The Solomon Scandals
The D.C. newspaper novel, the media,the Washington area, tech and other surrealism: David Rothman at large
David Rothman’s No Frills Home Page (Archived Item)
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DAVID ROTHMAN’S
NO-FRILLS HOME PAGE

TeleRead Home Page  | Arthur C. Clarke Chapter from The Silicon Jungle
Harry Rothman Eulogy

Thanks for dropping by my No-Frills Home Page. Alas, many of the links are out of date since this page goes back to the 1990s and I haven’t heard time to update it. My latest book is The Solomon Scandals, a D.C. newspaper novel. – David H. Rothman[email protected], Dec. 7, 2008.

SHORTCUTS: What’s NetWorld?… My other pulped-wood… The Arthur Clarke connection and the Electronic Peace Corps proposal… The TeleRead library idea… William F. Buckley, Jr. … David Copperfield stuff (bio)… Doc Faymore‘s hello from the pen… The Ribicoff exposé… From Elmer Gantry to Jim Exon… Washington’s Babbittry… Hollywood, D.C.… Leora lives!… The inimitable exclamation mark in the title NetWorld!… W… [Note: The above links no longer work. – D.R. July 1, 2017]

Q. I’ve tuned in late. What’s NetWorld!?

A. The full title says everything: NetWorld!: What People Are Really Doing on the Internet, and What It Means to You.]

Q. Other books, other tree-killings?

A. I’ve done such opuses as The Complete Laptop Computer Guide (St. Martin’s Press), XyWrite Made Easier (Windcrest/McGraw-Hill), and Ize Examined (Dow Jones-Irwin). In the past two years I’ve cranked out several hundred thousand words under contract, excluding all my Net postings. No carpal tunnel syndrome yet, but I’m working on it. I’ve popped up in places ranging from The Nation (back in the Carey McWilliams days) to National Review. William F. Buckley, Jr., and I disagree on many things, but not on the need for an Electronic Peace Corps or a national digital library–in fact he’s eons ahead of my fellow liberals and did a column called “The TeleRead in Your Future.”

Q. So what’s this about Arthur C. Clarke?[1]

A. Oh, that’s my little adventure from the days of 300-baud modems when I was working on The Silicon Jungle, a guide to the hardware and personalities of Silicon Valley. I wanted to catch up with Clarke by computer for my chapter on the future, “As the Jungle Thickens.” A few little problems arose. Clarke was half a world away on the island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean–he still lives there. Neither of us in 1983 was on the Net. And meanwhile Clarke needed to exchange e-mail with Peter Hyams, a writer-director at MGM/UA, who was working on a script for the movie 2010, the sequel to 2001.

So to help get the project going, I served as a surrogate Clarke–with a much cheaper phone number to dial up, here in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington. Peter got his modem act together by practicing on me. He and Clarke later wrote Making of 2010: The Odyssey File (Ballantine), a book based on their trans-Pacific correspondence.[2]

“If computers are so good for long-distance collaborations,” I figured, “why not use nets to pipe knowledge to Third World countries?” Others at the time were thinking the same. For example, a foreign aid expert named Jerry Glenn was already toting a typewriter-sized terminal through the slums in Port Au Prince. He and Naren Chitty, then a diplomat with the embassy of Sri Lanka, joined me in lobbying for the idea. The much-missed Office of Technology Assessment mentioned the Electronic Peace Corps as a possible policy option, and Clarke and a former Peace Corps training director, Roger Nicholson, came out in favor of an EPC. A few years ago I made a long post on the EPC, which, however, will be evolving–this is hardly my final version.

Meanwhile, if you want to see what Clarke has been up to more recently, click here.

Q. And what’s TeleRead?

A. That’s my nonpartisan plan to get electronic books into American homes–by way of a national digital library and small, sharp-screened computers–in an era of declining literacy. I write about TeleReadin NetWorld! and also in Electronic Publishing: The Scholarly Frontier (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1996), edited by Robin P. Peek and Gregory B. Newby for the American Society for Information Science. The MIT Press has just published the collection. Click here to read a draft version of my chapter– “TeleRead: A Virtual Central Database without Big Brother.” Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine favorably discussed TeleRead in its June 1995 issue.

