Last train to Cluesville

Corporations who don't want to see their car unhitched from the New Economy had better give up on "business as usual," argues "The Cluetrain Manifesto."

Topics: Business, Books,

The word “manifesto” is a little like the boy who cried wolf; it’s hard to know when to take it seriously. To be certain, its appearance in a book’s title always foretells some kind of trouble. Most of the time it’s just an early warning of extended bombast. Less frequently it indicates the presence of some profound or earth-rocking ideology. In the confounding case of “The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual,” it’s probably both.

The essential thesis of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” is that the Internet has turned the tables on the forces of mass industrialization. No longer is the cycle of production and consumption a corporate monologue; ubiquitous networking has enabled under-served masses and powerless workers to organize, energize, assert their own voices and thereby push back on their corporate oppressors. As consumers and workers become ever-more internetworked, interoperable and interdependent, both become smarter and more powerful — perhaps more powerful than the corporations that serve and employ them. Corporate control is an inevitable casualty as intellectual capital becomes more important than material capital.

Pretty bracing assertions, to be sure — but what else to expect from a treatise that touts itself as “The End of Business as Usual”? Whether or not “Cluetrain” lives up to this promise (or threat), the authors do seem to grasp the essential elements of revolutionary style; no self-respecting manifesto should leave the house without a few critical accessories, and this manic tract seems to have most of them. There is the obligatory declaration of obsolescence: Just as Karl Marx declared the world no longer had any use for capitalism, “Cluetrain” announces the end of Taylorism and Fordism, the very cornerstones of the industrial age. There is the ever-popular prognostication of doom: Companies that don’t recognize and embrace the new reality — by metaphorically jumping on the eponymous “clue train” — will be left squashed on the tracks. There is evangelical righteousness by the truckload. In fact, the book begins by declaring a Digital Reformation with its own version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses — a clever device that has been circulating in open-source circles for some time now.

The theses, first posted to the Net last year, open with the declaration: “1. Markets are conversations. 2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors. 3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.” The manifesto continues like a finger-waving lesson book for clueless corporations and concludes with an implicit threat of extinction for firms that refuse to get it. “95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.”

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Of course, the authors of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” are hardly the first to argue that the Internet is putting individuals back in charge. Any number of recent books have served corporate America with official notification that the post-industrial era begins now, and the news is — for the captains of industry, anyway — mostly bad. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” adds to the gloom-fest its own litany of the many corporate organs rendered vestigial: marketing, advertising and “business communications” at large (consumers are now too well-informed to accept breezy P.R. babble at face value anymore); management (peer-to-peer connections subvert hierarchy); and control (you just can’t push customers or employees around like you used to, darn it — access to information has made ‘em ornery).

“The Cluetrain Manifesto” is unique, however, in its refreshingly humanist orientation. Whereas many books attempt to analyze Internet phenomena in economic or cybernetic terms, the authors of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” take an unabashedly narrative approach: The balance of power, the authors declare, has been tipped by, of all improbable things, storytelling; the Internet, with its mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, e-mail and otherwise one-to-one conduits, has enabled us to relentlessly minstrel to each other, restoring the voice of the individual in the marketplace.

Not only do these conversations allow us to pool our knowledge and organize efforts against the body corporate, but they have a satisfying, authentic, sincere quality to them — in contrast to the hollow, flat, inhuman tone of the bureaucratic voice, which grows more intolerable with each day, now that we are continually reminded of the difference. Any company hoping to hang on to its customer base, “The Cluetrain Manifesto” insists, had better learn the New Sincerity.

This argument by itself is enough to redeem “Cluetrain”; in a debate where the Internet economy is traditionally explicated in terms of “value chains” and “vertical integration,” this is a delightfully orthogonal point of view. Classicists and anthropologists have long declared storytelling the main event in human culture, but seldom has it been advanced as an issue of such immediate economic urgency.

But the most striking feature of this book is its sheer exuberance. This isn’t so much a scholarly, constructed, fussed-over opus as much as a collection of related broadsides colluding in a rollicking, tag-team pummel-fest of the (until recently) powers-that-be — or a giddy, extended riff on the end of an ice age.

Perhaps the spirited tone derives from the book’s genesis online. The authors have had a year to hone their clue train act on the Web and this book is probably the distillation of months of e-mail conversation and reader feedback. Besides, each of these guys enjoys a reputation as not only a technology sage, but an online gadfly and iconoclast.

One side-effect of this loosely collaborative approach is a certain amount of rhetorical overlap; the four authors are clearly of one mind, and none can resist recapitulating the same message with his own particular spin. This would be much more of a problem if it weren’t for the redeeming circumstance that much of the book reads like stand-up comedy. Much of the message of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” is in the smirk wedged firmly between the lines — we don’t mind the variations on theme, as long as the authors keep us laughing. This style — the wisecracking, attention-deficient, stream-of-consciousness nonlinear rant — has something of a venerable history in computerdom; Ted Nelson vigorously pioneered the form decades ago in “Computer Lib/Dream Machines,” and the technique is still as potent as ever, especially when the object is to whack the audience upside the head with a clue-by-four.

There is more than just gonzo attitude here to compel the skeptical reader. One of the most compelling passages features an annotated exchange on a Usenet newsgroup in which a number of Saturn customers triangulate on the inconsistent service policies of Saturn-affiliated car dealerships. It’s a powerful example of how an internetworked customer base can bring a corporate organization to heel, and more than sufficient to ground the airy abstraction of the “Internet-empowered consumer.”

In “The Great Transformation,” economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi asserted that prior to the 19th century, markets were coeval with, and embedded in, society. Markets did not exist entirely for their own sake, or even for profit’s; they were simply one manifestation of social discourse. The signal trait of the industrial revolution, he contended, was the de-coupling of society and the market, much to the detriment of the former, notably in the form of alienation of labor and the depletion of community resources.

In that light, one interpretation of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” is that the trend identified by Polanyi is beginning to reverse — as the Internet insinuates its chatty, communitarian (dare we say “old-fashioned”) values into the industrial conversation, corporations are going to have to re-couple with society at large. In more concrete terms, they will have to begin acting less like faceless profit-robots and more like good neighbors — on pain of death.

That would be a change for the better; let’s hope “The Cluetrain Manifesto” — with all its grandiloquence — isn’t too far off the mark.

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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