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Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits, and the Ponytails tried to bring Hollywood to the Internet

Author: John Geirland, Eva Sonesh-Kedar
Publisher: New York: Arcade Publishing, 1999
Review Published: May 2000

 REVIEW 1: Alexa Champion

About a hundred words into this book, I became engaged in the world of Hollywood meets Silicon Valley or "Silliwood," as the authors dub it. But it wasn't until the Acknowledgements on page 267 that I understood the methodology used in writing this book.

John Geirland, a writer for Wired and other publications, and Eva Sonesh-Kedar, a Silicon Valley consultant, write this book like one long Wired article. Their writing style is full of short sentences, zippy punch lines, and emphasis on narrative. If you like reading Wired magazine, you'll enjoy this book. If you are -- for better or worse -- an academic used to reading convoluted sentences and searching out obscure footnote references, reading this book will be like hearing fingernails screech down a chalkboard. I'll admit from the outset that I belong to the latter category and thus, found this book excruciatingly painful to read.

That said, readers who plan a career in "Silliwood," "Digiwood," or Digital Hollywood and are looking for an inspirational tale of the underdog prevailing will not be disappointed. (Not all the underdogs prevail in this tale, though. Indeed, there are some Hollywood-style tragic twists at just the right moments.) A tale of a motley crew of Web designers, Hollywood producers, advertising executives, and digital artists, Digital Babylon is told in a narrative, made-for-TV movie format. At times it is engaging, as we learn of the early successes and failures experienced in providing commercial entertainment content for the Web.

Readers who enjoyed When Wizards Stay Up Late (1999) based on Paul Freiberger's Fire in the Valley will readily take to this book. But here's the rub: readers most likely will not be as intrigued by the characters as we were or are by the well-known Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs and the world's most famous college drop-out, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

In a lighthearted, USA Today meets E! Entertainment television prose, the authors follow a group of creative and technical types through their real-life experiences in the world of virtual entertainment. The main characters -- all real people -- are Scott Zakarin, Charlie Fink, Joshua Greer, David Wertheimer, Matti Lesham, Ted Leonsis, and Bob Bejan, and hail from companies with household names like AOL, Microsoft, and MSN, to name a few. These personalities are engaging, as is their dialogue and the day-to-day quandaries they face, which in "Internet time," means about year-to-year. The decisions that these creators made on some technical issues defines what Web content looks like and is today.

Way before broadband was a reality, these creators faced the issues that would demand quicker download times and better picture quality -- the fertile ground which would lead to the development of advanced connection technologies. Today, people with 56K modems complain about the download times for graphics-heavy Web pages, but early in the creative process, the hot-shots in Digital Babylon were trying to figure out how to make attractive Web pages that would download with a 14.4 modem speed -- which is now ancient history. They knew that broadband cable was coming and looked forward to the day when download times would be seconds, not 10 minutes -- as they dealt with in the mid-90s.

One interesting facet covered in this book is that of media convergence. Bringing Hollywood types to the table about the Web was a difficult undertaking. Early in the Web's popular life, when browsers made the Internet pretty in the mid-90s, content was geared toward the stereotypical Net user -- you know, the geeky, greasy-haired, Mountain Dew-drinking, Gen-Xer who spent more time cranking code in front of a DOS screen than he (and, in some cases, she) did interacting with people face-to-face (or f2f). The MUDs and MOOs that existed were not especially newbie-friendly.

The folks written about in Digital Babylon were coming from a Hollywood tradition that sought "high-concept" value -- that is, ideas that would appeal to a mass audience (hence, why we keep getting movie upon movie starring Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis with titles like Under Siege and Die Hard). Creators of early Web content had to consider the traditional Net user and crossover users -- those who were new to the Web environment and would bring their familiarity with TV and movie content. On top of the challenge of audience, the early content pioneers were faced with selling these ideas to deep-pocketed Hollywood types, most of whom had never heard of the Web, let alone thought of it as the next venue for entertainment content.

In telling us about the ins and outs of converging Hollywood with the Internet, names are surreptitiously dropped. The problem with dropping names that no one even knows is, of course, that the writers lose the "wow" value they must be seeking. Most readers would not know who Brandon Tartikoff is, although this reader did.

The authors tantalize the reader with fabulously interesting quotes, such as, "We took radio people and tried to make them TV people. That didn't work. Now we're trying to take TV people and make the Net people. It defies the law of natural aristocracy" -- Watts Wacker (149). Yet, there is no footnote, nor reference as to the context as to when the speaker spoke or wrote the quote. It would be very difficult to cite this book in academic work and get away with it. I mean, who is Watts Wacker? But that's the kind of "guess who I know" game that the authors seem to be playing. Hollywood "insiders" will find this book amusing and a bit of a yearbook.

One interesting authorial choice Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar made is utilizing the omniscient voice. For each character, we are allowed inside their head. We are supposed to trust the writers' authority on the validity of the characters' feelings and thoughts. We are forced to trust the "fact checking" process to which they supposedly subjected their work, as they insist at the end of this book (268). The problem with using this type of Bob Woodward-style of journalism book-writing is that there is no way to verify if Scott Zakarin (the "main" character, for lack of a better term) "felt torn" on page 85. The book reads like a Sweet Valley High book, full of gossip and internal diegetic information. Reading this book, I constantly asked myself, "Why should I believe what the writers say this character 'thought'?"

Digital Babylon is a Hollywood book -- about who you know, not what you know. If nothing else, this book hammers this fact home by illustrating the value system about which they are writing. It is difficult to glean useful information from this book, but it is a good read, narratively speaking. Perhaps being an "insider" in the Hollywood entertainment business is a pre-requisite. If you are one of this elite, you'll get the Monty Python-esque "nudge, nudge, say no more, you know what I mean, eh?" style of conveying information. This book drives home the issue that one must analyze one's audience before writing, during the writing process, and after finishing a work. Considering the fact that both writers hold doctorates, however, it fails as an academic work of scholarship. Moreover, it looks like Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar failed at delivering a "high-concept" product, which is truly ironic, considering the Wired magazine style of writing they employ.

Paul Freiberger. Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. Touchstone Books, 1998.

Alexa Champion:
Alexa Champion is a graduate student in Communication, Culture, & Technology at Georgetown University. She works as a graduate fellow in Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship and is a writing instructor online and in the classroom at the community college level. She is developing her thesis topic around the Frankfurt School's body of cultural criticism and working-class feminist theory. 

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