I was born sixty-eight years ago today, in Jersey City‘s Christ Hospital, at around eleven in the morning. I would have been born earlier, but the hospital staff tied Mom’s legs together so I wouldn’t come out before the doctor showed up. You know Poe’s story, The Premature Burial? Mine was like that, only going the other way: a Postmature Birth. It wasn’t fun.
When they finally took the straps off Mom, I was already there, face-first, with my head bent back so far that, when the doctor yanked me out with a forceps, the back of my C5 vertebra was flattened. The bruise that rose on the back of my neck was nearly the size of my head.
Mom wasn’t happy either, but you didn’t complain in those days. Whatever the shitty new status quo was, it beat the hell out of the Depression and the War. And, to be fair, the postwar Baby Boom was also at high ebb, stripping the gears of all kinds of systems: medicine, government, transport, education, whatever.
So we built a new postwar industrial system, and watched it all happen on TV.
All my life I’ve watched that system closely and looked for ways to have fun with it, to break it, and to fix it. I didn’t realize at first that fixing it was what I was here for, but eventually it dawned on me.
Specifically, it happened at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, in March 1994. John Gage showed off the World Wide Web, projecting Mosaic (the Ur graphical browser) from a flaky Macintosh Duo. I already knew about the Web, but seeing it at work, all over the world, blew my mind and changed my life.
What I saw in the future were near-infinite computing and communications powers on our laps and in our pockets, projecting our very lives into a second digital world that would coexist with our physical one. In this second world we would all be a functional distance apart of zero, at a cost that leaned toward the same. The digital genie had been loosed from the physical bottle, and both would rule our species henceforth.
The question What am I doing here? — which had haunted me all my life, now had an answer. I had to help the world make the most of its new situation. “Your choice is always to help or to hurt,” Mom used to say. I wanted to help.
That’s why I started writing for Linux Journal in 1996, involving myself in the free software and open source movements. It’s why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. And it’s why I started ProjectVRM in 2006.
The simple idea with VRM (vendor relationship management) is to fix business from the customer side, by providing tools that make each of us both independent of businesses yet better able to engage with them. The mass market industrial model is to give businesses “scale”: the ability deliver the same products and services to countless customers. In the VRM model, the customer gets scale too, across all the businesses she deals with. (Imagine, for example, being able to change your address for every business you deal with, in one move, using a tool of your own. Or to set your own privacy boundaries, or terms of engagement.)
It’s a long-term ambition, and success may take longer than it does for me to complete my tour of the planet. But there are now lots of developers on the case, around the world.
I have absolute faith that fully empowered customers will prove good for business. Or, in other words, that free customers prove more valuable — to themselves and to business — than captive ones.
Making that happen is what I’m doing here. Sure, I do lots of other stuff too. But that’s the main thing.
Bonus link: The Final Demographic.