Dogs Watching TV
Thursday, April 20, 1995 by Dave Winer.
If I ever get my own talkshow, I hope Jerry Kaplan, firstname.lastname@example.org, will be a guest.
Jerry is the founder and CEO of GO Corporation, one of the high-fliers of of high-tech in the late 80s and early 90s. Jerry's new book, "Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure," is his personal story of the company. It's now beginning to appear in bookstores. I read it in March at Esther Dyson's conference. It was quite an experience, having the author of a book immediately accessible while I was reading it. Cool!
I really enjoyed this book. Jerry has great insight into the machinations of Silicon Valley, how it works, and how it doesn't.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter 14, entitled "The Showdown."
WHEN I WAS FIVE, my parents got a portable television set for my bedroom. At first I was afraid to get dressed in front of it, for fear that the people on the screen could see me, just as I could see them. I knew that the gray, blurry pictures were merely signals magically sent through the air, but I didn't understand which qualities of living human beings carried over to the new machine. Like the rest of my generation, I was captivated by this limitless window on the world, and what I saw seemed as real to me as my own two hands.
Through the power of television, I knew that lions were large, proud creatures that roared and lived in Africa. But one day my father took me to see the big cats at the Bronx Zoo. I could barely relate the coarse, smelly creatures in front of me - lying docile and panting in their cages while flies buzzed around their heads - to what I had witnessed from the comfort of my bedroom. The TV images just didn't capture the real experience.
Sitting in the briefing rooms of AT&T thirty-five years later, watching staffers project spreadsheets, graphs, and slides from their portable computers onto the large screen monitors, I realized that computers mislead managers just as television misleads kids. Fed a steady diet of numbers and charts from the comfort of their conference room chairs, senior executives experience only a desiccated version of the powerful forces that shape and grow their organizations. Mistaking these two-dimensional reflections for reality, they shadowbox their way through complex decisions, unwittingly jostled in one direction or another by self-interested emissaries, who can spin a tale of threat and opportunity as skillfully as any Hollywood screenwriter.
In these rooms, individuals are stripped of their unique skills and reduced to chits, then shifted from one column to another. Complex working relationships, knitted together over time like trees intertwining their limbs, become statistical learning curves. Loyalty and trust, painstakingly earned through years of delivering useful products and serving customers' needs, are measured as the difference between market capitalization and book value. Real human wealth, in the form of security, freedom, productivity, and knowledge, is scarcely captured by unexercised stock options. There are no line items that gauge the real engines of prosperity: vision, passion, and commitment. The plain truth is you cannot suck reality from the hypnotic glow of a vacuum tube.
While Bill and Randy began planning the merger, my job was to keep GO's visibility as high as possible among the powers at AT&T. I was lucky to be invited to present some of our most recent work to Bob Kavner at an early morning briefing, barely two weeks after his powwow in Short Hills. Flying to New Jersey for a planning session, I spent an entire day in a room full of nervous staffers, who reviewed my slides word by word, carefully coordinating my presentation with theirs.
"When you do your demo," one staffer suggested, "it's a good idea to focus your benefits around increasing long-distance traffic. That's the real mother lode around here."
After ten hours of review for a fifteen-minute demo, the next morning I walked into the conference room where Bob Kavner and several other key executives sipped coffee and chatted about the news: Kavner had just been promoted to CEO of the multimedia products and services group. One of GO's sharpest salespeople, Danny Shader, was accompanying me on the trip. As unobtrusively as possible, he went around the room collecting business cards.
"What'd you do that for?" I whispered. "You pretty much know who everyone is."
"Titles are deceptive, but you can tell who really matters by the paper." He showed me the cards. "The ones with the real power are printed on this bone-colored stock. The others have white cards with blue logos."
I sat down next to Kavner and made my pitch. "Most people think that you have to have a computer with a keyboard to access a database. But there are thousands of VTR" - voice tone response - "systems in operation today. You know, 'Press 1 to hear your balance, press 2 to hear your last five debits.' In fact, this is probably the dominant form of consumer data access today. Working with your people, we've prototyped a new, richer telephone interface under Penpoint - the successor to today's twelve-key pad - which integrates voice and data for the phones of the future."
Kavner watched the screen closely throughout my demo, nodding periodically. But whenever he had a question, he turned to his own staff for an answer. I felt as though I were just another audio-visual device delivering the latest briefing in a more personal form.
I groused to Danny as we packed up our gear. "I felt like a trained monkey."
"You looked like a trained monkey."
"What a waste of time. We fly all the way out here and squander a whole day in a planning session, then get to entertain Kavner for half an hour before his real day gets under way."
"You don't get it," Danny said. "This goes on all the time. It's just how things get done in a big company."
I hadn't thought about it before, but I had never actually worked for a big company. And based on what I had seen, I wasn't so sure I wanted to.
Copyright © 1994 by Jerry Kaplan, All Rights Reserved,
From "Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure", published by Houghton Mifflin, 1995. This selection distributed in electronic form by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
It seems that dogs and cats and TV show up a lot in the folklore of Silicon Valley. When I was a software author at Personal Software in the early 80s, a fellow author and friend, Mitch Kapor (who went on to found Lotus and EFF), described meetings with the corporate people using his Morris The Cat analogy.
They didn't take us seriously. We'd show up at a meeting, they'd talk about us and our product in front of us, as if we were stars, but they didn't take us very seriously. Mitch imagined that they viewed us much as the ad agency that owned Morris would. Yes, we need them, and if we meowed they'd exclaim "look he said something!" and go on with their meeting. There weren't many Great Hair Days back then.
Another bit of animal related folklore, I don't remember where I heard it first, is the Dogs Watching TV story. Have you ever watched TV with a dog? They kind of get it. They understand that there are symbols up there on the screen that stand for people and places and things. But do they understand the plot? They might have a small glimmer of understanding. Of course, stand back when another dog shows up on the screen! And if the other dog barks, you're in for a riot. Sometimes I think TV screenplay writers know this, and are deliberately playing tricks on dog owners.
I've heard it said that some corporate CEOs and managers who think they're technologists are like dogs watching TV. I might have even met one or two of them!
Like Jerry, when I was a kid I was mystified by TV. I thought the applause track on sitcoms was a combination of all the people at home watching the show applauding. I used to applaud too, just doing my part.
On Romper Room, the kids always said a prayer before eating their food. "God is graceful, god is good, and we thank him for this food." I thought god was the guy who brought the food in for the kids! Like Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo. Or Fang on the Soupy Sales show. An invisible off-screen guy named god. Maybe John God or Phil God, or something like that.
I grew up in an agnostic house in an agnostic city. God wasn't really in my vocabulary. Not so anymore. I use god as the inventor of vast important technologies. "That's why god invented email," I've said many many times.
I wonder if today's kids are inventing new mythology around online communications?
PS: Politics on the web! Check out http://quake.net/~gable/gable4guv.html for a campaign website for Jim Gable's dad, running in the Republican primary for governor in Kentucky.
PPS: Having trouble with your dates? Check out Love 101, http://www.phantom.com/~barton/advice.html, a hilarious on-line advice column, with special versions for men and women. Great stuff!
PPPS: I'm at Webworld today in Santa Clara. See you there!