The Big Chill

Up until a very short while ago, anyone who had any hope of getting anywhere could tell you with great and artful confidence what would be the next big thing. In fact, the more confident you were, the better chance there was that what you wanted to be next would be next. Everybody – managers, marketers, editors, producers, software engineers, investors, and P.R. professionals – filed into the conference rooms (together or by discipline) and then, using an analysis whose primary assumptions were vast liquidity and an insatiable appetite for technological innovation, debated the future, and how to sell it. It was not just the technology, the killer app, about which people were prescient and bullish, but the entire matrix of attitude and behavior and style that surrounded these new projects and cultural developments.

But that was in another country, and that period of confidence has inalterably passed.

Now people whose business it is to know what’s next – certainly the fundamental skill of the media business – ask one another in hushed or existential tones: What’s your sense?

The largeness of the question (it is a question that involves media, business, politics, the economy, technological development, and the relationship of each of these things to the other – a new version of the old military-industrial complex), and our current inability to answer it, take us, if only for a moment, from our narrowcast interests back to our mass-media roots. What’s the national theme and preoccupation? The American paradigm? It’s not only frightening but galling to have no handle on it.

Just how conservative are we becoming – or is this the right’s flukish last gasp? Will it be recession – and what will be the impact on a generation that has never had a setback – or will this, too, pass? And the census – is the country actually becoming Hispanic? Will reality programming last (cheaper content for smaller audiences)? What is the Sopranos effect (better content for people willing to pay)? Is anyone serious about wireless? Napster – have we entered an era of trying to repress the irrepressible (digital reproduction may be to modern times what sex was to Victorians)? Is the California electricity thing the beginning of infrastructure breakdown (I woke up the other day to find that my high-speed Internet provider had gone bankrupt and summarily cut off access to its several hundred thousand customers)? Where does hoof-and-mouth strike next?

We are all, at least for the moment, traumatized and clueless. (Talk magazine, heretofore embarrassing for its cluelessness, turns out to be prescient.)

What do audiences want? What does Wall Street want? What do consumers want?

We’ve lost our second sight into the collective commercial unconscious.

The issue is both tonal and economic. It’s not enough to tighten your belt to survive the downturn, but if you want to be able to speak to the new mood, and sell into it, it’s necessary to understand how the change – from boom to not boom, from certainty to uncertainty, from liquidity to cash crunch, from technology that promises to work to technology that is likely to fail, from Clinton to Bush – changes us.

We have to find the psychological Rubicon, then cross it together.

John Brockman, the literary agent and technology gadfly, formally surveyed a high-flying group of his digerati associates recently on the question of what’s next – and absolutely no one responded. For his part, Brockman, who wrote one of the first books extolling the figures of the digital revolution, sees the entrepreneurial age morphing into “a bunch of very boring companies run by people you don’t want to know in your personal life.”

Chee Pearlman, the former editor of I.D., the much-vaunted design magazine, writes me from the furniture show in Milan, a world-class gatherings of style, sensibility, look, feel, and innovation: “It looks like it will be a great show this year, the last big bang before the new restraint creeps in.” (I begin to imagine the new restraint: no-wait restaurants, less cable news, better-behaved teenagers, along with, on the downside, the George Bush dress code, zero tolerance, faith-based as an adjective.)

Joan Juliet Buck, whom the Newhouses have just relieved of her command of French Vogue, is back in the States, thinking about settling in Santa Fe (perhaps Santa Fe, again, will be the next big thing) and offering her view, over lunch, that drugs, new kinds of drugs, targeted and clever feel-good drugs, will be the next big thing. We were talking about the mania, the I-can-do-anything-and-be-anything spirit of the nineties and its parallels to the sixties (the nineties were as transformative – the money as free-flowing and the moment as anomalous – as the sixties), with this, therefore, being the seventies, which is, Joan points out, when the drug binge really began.

James Atlas and I, considering the what-next question, are discussing the success of Buddha, by Karen Armstrong, which he’s published in his series of short biographies, and which is now riding the Times best-seller list. Indeed, his two best-selling biographies are of Buddha and Saint Augustine. Can that mean anything else but that there is a great search for spirituality and moral leadership?

But I am not convinced. Mostly, these seem like generic preoccupations. These are the shibboleths of human nature – corporatism, caution, drugs, and spirituality – rather than the aspirations: how to get more, cheaper, faster, which in our age has been the main motor of technology, culture, and finance.

