspaper in business, let alone a daily. I
was fortunate enough to be around when there were a lot of those
ideas hanging ripe for the picking. But now I'm back to the
same realization I faced when I first set out to be a professional
rock critic: The golden age only happens once. And now I'm obliged
to add another realization to that one: Once the golden age
is over, even the pioneers still have to get up every day and
make a living.
as I move back from the sidelines of cyberspace journalism and
try to find my footing as I go, I find myself falling back on
the same sense of purpose that kept me going as a rock critic,
even as I felt the romance of epic cultural struggle draining
away from the endeavor. There was still a cultural struggle
involved, after all. Not an epic one, but ultimately I'd say
a more important one. It was and is the daily struggle to make
the voice of individual cultural experience heard in a world
where institutional voices - whether the voice of academia or
of government or, especially, of capital -- speak so much louder.
I considered it my job, as a rock critic, to do what I could
to help ensure that the place of culture in people's lives would
not be entirely determined by those other, louder voices.
just to bring this long explanation to a conclusion, is why
I say that I am still in some sense a rock critic. Because the
job, as I see it, remains the same. I am still trying above
all to articulate the lived experience of a cultural form, and
not to be unduly distracted by the institutional dramas and
interests that surround that form. With rock criticism, that
was always easier said than done, and with cyberspace it's certainly
not any easier.
there's an increasing emphasis in the coverage of digital technologies
on what journalists call service pieces - the what-to-look-for-when-shopping-for-a-modem
story, the how-to-teach-your-kids-safe-Web-surfing-habits story
- and it's sometimes hard to distinguish those stories from
the kind I try to pursue. But they're not the same thing. They're
about telling people how to fit the technology into their lives,
not about articulating or even really reporting on how people
actually do fit it into their lives.
on the other hand, just to complicate things further, sometimes
with cyberspace the service piece is the right way to get at
the cultural story. Or the straight-up product review is. Or
the legal story is. Or the political story. Or God help me,
the business story. For me, that's the tricky part about covering
cyberspace. Because the technology is so complex and so protean,
you never quite know what corner of society it's going to reach
out of and into people's lives. So mostly these days, I just
try to take each assignment as it comes, on its own terms, and
as I write it up I try not to lose sight of the issues of cultural
democracy that attracted me to journalism in the first place
and that remain, for me, the great attraction of cyberspace.
mean to imply that I'm the only journalist attracted to those
issues, or the only one who struggles with fitting them into
the complex agendas of covering cyberspace. There are a lot
of us who do, and some who do it very successfully. I find it
gratifying and promising, for instance, that some of the best
culturally oriented coverage of cyberspace goes on on the Web
itself, at sites like Salon and Feed. But I'm
just as heartened to see how much of it there is in print media,
too. And not just from snooty, culture-heavy outlets like Harper's
Magazine, which consistently publishes excellent, thoughtful
work on the cultural implications of computer networks and other
digital technology, but at places like the New York Times
too, where the space allotted for richly cultural reporting
on cyberspace is minimal but where a handful of smart writers
like Amy Harmon, JC Herz, and Denise Caruso nonetheless work
it into the margins and the subtexts of the business stories
and the political stories and the legal stories and the product
So as I
look around and see what's possible, I'm not too discouraged
about my prospects for sustaining the sense of vocation that
my first modem gave me. The romance may be over, but the job
goes on, and given the challenges and complexities the job involves,
I can't see getting bored of it anytime soon.