Q. So how’d you get into TeleRead?

A. Thanks to Bill Buckley. I’m not Society, I’m not into yachting, I’m not conservative, but for years we’ve corresponded via e-mail from time to time, and we respect each other. And so I paid attention when WFB rightly complained to a laptop magazine that too many students were relying on CD-ROMs rather than on library books. I thought, “Look, who needs CD-ROMs in the long run. We need books distributed on networks.” Of course I was hardly the first to think this way. People like Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart and Michael Hart were ahead of me. But I developed some new twists, based on my experiences covering personal computers.

A key phrase here is “multiple apps.” Most businesses these days don’t buy computers just for word-processing or communications or spreadsheeting. No, they justify the purchase cost with a bunch of applications. And I figured, “Why not justify a national digital library through other uses of the hardware–such as electronic forms, which could save tens of billions in paperwork in government and the private sector?”

We could have a focused procurement program for schools and libraries to buy tablet computers. And that in turn would encourage many companies in the private sector to make TeleReaders optimized for text and electronic forms. The same pen interface, augmented at times with a detachable keyboard, would work terrifically for both! And TeleReaders could also excel for school networking and other kinds and even encourage home shopping on the Web.

In the most massive way we could use technology to encourage literacy and save money. In effect we’d be indirectly shifting resources from bureaucracy to knowledge and networking. The conservatives are right. The cost of government isn’t just in people but in the paperwork burden on the private sector–whether it’s from IRS forms or those for zoning applications. And what about privately created paperwork? Cut out the paperwork just a little in a $6-trillion-plus economy, and the justification for money for the library will be there. Federal Express believes in electronic forms so strongly that it lends computers to some customers for free.

The TeleReader machines themselves could sell for $99.95 or less at the local Kmart. This needn’t be just a dream. Remember when electronic adding machines cost thousands of dollars, or when PCs sold for $6,000 or? I simply want Uncle to give Silicon Valley a carrot to hasten the coming of cheap, truly book-friendly computers.

Yes, to answer the obvious question, TeleRead could include some multimedia and educational software; but literacy should be the main show.

Q. What about bookstores?

A. TeleRead wouldn’t happen overnight. And I provide for bookstores to be able to print out books from the national digital library and make some nice money at it. Some people will always prefer the old-fashioned kind of book. What’s more, the bookstore folks who care about books could do very well pointing customers to good reads online. There are other possibilities here. Imagine the combination of a bookstore and a cyber café with the latest machines for cruising TeleRead and the Net. People don’t just go to stores to buy books; many also go to socialize. No reason why business can’t respond. The café phenomenon isn’t just popping up in London, New York, Melbourne, or Net-hip cities like Seattle–you can even find a café in Matthews, N.C.

Q. Any David Copperfield stuff, as Holden Caulfield would put it? You know, bio info?

A. Born in Washington, D.C., on Groundhog Day 1947. Grew up near Alexandria, Virginia, and went to Chapel Hill. Along with two buddies I was the only seventh grader at Hollin Hall Elementary School to refuse to dance around the May Pole. Hey, I’m a troublemaker from way back. I wrote uppity articles for the Lorain (Ohio) Journal on topics ranging from the Kent State massacre to the toxic food along the Ohio Turnpike. Too, I helped get an anti-slum crusade going, and I also exposed a local drug clinic that was a little too free and easy with the methadone. I’m a big believer in the proper kind of government regulation, as opposed to the Exonian variety. If the Ohio authorities had been doing the job, the Journal might not have had to print quite as many obits.

At least the guy running the clinic was so much classier than the scumsters I wrote about later in Washington. Doc Faymore and his people returned my phone calls, and after he went to the pen, he sent me a gracious note congratulating me on the publication of The Silicon Jungle–and offering an ever-so-gentle suggestion that maybe I could help him get out of jail early.

Back in the D.C. area, I won a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and wrote in Federal Times about then-Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s investments with a major government landlord. NBC News picked up my story about his secret share in a CIA-occupied building, and Jim Polk, the Pulitzer winner, then with the network, wrote about him in The New Republic. I also wrote about a buddy of Spiro Agnew. Call it The Case of the Missing Cafeteria. He built the headquarters building of the Environmental Protection Agency without including the $500,000-plus cafeteria required by the contract. The General Accounting Office and a congressional committee had a little fun with that one.

