A Rhapsody Upon The Death Of Siegfried Fischbacher
And a time not so long ago, when the world was filled with joy and the internet itself was magic…
If you missed it, Siegfried Fischbacher passed away last week. His partner, Roy Horn, died last year.
One of my best friends ever first took me to see the Siegfried and Roy show at the Mirage in Las Vegas. It was cheesy and great, and seeing how much my friend was into it made it even more satisfying. He had an “in” with the producer, so we had really good seats. Just a few feet from tigers — with no cages — I never felt menace.
We were co-workers also, and we did some great work together. One story we did, however, led to me getting death threats in the mail. It was about the penny stock industry. Anybody who’s watched season two of The Sopranos knows it was pretty mobbed up in the day. But I was young, so I was thrilled. My boss called the F.B.I.
We were in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. I’m not big on trade shows. I really have no memory of what was hot that year, or which “hospitality suites” we were invited to, or which we went to, or how much we drank, or what drugs we may have done.
My only vivid memory from a trade show, now that I’m trying to recall the many I presented at, and the many more I attended, was not at CES, but at some streaming media conference, where I walked in and it seemed like Enron had bought up all the exhibit floor space. I remember wondering at the time whether something was up, but it also seemed like they had a really good idea. They had these oil pipelines all over the place — why not use them to run fiber? At least, I think that’s what they were pitching.
The Siegfried and Roy evening was actually more sedate, and away from all that hoopla. We had a fancy dinner. I don’t remember where. But it was before the whole “celebrity chef” thing so other than steakhouses you kind of did have to know what you were after in Vegas to avoid stumbling into yet another buffet.
Then we went to see the show.
My friend’s been gone for a long time. I miss him. I miss those times too. Another friend today, with great hope in his voice, predicted after-Coronavirus days would be filled with art and great parties. But I’m too old for that now. And a lot of the younger people I know never stopped.
When I assisted in building and launching Yahoo!’s live video streaming service, which at the time quickly became the most-watched live video stream on the internet, even with most people accessing it through dial-up, I remember getting a visit from a New York Times reporter one day. He kept asking me how an online audience would know the difference between serious news stories and advertising. He seemed very concerned. I explained New York Times readers didn’t seem to have a problem differentiating between news coverage and ads in the paper. I thought he was insane.
My first thought right now was to admit I was wrong about that, and he was right. But I’m not sure I was wrong. Yes, he may have been on to something that I didn’t yet see, but I think he was missing something too, and in retrospect was asking the wrong question. Because the problem that’s emerged is not really about perception, but about power.
Or more specifically, the internet being an instrument by which power could be exercised in an instant: to immediately, ceaselessly bestow upon people what they need or want to hear, or take away from others, besmirch them, and punish them.
As much as media gets blamed for well, everything ultimately — and I’m not arguing media’s not entirely blameless — part of the reason internet news platforms developed in this way was by choice. And that choice was not having journalists vigorously participate hardly at all in how journalism was to be presented online. (Yahoo! during the 4-year I guess you could call it experiment with which I was involved, was an exception.)
Tech companies built media players with the idea that people would never want to watch anything live online. Because at the time, it didn’t seem really feasible. My little team at Yahoo! proved it was. And we built out a set of tools that was far more versatile and interactive than anything in use even today. Where online video is still just pretty much TV online. Especially the ads.
And when newspapers, TV stations, major media companies started playing catch-up, hurriedly hiring their own in-house online and social media directors, I was shocked that they were almost always people with marketing backgrounds, not journalists. I can think of but a few exceptions.
But even with all of that, nobody was going to use the internet for anything bad: how could they? How could more people accessing each other’s views and opinions — instantly — be bad? I believed at the time that peoples’ appetite for news and information was just about infinite; only limited by their ability to get it.
I was looking out at the horizon, and all I was seeing was sunrise.
I never worked more in my life: most days 16 hours at least. But my days were never absent some small discovery or new joy.
Sometimes it was a hard sell. I remember going to CBS one day. All I wanted, was to convince them to let me deliver 60 Minutes segments on demand. Because there was no way of catching the very consequential stories they produced after they originally aired. There was no such thing as DVR. People were talking about it, but they weren’t sure it’d be legal. “Sorry,” they told me, the CEO of CBS at the time “is not into the internet”. When I met the President of CNBC, he said “if I can get one more viewer by putting my content online, then my job is to get that person to turn on a TV.”
But to me, when streaming video and online exchanges of news and information was just beginning, it seemed like a solution to all our problems. And everyone would be so much more well informed. Because all their information wouldn’t just be coming from a few fading monoliths, but all kinds of sources, from all kinds of directions. And that would help American society become more linked, more harmonious, more joyful. Happier. And for a while it was.