(Image: Samuel Morse, source Wikipedia)
Sometime today the following blurb was sent to the book publishing trade press:
Author of The Search, co-founder of Wired, founder of Federated Media, Inc., and Executive Producer of the Web 2.0 Summit, John Battelle’s WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now. Based on thorough analysis and hundreds of interviews with political, technological, and cultural leaders, as well as a deep understanding of this story’s colorful history, Battelle will work with Dominick Anfuso and Hilary Redmon at Free Press (World) and Esther Newberg at ICM to bring this visionary tale to life. The book is scheduled to arrive in early 2013.
Apparently the announcement was picked up as the first item in a publication called Publishers’ Marketplace, but I can’t link to it, because it’s subscription only. Ah, the publishing world. I can’t believe I’m jumping back in. But more on that in a future post.
The new book announcement blurb is a staple of that world, it’s funny how short and dense they are, given they are attempting to describe what will probably be a 400 or so page tome once all is said and done. I suppose it makes sense in a way – as the author, I’m not really sure what path this book will take, and to be honest with you I’m more than a bit terrified by the scale and scope of this project.
Which is why I decided to do it.
So a bit more on what it is, and why I’m doing it now.
Those of you who visit regularly will be familiar with my annual predictions, which are a popular feature of the site. For the past four or so years, I’ve predicted that I’ll finally get around to starting work on my next book. (For those of you who are new to Searchblog, the site started as a way to bounce ideas around in public as I wrote my first book, The Search, way back in 2003. That book came out in 2005.)
In my 2010 predictions, for example, I wrote this: “I’ll figure out what I want to do with my book. SOGOTP, so to speak. Three years of predicting that I’ll start it is getting a bit old, eh? I feel good about branching back out into more contemplative fields, with FM in a strong position and our economy coming out from its defensive crouch.” Well, by the end of the year, I had figured out, broadly, what I wanted to do, but I had not given it a name, nor had I written a proposal or gotten my work life in a space that would allow me to actually execute the reporting and writing necessary to do justice to the topic I had chosen. A year later, in 2011, I didn’t even bother writing about the book in my predictions, because I knew I’d be working on it by mid year.
And here we are. It’s been a long process, getting ready to work on this book. FM was born at the same time as my last book, and for a while, I was both a startup CEO, new author (with 26 international editions and a lot of publicity support to do), as well as the Executive Producer of a new conference, the Web 2.0 Summit. For the next four years, my main focus was Federated, with a side of Web 2. But the new book was calling me the entire time. I knew I had to get back to writing, because when I did, I knew I’d be more engaged, much smarter about the world I love, and frankly, a more valuable asset to the company I founded. Back in September of 2009, I hired Deanna Brown as President and COO of Federated Media. Early this year, I promoted her to CEO, and took the title of Executive Chair. Deanna has been doing an extraordinary job, and I feel, after 18 months of preparation, that I can finally take the time to tackle this next big project. My commitment to FM remains, but now I have the time to dig into this new project.
So what is it? Well, settle in. This is my first attempt at describing the book in public, and I’m not sure where it’ll go. I’ll start with the title, which is a play on the first words sent over American telegraph wires by Samuel Morse in May of 1844. On the occasion of opening an experimental telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, DC, Morse decided to send a Biblical quote comprised of these words: “What Hath God Wrought.” There’s a longer story as to why those words were chosen, but I find them compelling for a number of reasons. Morse, an artist by trade, was attempting to describe, in as few words as possible, the magnitude and potential of the moment. Here was man transmitting his thoughts, his intentions, his very words across time and space. (Were such an invention extant when Morse’s wife had died, he’d have had time to be by her side, for example). Such a concept was so foreign to that era that its impact could really only be ascribed to God.
Fast forward 167 years or so, and we can see what hath been wrought – but by man, not God. Morse’s first public telegram – a prehistoric tweet, if you will – begat a wave of communications and computational innovation that is only quickening. And as an observer and occasional journalist covering this field, I’m struck by the current moment – a time where the average consumer and citizen creates terabytes of data, and the average company or government is rapidly reorganizing itself to capitalize on that fact. In short, we’ve built a platform capable of totally rewiring how our society works. What, I wonder, will we make of it?
That is the driving question of the book. As I wrote in my proposal:
The world is captivated by stories of the Internet’s expanding power. Revolution sweeps across Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond – powered by Facebook and Twitter. A café owner in Oregon tries out a new promotional service called Groupon and finds herself overwhelmed with hundreds of new customers – and nearly out of business. Terrorism in Moscow, murder in Tehran, and madness in Hollywood are broadcast for all to view on YouTube – as we watch, we are transformed.