Q. So when did you start doing books?

A. When I figured a good way to pay for a Kaypro II was to write a computer guide. I did my proposal on a Nixon-era Selectric.

Q. What do you do when you’re not wasting pulped-wood, or valuable bandwidth on the World Wide Web?

A. Well, I read–obviously. My favorite novelist is Sinclair Lewis, whom the self-righteous loved about as much as they did Mencken. It’s no accident that NetWorld! alludes to Elmer Gantry in chronicling the Exonian outrages. I fear that the hypocrites on Capitol Hill could actually make Lewis fashionable again. This man’s no Fitzgerald–my favorite novel is The Great Gatsby–but he’s terrifyingly relevant.

Washington abounds with Babbitts, too, not just Gantries. A good example is Bruce Lehman, Bill Clinton’s intellectual property czar, who, despite a glittery, elitist lifestyle, is very Babbittlike in his worship of the buck. He’s the real villain behind the notorious White Paper favoring commerce over knowledge, which is rather short-sighted–given the connection between prosperity and mass enlightenment. I could also mention the connection with democracy, the most important one of all; but to Lehman that would be rather irrelevant. Hey, he used to be a $400,000-a-year lawyer-lobbyist for the copyright interests.

Q. But we were talking about—

A. That’s not the only problem I have with the White House policy in regard to the Net. Only one librarian and one K-12 educator sat on the advisory council dealing with the National Information Infrastructure. Which had 37 members. Hey, we’re talking industrial-strength Babbittry despite the outstanding qualifications of some council members. I’m not holding myself out as Edmund Wilson or Alfred Kazin. Just as someone who, even going by middle-brow standards, feels that the White House has let us down badly.

DisneyCBSMCABlack Entertainment Television, and so on–you can bet that the White House didn’t slight them in choosing people for the advisory council. Hmm. Think there just might be a connection between those $50,000-a-couple dinners in Hollywood and Clinton’s information policy?

Q. But back to your personal interests–

A. What Makes Sammy Run? is another favorite of mine–Budd Schulberg’s dissection of Hollywood opportunists. I think of the Washington-Hollywood parallels, the love of power and flashy celebrity; right now we could use fewer Glicks and more Manheims. Washington used to be full of civil servants driven by conscience–just like Schulberg’s mensch, Al Manheim, the rabbi’s son from a small town. Then Reagan came in, the ultimate goyish Glick. But no stereotyping, please. Some of the most Manheimish folks seem to be the most conservative, including some Reaganite techies I know, and some of the most Glickish are liberal.

Q. You’ve dropped a few names yourself.

A. That’s what writers get paid to do if they want their books to sell. Yes, I sought out Arthur Clarke for the last chapter in the Jungle.

And as for using Names to sell ideas, sure, I’ll plead guilty. Those are the rules. Reagan pretty well Hollywoodized D.C., as if the Camelot mystique hadn’t given him a bit of a head start, and by George, it’s still going on. And people from Hollywood have pretty well Hollywoodized the book business. Even the old-time publishers without the West Coast ties.

Whatever the case, I’d identify much more with the grinds and Manheims–so far I’ve spent a zillion more hours lobbying for TeleRead among teachers, librarians, online editors, and other experts than among anyone famous. That way I get some useful feedback to improve the idea, so it’ll be just too damned good for even Washington to ignore. I’ve seen what low-cost networking can do to spread ideas based on their merit rather than who’s behind them. I didn’t approach the American Society for Information Science and say, “Hey, publish me in that book you’re doing with The MIT Press.” ASIScontacted me on the basis on my posts on the Net. And that’s how it should be. I’d like to see a book business where the marketers and celebrities didn’t reign supreme at the expense of librarians and academics. We need a balance.[3]

Q. How long since you last talked or modemed to Arthur Clarke?

A. Years. And it isn’t as if I’m a Buckley intimate, just an e-mail correspondent who finds him to be rather prescient on technological matters dear to us both. We both want the public to be able to dial up books from home for free or at low cost. I doubt that he would have contented himself with just one librarian and one K-12 educator on an NII Advisory Council. He genuinely cares about mass literacy.

