This month, The Cluetrain Manifesto turns 20, an aeon in the timescale of the internet. Younger readers may have never heard of it. The middle-aged may dimly recall it, though it was one of the most influential business books of the 20th century, with 95 predictions about how the internet would disrupt business models and power relations. Some of them have come true, while many have not. Cluetrain, named for an apocryphal story about a company depot where a trainload of market clues arrived every day but no one ever took delivery, itself broke the model. It was first published on the web in March 1999 as a set of 95 theses, which were collected into a book the next year. By the time it was available on paper, it was already vastly influential. Its claims divided readers as violently as The Communist Manifesto had done. For some, it was a quasi-religious text predicting the apocalyptic end of the grimy, extortionist industrial age, because “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”. For others, it was atavistic rubbish sautéed in silicon snake oil.
The manifesto was powerful precisely because it raised anxieties about the internet disrupting power relations between corporations and consumers (as in this week’s regrettable public response to SurfExcel’s Holi ad). In 1999, when people connected to the internet with a 14.4 kbps modem, this was heady stuff at the frontier of culture and civilisation. You would think about it, even if you disagreed with all of the 95 theses posited by Frederick ‘Rick’ Levine of Sun Microsystems’ Java team, the influential business analyst Christopher Locke, editor and open source advocate David ‘Doc’ Searls and the philosopher/technologist David Weinberger.
Why did Cluetrain polarise so much? Looking back, maybe it didn’t help that the manifesto appeared in the long shadow of an infamous cousin: in 1995, The Washington Post ran the full text of Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future, popularly known as the Unabomber Manifesto. Kaczynski had decisively retired to the wild. And while Cluetrain was clearly a business book, its pitch reminded one of Aquarian flower power and the anti-industrial return-to-Eden cults of the 20th century. Consider the chapter introductions in the book version, taken from the 10th anniversary edition from Basic Books / Perseus, copies of which are still floating around: Locke: “Ancient markets were full of the sound of life: conversation. They dealt in craft goods that bore the marks of the people who made them. Then mass production led to mass marketing and mass media: interchangeable workers, products and consumers, along with the hierarchical bureaucracies needed to command and control them. But the internet — unmanaged and full of the sound of the human voice — is proving that the Industrial Age is nothing but an interruption as the conversations resumed, this time on a global scale.”
Levine: “Business-as-usual isn’t happy about this [the resurgence of the human voice], because conversations are unpredictable, messy and uncontrollable. But there’s no silencing our human voices. Wise companies will learn how to enter the conversation.”
The theme that formed the spine of the book was the need for corporations to listen to the human voice. The internet was a great leveller, narrowing the distance between companies and their consumers, giving consumers a forum, and the collective power to lean on hearing-impaired corporations. Shortly after The Cluetrain Manifesto appeared, the now-ubiquitous support forum also appeared, a strategy to contain criticism of products within the company’s domain.
But the impression that consumers would be able to collectively dictate corporate policy and product design, which the book conveyed, turned out to be misplaced. The behaviour of consumers of technology products is now more limited than ever before, by closed app ecosystems and small print of insufferable bulk and density. Freedom is so rare that today, rooting an Android phone is a revolutionary act, though the instrument is based on the Linux kernel, whose maintainers swear by fetterless freedom of choice.
Cluetrain was written when social media meant bulletin boards, mailing lists and forums. It could not possibly anticipate the always-on breakneck speed of social media now. It certainly did not anticipate that the art of buying and selling online would extend from promoting pizza and detergent to pushing politicians wielding populist rhetoric. The human race has found the dark side of the internet and The Cluetrain Manifesto 2.0, if such a document is ever written up, won’t be half as hopeful as the first iteration.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.