I love the part of a book tour when you get to San Francisco, and leave Washington and New York far behind. It feels like home. In San Francisco, you never have to explain what the Web is or defend its existence to the angry Luddites dug into corporations, Academe, media and politics.
Media organizations sometimes invite me to appear or speak, under the guise of talking about my non-media book "Running To The Mountain." But of course what they really want is to talk about is the Net, in the hopes I can explain it, tell them how to make money off it (I can?t) or promise that it will go away. More often, they simply want to snarl about it.
I have nothing but bad news for them. The Web is like fire, I say, like the creation of tools. Stand in the way and you?ll be consumed.
At one appearance in New York last week, I was talking about Linux and Open Source. I was telling a bunch of slack-jawed media executives about the idea that media should be commonly owned, improved and freely shared. I was also telling what I thought was a happy tale of a woman from Ohio on ICQ Chat who put up a Web page offering "lovebeams," e-messages to make the world a cheerier place, along with "free stuff on the Web," and who got 500,000 hits in a couple of days.
Here, I said, were examples of a genuine revolution in information - people making, sharing and improving their own media.
In traditional publishing, journalism or broadcasting, I said, editors and producers have to fight for each book or newspaper that gets sold, each viewer that tunes into a broadcast. On the Web, a new participant named Nancy who?s bummed out by the negative vibes coming out of Washington can pull in a half-million visitors without leaving her living room. Which medium is rising?
"That proves nothing," snapped one veteran broadcaster dismissively, "except that people on the Web have nothing better to do." Another member of the group, a reporter on leave to write a book, joined in. "They always say young people are abandoning papers and network news shows. They always come back. Because they have to, they need us."
Guess what?, I told him. They never had the Net and the Web before. This time, they aren?t coming back.
Thus far, the Interactive Book Tour has taken me to Washington, Boston, New Jersey, New York and, this week, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. Slashdotters have appeared at two book signings and on three call-in radio shows. I start almost every interview with the story of how my book, a mid-list non-fiction memoir dissed by my publisher?s Sales Force as something they "didn?t get," went into four printings via linking on the World Wide Web, and after being excerpted on a Linux geek site.
At every appearance, from Boston?s "The Connection" on WBUR Radio to a luncheon at the Freedom Forum?s New York office, the talk turns to the Web. I can?t stop talking about it myself. I talk about Open Source, about the ferocious interactivity on sites like Slashdot, about the new kinds of messaging systems on ICQ and Hotlines. About Stinky.com I have a riff about MP3?s as a metaphor and warning as the revolution in information gathering steam on the Net is heading for most forms of creative media. And look, I tell them, what Jesse.net did for Jesse Ventura, and what e-trading is doing to the stock market.
The Web, I say, is about empowerment and choice. Interactivity isn?t a marketing tool, it?s one of the most intense political ideas in media. Everywhere online, people are demanding, making and getting more choices, pressuring institutions and corporations, breaking the choke-hold government and business has always had on information.
But usually, my listeners don?t like it or don?t buy it. Their eyes glaze, or they yawn, or they angrily disagree, wondering just who exactly will pay attention to politics, read books, pass budgets, set a coherent agenda, protect civilization. In San Francisco and northern California, home of the computer industry and birthplace of much of what is now the Net and the Web, it?s a different trip. They already know all this stuff I?m talking about, and more. The conversation starts from a high conscious about the Net and Web and moves on.
First excerpted in Slashdot, my book is itself something of a Web baby. My publisher remains bewildered by the books sold via linked Websites. Now in its fourth printing, "Running To The Mountain" has drawn an amazing amount of online traffic (my e-mail address is on the book jacket.) I?ve heard from men and women who have taken similar retreats or yearn to, from old high school classmates, and a former girlfriend, from the head of a giant publishing conglomerate, from a score of writers curious about how to reach their audiences via the Web.
Several mornings a week, a group of Trappist monks in a southeastern U.S. monastery, forbidden to speak aloud but permitted by their Abbot to e-mail, gathers in an ICQ chat room, and sometimes I?m invited. They are devout followers and admirers of the late Trappist Thomas Merton, who inspired much of my book and the journey described in it. They are sending me preserves made in their community. They are hustling my book on the Web, linking it to other monasteries and Websites. They pray for me and encourage me to resist fatigue, cynicism and crass commercialism. They are something very new in the world, a convergence of technology, spirituality and community. As part of their ministry, they are a floating online support group -- a digital conscience, a celestial marketing force. Everywhere I talk about them, people ask me for their URL (I can only give it out with their permission).
I?m amazed that they would rush to the side of an avowedly non-religious person in this way. How, I wonder, can they even go online?
Simple, answers Brother Joseph. "We go online after morning prayers. We?ve been up for hours at 6 a.m. Here, we can minister without leaving out their cloistered life. I invite them to look at Slashdot, but they flee in shock. This doesn?t challenge our spirituality, it allows us to practice it..."
Every turn seems to lead to the Web. My talking about these monks on a Boston radio station sparks a story in the Boston Globe about technology and spirituality.
I appear on the Today Show with my yellow Lab Julius (Julius enjoyed the limo sent by NBC to fetch us, and some of the bran muffins in the green room) sitting at my feet. By the time I get home from New York, a half dozen different a dozen different dog lovers and kennel clubs have e-mailed, inquiring about his lineage and disposition.
Slashdotters pop up almost everywhere, watching, reading, e-mailing, critiquing, offering kind words and constructive criticism: next time answer the question this way. Lurkers regularly apologize for flamers and ill-tempered geeks; I tell them that no apologies or explanations are needed or necessary. No place could be friendlier or more supportive. My book owes its life to the people there. In a way, it was born here. They still ask me if I?ve gotten online with my new Linux box yet; I admit I haven?t had much chance, but will return to the dread project once the book is ended. They remind me that I must. A bunch have arranged to come see me in San Francisco, Capitola and Mountain View, Calif. A few are meeting me in Seattle for coffee or breakfast.