Q. Any net.widow?

A. Just a coconspirator of sorts. Carly‘s just as gung ho about as technology I am. I’m getting her a long-overdue CD-ROM for her birthday. She’s funny and supportive and romantic and practical, and knows ten times as much about elm and tin as I do. Carly works for Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD. Just to segue back a bit, she reminds me a little of the former Leora Tozer, the protagonist’s first wife in Arrowsmith, whom Lewis so cruelly killed off in a plague. Except Carly’s better. She’s real, she’s still alive, and she doesn’t smoke. Oh, and she love Golden Retrievers–click here to see Dylin (the correct spelling in this case), her very favorite.

Q. You’re past your allusion quota.

A. But look, Lewis is only middle-brow, and besides, you’ll miss one of the points I’d like to make. Books can shape people. I fell in love with Leora Tozer when I was 14 and I’ve never regretted it. And you know why I survived the ’60s and beyond without even pot? No moral judgments here–I just read what booze did to Lewis. Which is what happens when you let kids discover things on their own. Never did have Lewis assigned me in school. But I could browse, browse, browse, at the public library . No meter was running, and I could take the books home. I’d like for people to be able to do the same with free library books modemed to the kitchen or bedroom. That’s what Babbitts like Lehman would take away from us. Yes, books and software cost. But I’ve already shown how to justify a national digital library via electronic forms.

Q. Back to Carly. She was your research assistant?

A. I did most of the research, Carly did a little, and some friends pitched in, too. But the real help came from Alison Andrukow, a sharp young graduate student at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

Q. How you find her?

A. I hired Alison from afar, without ever having met her face to face, at the suggestion of a net.friend. You’re going to see more and more of this in an era of international networking. Geography just doesn’t count as much as before. Which is why the would-be censors like James Exons are in for a big surprise if they think they can control Americans’ reading material. Last I knew, he wasn’t legislating morality for the Dutch or Swedes. Unless the feds can do a great KGB act, the Netfolks here would successfully team up with those abroad to thwart the censors.

What’s more, keep in mind that the best brains can flee the United States as well as come here. Mike Godwin, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said that Exon’s decency act would drag the Net down to the level of a children’s reading room. That’s pretty strong stuff. What’s next? Our backwards encryption policies have already driven at least two hackers out of the country, according to an activist in California. Rosalind Resnick, author of the cyber business column in the Miami Heraldsays she would “rather see a few four-letter words flicker across my computer screen every now and then than risk losing talented writers, artists and programmers to our economic competitors.”

Q. Anything in NetWorld! that Senator Exon might want to ban from the Net?

A. You bet. How could I write on the controversy without a specific or two? NetWorld! does contain a few vivid expressions. And that leads to the real menace here. I don’t believe in gratuitous Anglo-Saxonisms in my own writing, this is a tame book, but Exon-style legislation still would ban a passage or two from the public areas–just he as would censor a good part of Ulysses.

Q. Finally, what about the inimitable exclamation point in the title of NetWorld!? Did Doc Faymore slip you some amphetamines?

A. No, the marketers took ’em. They thought NetWorld! would sell better that way, they’re good people, and, heck, maybe they’re right–the ways of book buyers are strange. The title itself comes from Prima Publishing and, of course, has nothing to do with the NetWorld+Interop show. Blame me for everything else.

Notes:

[1] As long as Canter and Siegel, the Green Card lawyers, could think that Internet visionary Vinton Cerf was behind CERFNet, let me say that Arthur C. Clarke has nothing to do with ClarkNet. No “e” after the ClarkNet “Clark”! But Jamie Clark and his staff are good folks, and I’d like to thank them for their efforts. Check ’em out if you’re looking for D.C. area providers. They’re not perfect–can anyprovider be, given all the vagaries of suppliers and the Net?–but they’re decent. Which is the first trait I’d look for. Plus, they’ve been quick to add wrinkles such as 28.8Kbps access. [Return to main text]

[2] I made a cameo appearance in The Odyssey File on page xviii where Clarke thanked me for the help I offered him and Hyams. [Return to main text]

[3] TeleRead is hardly anti-marketing, hardly anti-business–it just strives for better balance than we have at present. The plan provides for writers of popular works to be paid according to dial-up fees, and for publishers to be able to bypass librarians by gambling money up front. I very much want to preserve opportunities for the private sector. In the same vein, I believe the Internet should remain as unregulated as possible–for writers and publishers to be able to post any works that the library rejected. [Return to main text]

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