Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Chris Locke died on the winter solstice. Facebook posts by Doc Searls and J.P. Rangaswami broke the sad news that the man the world knew at the dawn of the World Wide Web as Rageboy was gone, done in by too many ciggies and a long struggle with COPD.

Chris came into my world in the mid-80s when I was a reporter at PC Week and rang him up after seeing him quoted somewhere talking about artificial intelligence. He was a great source who had a wild mind that would veer from outrage to hysteria,  riffing about whatever came to mind with great clarity and emotion. Chris was the most “un-IBMer” I knew at IBM.

In the early 90s at Forbes I moved away from covering the PC industry which had sunk into a boring spell of interactive CD-ROMs and the rise of chief information officers who were supposed to be the original digital transformation prophets at the old, hidebound companies Chris would mock in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the book he co-authored with Doc, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine in 1999 just in time for the first collapse in the dot.com mania that had been building ever since the introduction of the Web in 1994. When I went deep into document processing and hypertext technologies in 1992 Chris introduced me to the father of the granddaddy of all page description languages, SGML (Structured Generalized Mark-up Language, Stanley Goldfarb.   Stanley tried to persuade me to help him write a book about SGML, but the technical level of the material was way beyond my comprehension and, as Chris would say, “MEGO” (My Eyes Glazed Over) set in, so I begged off and instead started digging into the simpler world of HTML – a descendent of SGML known as the HyperText Markup Language.

Steve Larsen: “There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.”

Doc Searls: The Cluetrain Manifesto had four authors but one voice, and that was Chris Locke‘s.”

Other tributes to Chris

Chris introduced me to Yuri Rubinsky, CEO of HotMetal Pro, one of the first HTML authoring tools. Before long I was building very crude websites, relying on Chris for introductions to people like John Patrick at IBM, who built the first IBM.com and ran it on a ThinkPad under his desk  (when he closed the laptop at the end of the day to go home IBM.com went dark until Patrick could get back online. ) In 1995 Chris hired me to contribute a series of essays on digital journalism for a project called NetEditors that was sponsored by InternetMCI.  Those six essays gave me the space, with Chris’ expertise as an editor, to speculate about a lot of things that were going to change in media — especially newspapers and magazines — when the Internet grew up and took over because of the inevitable power of open technology standards to overcome the proprietary. When the means of production moved from tanker cars full of ink and monster rolls of newsprint to the infinitude of limitless page space filled with free publishing tools, opening the door to the long tail publishing model that would permit special interest online publishers to further distill themselves into niches driven by a community as opposed to content alone. I borrowed the insights of Bill Ziff into the unique function a magazine like Modern Bride, Skiing, Popular Mechanics, or PC Week played for people who were really into stereo gear or ski bindings. Advertisers paid a premium for the focus of each magazine’s circulation list or “audience” who in turn regarded the advertising as relevant to their interests but also a valuable source of new information that was of equal value to the stories and photographs published by the magazine’s writers and editors. With Chris’ egging me on , I wrote about the business model for fictional “hyper-niche” website for people who knit with pet hair, not knowing there are actually people who do just that and who even wear the resulting sweaters, mittens and hats .

Little did I know that this in fact is a real thing,nor that a Forbes colleague had written a book on the subject. Not wanting to base my speculations on cat sweaters instead I continues the NetEditors series with speculations about a hyper-focused, hyper-local online publication for anglers who fished in saltwater, with fly rods, with sub-editions for different regions of the world. That led me to collaborate with an actual fishing buddy to start a company to build just a site and others in the outdoor sports space. We launched Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing in 1995.

That project gave me the courage to build the first Forbes.com prototype which I showed to the Forbes brothers who put me in charge of activating the publishing deals they had signed with CompuServe and Prodigy. Once those were figured out we were able to launch the Forbs Digital Tool at Forbes.com

Around that time I invited to participate in an invite-only “retreat” hosted at a conference center somewhere around Philadelphia by Jerry Michalski, the editor of Esther Dyson’s tech newsletter, Release 1.0. There Esther dubbed Chris with the “Rageboy” tag that became his alter-ego to the end of his days. As fifty or so smart people talked about then-hot topics like community and micropayments, Chris took to the microphone and delivered a long, escalating rant that combined the acerbic wit of H.L. Mencken with the gonzo excesses of Hunter S. Thompson.

By the end of the 1990s, as normalcy started to spin out of  control and strange stuff like WorldCom and Enron were at their fraudulent peaks, when dot.com mania was peaking, Chris and his co—authors issued the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. When those declarations were turned into a book, Chris Locke wrote the first chapter. You can read Internet Apocalypso here. It’s a very good measure of the way the man thought and wrote.  Churned by a number of projects ranging from InternetMCI to Mecklerweb, Chris wound up at IBM as Big Blue’s Internet evangelist, where the cultural mismatch was breathtaking to behold even given the extremes of the rest of Chris Locke’s exceptionally eccentric career. In “Internet Apocalypso” he wrote:

“In 1995, I ended up in IBM’s Internet division. A ranking PR guy from corporate headquarters ran into me one day and said he’d heard I had a lot of contacts in the financial press. He suggested we get together for lunch and talk about it. I took this as a good sign, maybe an opening to do what I liked best. But when we met several weeks later he said something like, “All those journalists you know? Never talk to them again.

“He said I should refer all such conversations to him instead. That way, he said, the company’s messaging would be consistent. Or words to that effect. But I knew they wouldn’t be real conversations — they would be “key message” pitches, and I wasn’t about to subject people I knew and liked to that sort of targeting. I kept my contacts to myself.

“I was devastated. It was bad enough that I’d been explicitly forbidden to speak with journalists, many of whom had become good friends, but where was I going to write? If I published anything, I’d get busted for not asking permission — there was that word again — and if I wrote sleazy PR for IBM, I’d have to kill myself to blot out the karmic stain. “

Internet Apocalypso, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chris Locke

Instead, Chris  launched his own blog, Entropy Gradient Reversals, quit IBM, and found his voice of indignant amazement at the general cluelessness of the dinosaurs about to get wiped off the face of the economy by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter.

I’m going to miss him as a friend and force for good in my life. It has been years since we last spoke and I know his recent years were tough financially and medically. Sadly he’s gone to join  other friends of mine from that first wave of Internet prophets – John Perry Barlow, Tom Mandel at SRI,   Jimmy Guterman come to mind – all of them people who died too soon who never cashed out, who never faked it until they made it, who saw the future and worked to make it right.

 As I pulled together my thoughts for this post after another sleepless night, I tried to find some evidence of those early Chris Locke collaborations from 1995. Alas, as pointed out earlier this year in The Atlantic by Harvard Law prof Jonathan Zittrain – link rot has erased all signs of that work, with even the Internet Archive missing those longwinded speculations about what might be wrought on civilization by the commercialization of a network where nobody was in charge. Chris hated authority and would probably approve of the gradual vanishing of those old early essays. This was a man who took offense at a Burger King website that invited customers to contribute – but warned them in the legal fine print that anything submitted to Burger King automatically became the property of Burger King.

“Our own contribution to the furtherance of responsible Copyright Protection consisted in feeding the entire collected corpora of Project Gutenberg through the Burger King form, thus ending Literature As We Know It.”

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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