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I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
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Still Crazy After All These Years: I, Cringely is 10 years old.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (147)
By Robert X. Cringely

Ten years, 520 columns, three PBS presidents, and 800,000 words ago, this column began. That was, in many ways, a completely different world. Blogs had yet to be invented, for one thing. Most of today's Web 2.0 tycoons were in high school, for another. This column was a tentative experiment in Internet journalism at a time when that concept almost didn't exist. PBS Online, as it was called back then, signed up a few people like me to write without having to be associated with a specific PBS show. It made sense at the time, but only if you squinted. None of those other experiments survived, and for many years it was just me, though more recently I've been joined by Mark Glaser, who writes for PBS the MediaShift blog and with whom I worked years ago at InfoWorld.

My job was always to have opinions (this is, after all, a column and columns are by definition statements of opinion), which is something readers sometimes forget. Yes, from time to time I write something that is news, but it is always done in the context of stating an opinion.

I am not required to be balanced in my reporting, just as the preacher is not required to give the Devil his due. This is, after all, a pulpit.

My job was to be ahead of the technology curve, and I think for the most part I have been, often writing about new technologies and technical ideas years before they were "discovered" by the mainstream media.

Ah, the mainstream media! As a former member of that estate I have to tell you how consistently I have been disappointed over the last decade, not just by how poorly the press understands technology, but how easily manipulated they are by the technology industry. My friends in the press are not stupid, but they have bosses, and those bosses have commercial agendas, while I just write what I think should be written.

The big names back in 1997 were Microsoft, Intel, AOL, Compaq, and Netscape, only two of which survive today as independent enterprises. The PC was everything. Apple back then was the Apple of Gil Amelio, not Steve Jobs, and was hardly even a contender. Google was a year from being founded. Yahoo was around, but then so was Excite and AltaVista. It was the beginning of the Internet bubble, a time of promise and Super Bowl commercials, when crazy business ideas were funded overnight and people sometimes got jobs because they had places to live in Silicon Valley, not because they had particular talent. It was a time when everyone seemed to be getting rich, or at least claimed to be. I avoided that, too.

Before this gig began I had been a gossip columnist, something that didn't easily translate to PBS, which wasn't looking for a Matt Drudge. But in my gossip days I had also written more general columns for ASCII magazine in Japan and those became the archetype for this column. Instead of a dozen gossip items for IT professionals, I would take a single topic and explain the heck out of it for a general audience, which is what I still do.

Along the way there were high and low points, of course. In a column titled "Cooking the Books," I explained in great detail the basis of both the dot-com meltdown and subsequent corporate earnings debacle more than two years before either happened. I identified to readers dozens of companies and technologies for the first time anywhere. I called Microsoft on its unsportsmanlike behavior again and again. I revealed not just the chinks in the armor of IT, but explained in detail why the U.S. was throwing away its technology leadership and how little we were getting in return. If those were high points for me as a journalist, the low points were writing about the death of my infant son and about our loss of national innocence following 9/11 -- a column that was correct then and remains just as correct today, yet also resulted in death threats to me at the time.

Crazy as it seems today, those weren't my first death threats from this space, either. I did a special on Y2K for PBS at the end of 1999 that generated angry e-mails from people who were convinced that my conclusion (I said there would be little impact) would lead to thousands of deaths and that perhaps mine ought to be among them. In one 24-hour period I received more than 800 such messages, yet when the new year arrived and I was proved correct, not one of those people -- not one! -- admitted to me that they had over-reacted.

I haven't had a week off in a decade, because I learned long ago that readers expect to be fed on a regular basis and I'm not smart enough or disciplined enough to write ahead. I AM smart enough, however to ignore ratings. From time to time the folks at PBS Interactive let it slip that my column is regularly among the top 10 web pages on the network and sometimes among the top five, but I stop them there because I'm only human, and if I know what people like to read about then I'll write only those columns and not some others that really ought to be written whether they are popular or not. In this one way I am very old fashioned, but I think it is the secret of my success, such as it is. That and, as Woody Allen said, simply turning up.

The most gratifying part of my work is throwing out wacky business ideas that I don't have the guts to start, myself, then seeing someone else make that dream a reality. Ideas are cheap, I know, but they have to come from somewhere and when entrepreneurs tell me that they were inspired by something I wrote, that means a lot. The most recent such incident involved FON, the WiFi VoIP cooperative, which apparently I inspired to some extent.

None of this would have happened without PBS, and I don't think any of it would have happened at another network. Over the years I have had a variety of bosses and handlers who have always treated me gently. Maybe they were simply too busy to notice what was happening over here, but I don't think so. I think the network made a conscious decision to have an impact on technology news, and together we have done that on a global basis. The best aspect of that for me is the consistency with which I have been treated, since literally none of the people I work with at PBS today were with the network when I began. It's in their DNA to leave well enough alone.

But it may not be in my DNA, which brings me to NerdTV, my online interview show. Readers have been rightly wondering what the heck is happening with that? Is there EVER going to be a second season? There not only will be: that season of shows is already for the most part complete and ready to go.

What kept us from launching is the domain and the fact that I don't own it, though I own many permutations. Some anonymous domain squatter owns that URL and has been ignoring my every attempt to buy it from him or her over the past two years. The squatter owns 8,000 domains and follows a business model based on $10-$12 per month in AdSense revenue from each site, which won't support the administrative cost of responding to requests, legal challenges, or even offers to buy domains for thousands of dollars. But now that I have the NerdTV trademark the process of obtaining this vital URL should be much easier. My business partners in NerdTV (a key part of Season 2 was sharing the risk so my kids could afford school clothes) saw having the domain as critical to our success not just as a show but also as an Internet video network. So in a few weeks you can expect to see the return of NerdTV with not just one show, but several.

But wait, there's more! Another change in the works is my first book in more than a decade, which will be available right here well before Christmas in case you are looking for something with which to afflict your friends and family. I know I am.

It turns out I have quite a bit still to say -- enough that if PBS keeps me around it might take me another decade or more to say it all.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (147)

Why not buy, though I'm sure other people upthread have suggested this already

tenacitus | Jun 08, 2007 | 3:50PM

I also thank you Bob for your dedication, intelligence, wit, humour and seemingly vast knowledge of the world of IT.

I, Cringely is as fresh and interesting as it was the first time i started reading it many moons ago.

Thurstan | Jun 11, 2007 | 6:36AM

Looking forward to your book. Can you send me a reminder when it's published? :-)

P.S. I only just found out about you from watching Triumph of the Nerds for the 1st time. Why didn't I see this 10 years ago? :-/

coda | Jun 12, 2007 | 7:40AM