Digital originality yields high fatality.

Tim Byars (
Sat, 18 May 1996 18:17:05 -0700

now I get it..

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 May 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Cheat Sheet


What defines genius? Cultural

historians, or even your average

click-theorist, would turn to

the tried and true examples:

Joyce and his linguistic

inventiveness; Einstein and his

otherworldly insight; Rancid and

their purity of expression.


But in today's world of artistic

relativism, where any one of

us can (and unfortunately do)

play with Alien Skin, slap the

resulting image on the Web, and

call it art, there's no distinction

between true invention and

the lowest form of uninspired

crap. Not that it matters. Because

whatever praise you care to

direct at such heroes of

performance art, few of them

manage to realize the value of

their ideas in the only form

that counts - dollars of

Chrysler Building proportions.


Look again at history. The people

who ended up holding true power

were, essentially, the kids who

cheated in school. The Romans

Xeroxed their entire culture

from the Greeks - one was

master, the other was slave.

When Windows got touchy-feely

with Macintosh, look who got

fucked. And every top-selling

rap CD? Essentially, a re-mixed

George Clinton album.


Face it - the road to fiscal

health is paved with other

people's good inventions. And

thinking outside the box is just

an euphemism for looking over

your neighbor's shoulder.

Survival of the fittest is not

about obeying the urge to create.

It's about denying it. There is,

you see, a corollary to Darwin's

law: the extinct family groups

in the evolution game are the

ones who let the creative gene

override what's bred in the

bone. The genetic imperative -

the urge to reproduce - is

at heart, the urge to make

flawless copies. Preferably in

high enough volumes to amortize

the fixed costs.


Which brings us to the true power

of the Web. Forget the boundless

opportunity to build yet another

DIY artfuck site. Forget the

supposed power of many-to-many

communications. What the Web

really offers is unregulated

packet plagiarism - a wealth of

other people's ideas to copy and

make a fast buck from. So many,

in fact, that anyone actually

creating original content on the

Web is choosing Fool's Gold.

There's a faster way to

cash out early, and cash out

often, and the true geniuses

around here are the ones who've

figured this out.

[Bags O' Cash]

Take c|net, for example. Ned

Brainard can complain all he

wants about the c|netters use of

View Source; while he whines,

Halsey Minor and Shelby Bonnie

snicker over sacks of specie

exactly because of their

absolute commitment to

uninventiveness. For c|net,

closing off the temporal lobe

has not only been brilliant, but

insanely lucrative.

[c|net TV]

For those who want to mimic

c|net's success, it's important

to recognize that they didn't

achieve their current lack of

creativity in an instant.

Unlearning, we know, is even

more difficult than learning.

Remember when c|net debuted as a

putative TV network, attempting

to create the "first" cable

network devoted solely to

computers and technology?

Remember when you last saw a

press release trumpeting this



Like CMP and Mecklermedia in the

print world, c|net tried, as

best they could, to rip off the

model Ziff-Davis perfected in

the computer magazine frenzy of

the 1980s. But they still

managed to make one monumental

fuckup: their attempt to

replicate the Ziff model on TV,

not in print - and even worse,

as a cable channel - meant c|net

would need to be available 24 hours

per day, seven days per week. No one

had ever done it before! They

would, inevitably, have to make

something new. Then came the



The true vision at c|net - or

more appropriately, the lack

thereof - must have crystallized

in the founders' minds when they

looked toward the Web as a

business development platform.

Soon enough, they had their

killer app - or, rather, they

had someone else's. They had


The monumental audacity of's crass

net.parasitism is inspiring, so

completely does it violate the

insufferable share-and-share

alike ethos of the old Internet.

Shareware and freeware software

ftp repositories, after all,

have been offered as community

resources on the net ever since

there's been a net. Who hasn't

used the wuarchive at Washington

University in St. Louis, or the

sumex-aim site at Stanford

University? If ever there was a

well-proven formula, this was it.


But none of the altruistic - if

piss-poor - saps who maintained

those sites recognized the true

profit potential available in

them - or if they did, they

failed to act on that

knowledge. And without profit

potential to push them, those

sites could never accommodate the

number of users who were trying

to get into them. The c|net

team, of course, knew

immediately what needed to be

done. Copy a few files, throw

some bandwidth at it, plug in

some banners sold by an

underutilized advertising

department, and - bingo! Instant



The success of, of

course, inevitably brought And gamecenter, if

not, with sure to follow -

just a few of the URLs c|net owns

but has yet to exploit. There's

an abundant supply of communal

sites out there that c|net, or

anyone else, can rip off. And as

a model for either morality or

business practice, it is at once

more vile and more lucrative

than taking candy from a baby:

it's taking candy from a baby

and selling Xeroxes of the

wrapper back to the whole



We're so in love with this

paradigm, we'll even help with

some free advice (which perhaps

would have been pilfered

anyway). The sponsored version

of a home page directory still

remains to be built. Or the

commercially-supported guide to

online chats. The high-hit

winner, of course, would be the

amateur porn site directory. But

only, of course, if somebody

else has already done it.

And to those who doubt the wisdom

of c|net's scheme, we offer this

koan: Digital reproduction may

offer high fidelity, but digital

originality yields high fatality.


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