What am I doing here?

dsbabyI 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.

This entry was posted in Berkman, Cluetrain, Internet, problems, Technology, VRM. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What am I doing here?

  1. Geoff says:

    Happy Birthday! Hope you have as great a day as I had yesterday on my 68th 🙂

  2. Kavi says:

    Happy Birthday! Heres wishing you many more years of discovery and expression.


  3. Doc,

    Happy Birthday, and when you think about it … you beat some pretty long odds over billions of years of evolution just to be “doing here.” 🙂

    I for one, am glad you beat those odds.

  4. Jim says:

    Happy Birthday to the guy who’s been more right about what would, did, and how it needs to change, this big bang wonderful thing we call the Internet. It is an honor to know you and be part of your gang of merrier concerned people and how our digital lives have been hi-jacked, right before our very eyes doing something about it! Not exactly what any of us expected back in 1986 when we first meet.

    I for one am grateful that sometime ago, you figured out and understood your “WHY”

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWPe7tJ3cPU

    An appropriate soundtrack, my friend. Here’s to many more trips around the sun.

  6. DC Stultz says:

    Happy Birthday, Doc! It’s been fun following you (and David) “being here” since Cluetrain. You being 68 makes me feel old — I was almost 8 when you were born. You’re just a damn young whippersnapper — just keep it up!

  7. Marc Canter says:


    Do NOT be talking bout dying. WE need you to stay alive – forever!

    Keep the faith – Messaging is the new OS

  8. Happy, happy Birthday, Doc. Hope you have lots more 🙂

  9. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, everybody. Digging the vibes and the music. 🙂

  10. Todd Carpenter says:

    I like to think the main reason you’re here is to be a good father & grandfather! Life quite literally wouldn’t exist without you! Happy Birthday!

  11. Ed Cone says:

    Happy birthday, Doc.

  12. bowerbird says:

    loved the anecdotes.

    happy birthday, doc!


  13. Happy Birthday, Doc! Enjoyed reading your post. Reminded me of the Warren Zevon song, Mutineer. Keep rockin’ the boat!

  14. Robert Rose says:

    Happy Birthday Doc! Will miss you at Pips Soho event this year – but hoping it has been a grand year for you so far!

  15. b’day wishes etc.

    keep on trucking.

    maybe we will get together once more before the dirt nap gets us 🙂

  16. Stephanie Schweighofer-Jones says:

    Joyeux Anniversaire Doc!!! Belated but all the same sincere. Loved this story and further loved discovering you found your WHY right after we first met in Paris…. What feels like trillions of years ago now…fun times…I love watching your brain work up close in good conversation and verbal exploration. Even just that one example of VRM coming to life would be so freeing —-from the burdens we endure from the joys of the Internet.

  17. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Stephanie! I should take time in a future post to unpack all I learned in those early days under your tutelage in Paris! (There is a start in the opening passage of this Cluetrain Manifesto chapter. BTW, for everybody else, Stephanie was not the project manager mentioned there.)

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