But how will that transformation look a generation from now?
In less than five years, more than 600 million of us have committed our identities to Facebook, a service whose story is already an Academy Award-winning film. Every move by Apple has become a cultural event, and the company is credited with revolutionizing not just the music industry, but the communications and computing industries as well. And the fastest growing company in history, Google, recently ceded that title to yet another Internet phenomenon – the social commerce site Groupon.
In the decade since search redefined how we consume information, we have learned to make the world a game and the game our world, to ask and answer “what’s happening,” “what’s on your mind,” and “where are you?” Each purchase, search, status update, and check-in layers our world with data. Billions of times each day, we pattern a world collectively created by Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, Tencent, Foursquare, Google, Tumblr, Baidu, and thousands of other services. The Database of Intentions, first described in The Search, is far larger than even I imagined, and it is scaling to nearly incomprehensible size and power.
As we learn to leverage this ever-shifting platform called the Internet, we are at once renegotiating our social, economic, and cultural relationships – and we’re doing it in real time. How we interact with each other, how we engage with our government, how we conduct business, and even how we understand our place in the world – all has changed in the short fifteen years since the dawn of the commercial Internet. The pace only quickens. How might we understand where this is all headed?
Predictions of the future are tiresome – they lack detail, narrative, and staying power. But what if we could report the future? That sounds like a pretty good story. What We Hath Wrought will tell the story of the Web one generation from now.
To tell that story, I’m going to have to do a lot of reporting. I’ll need to talk to technologists, leaders of major corporations, marketers, politicians, academics, authors, artists, and yes, futurists as well. My goal is to steep myself in what’s happening now, and play the trends out one generation. I know, it’s an ambitious and even presumptuous goal. But it’s what keeps me up at night. And it’s also what we did at Wired for the five wonderful years while I was there – our goal was the report the future by playing out trends we could see right now.
One generation ago, I started as a cub reporter covering this industry. In the mid 1980s, personal computers were a novelty, the Internet was a research project, and phones sat on desks and tables, many with rotary dials. Who then could have predicted Google, or the iPhone, or Facebook?
Well, turns out a lot of folks wrote about the future back then, and many of them got a lot of things right (more got stuff wrong, of course). I’ve got a reading list of books that numbers in the hundreds, just for starters, and a source list that’s even longer. And I’m just getting started. Over the course of the next year I’ll be attacking the reporting of this book, and sketching up what I learn right here on this site, just as I did for The Search. And if I get half the feedback for this book that I got for the last one, I’ll consider myself a lucky man.
In a future post, I’ll outline how I plan to approach the reporting and writing of the book, in terms of structure. In short, I see four major narrative storylines. First is how the individual interacts with others – the social and cultural self. Second is how the individual interacts as a citizen – self to government – and how governments interact with each other. That’s the political and geopolitical narrative. Third is how the individual interacts with the economy – that’s the commercial narrative (and the one in which I’m the most versed as a journalist, certainly). Lastly, there’s the technological narrative – a description of the extraordinary tapestry of processors, bandwidth, and data we’ve built, and how it might evolve.
It’s my hope What We Hath Wrought will read like narrative journalism, playing 15 years of Internet history out into the future, describing that future as it came to exist, based on a number of clear storylines already in progress.
One last thing I’d like to say. Any narrative needs tension, and key actors. I can’t disclose who the actors might be, because honestly I have not decided. But I can frame the tension driving the story, and in short, it’s this: I believe we are in a critical moment in our civilization’s development, one where we will face a number of fateful decisions about how we interact with each other, with business, and with government. The decisions we make during this period will frame the kind of world we’ll leave to future generations. Who will control the data we create? What access will we allow citizens to the machinations of government? What kind of people will we become when every single one of us is deeply connected to a socially aware platform like Facebook? Are we building systems – in healthcare, energy, finance – that are too complicated for any of us to understand, much less control?
In short, can we handle what we are creating? Thirty or so years from now, will we be questioning ourselves – “Lord, what hath we wrought?” Or will we look upon what we hath wrought, and be pleased? I think the answer lies in exploring where we are, right now, and laying out the implications of our actions today. (And yes, I’m an optimist, which is why I moved the “hath” over one position in the title…)
To say I approach this book with trepidation is to understate my case. But I’ve never really done anything knowing with certainty where it’s going to end up. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I’ll need the company!
PS – I’ve been tweeting stories that fit the book’s theme on the #wwhw hashtag. At some point, it might make more sense to just do a roundup of those stories here on Searchblog, instead, we’ll see. I’ll be easing into the work on this book this summer, and really be at it by the time Web 2 is over in the mid Fall. Meanwhile, the theme of Web 2 is directly related to the book, of course….