And yet The New York Times Magazine, which has made a genre out of special issues that pose the overarching who-we-are-and-what-we-want questions, just went with a big issue about avarice – the mechanics of getting what you want to get: how to get into college after you’ve been rejected; how to re-invent yourself as a popular kid; how to raise a genius; how to dump a friend.

Tonally, the Times Magazine seemed off by an epoch.

The struggle it portrayed was about the vicissitudes of life at the ever-more-crowded top of the economic pinnacle. Indeed, in the magazine’s go-go view, the pyramid has been inverted. It’s the rich competing for the last morsels.

We are all individual entrepreneurs, personal brands (in that fast-fading lingo), duking it out for mindshare and market penetration.

The Times Magazine seemed like a mean Fast Company – or the real-life version of Survivor, or this new show, The Weakest Link, with its innovation of a rude host (which may also go down in history as the only show we got sick of before it went on the air).

Possibly that is how its editors would defend their tonal choice – where we are now, post-boom, is Fast Company with the gloves off, everyone trying to hold on to what gains he’s gotten.

Now, I may be a stickler, but to me, this defines a past or even lost aspiration rather than a new one.

It does, however, bring up the issue of Fast Company, which was acquired last fall by Gruner + Jahr, a division of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, for something like $500 million – so you might interpret this move as a major media prognostication. Likewise, Condé Nast, which owns Wired, also bid big for the title. Now, it seems fair to ask on what basis these companies could possibly imagine that, with the overthrow of the dot-com nation and the collapse of the New Economy, anyone would want to read such a magazine.

It occurs to me, though, that this is another way to approach the conundrum of what’s next. If your pockets are deep enough, you can just wait around till everybody else goes out of business – it’s the consolidation or Last Man Standing view of the market (indeed, many people say consolidation is what’s next).

But it doesn’t do much for the rest of us, who have to know what’s next before the cash runs out.

I call up Kurt Andersen, whose company, one of the best-funded and most highly publicized launches of the past year, was just sold for what, in essence, was the cash it had on hand (reportedly, the company had $10 million worth of venture capital left – its cash was its asset).

We have a somewhat prickly conversation because Kurt is trying to put the best face on his situation. “Victory with an asterisk,” he’s calling it. “We’ve lost an arm, but we’re still alive,” he says. (This is partly my point: If Kurt’s confidence is qualified, then whose isn’t?)

But that’s not really why I’m calling him. Rather, I want to tap his famous Zeitgeist sense at this exposed and vulnerable moment.

“All bets are off,” Kurt says.

What he sees in the marketplace, and among those trying to bring things to the marketplace, is “simultaneous confusion and bewilderment.”

It is, in his analysis, not just a mood thing but also a structural issue.

It used to be, he says, that if you built “a passionate audience around a media product, unless you were insanely stupid, a revenue-and-profit model would follow, but now that’s not the case. It’s like a law of physics being overturned.”

There’s an unbundling, he says, of advertising and media.

New media may not have worked, but old media doesn’t work, either.

As for politics, he adds, “the system is almost Soviet, it’s so behind the curve.”

The dysfunction, says Kurt, who seemed fairly optimistic the last time I talked to him, has “never been so great on so many fronts.”

His image of where we are now is a “big hung-over kid sitting in front of the contraption he’s taken apart, and the pieces are shining, but he doesn’t know how to put it back together.”

Kurt is, no doubt, feeling the kind of blues that so many people are feeling now as their enterprises and sure things crumble.

Indeed, these blues, in and of themselves, probably exert a powerful influence on what’s next.

I wonder if part of what is occurring is an opposite, but similar, condition to consumer confidence. That is, we have a deep crisis in sellers’ confidence. The hype is suffering. The confidence to sell has been damaged. The hypesters are abashed.

The good thing about this, you can rationalize, is that the playing field is even.

We are all, at least for the moment, traumatized and clueless. (Talk magazine, heretofore embarrassing for its cluelessness, turns out to be prescient.)

Nobody has any advantage. Money isn’t talking, technology is not a salvation, prime time is loony, magazine covers aren’t selling, and AOL Time Warner (the AOL people just call it AOL) is about to be torn asunder by cultural revolution.

And your e-mails won’t reach me until I find a new DSL provider.


What’s “The Next Big Thing”? Talk with “This Media Life” columnist Michael Wolff in an online chat Wednesday, April 18, at 8 p.m. on

The Big Chill