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Taking stock of the tech industry
talking with Denise Caruso, industry analyst and founder of Hybrid Vigor Institute

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue November, November 1- November 30, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Denise Caruso is an analyst and journalist who has covered the high tech community for almost 20 years. In March, she left her position as technology columnist at The New York Times to start the Hybrid Vigor Institute, which she created to encourage the exchange of information between disciplines.



UBIQUITY: You've just come from Agenda 2001, a well-known technology conference, and one journalist covering the conference wrote a story titled "Is The Tech Industry Out of Ideas?" Do you think the tech industry is out of ideas?

DENISE CARUSO:No, not at all. I absolutely don't think that. It would be a real mistake to make that kind of a call on the entire industry based on one conference, especially one that's known to draw people who have been around for a really long time. The tech industry is not even remotely out of ideas. There's so much stuff going on that's interesting.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about your background.

CARUSO:I have a degree in English from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and my first journalism job was at the local paper there, while I was finishing my degree. After I graduated in 1981, I moved to Silicon Valley -- at exactly the right time, apparently, the very beginning of the PC industry. An old friend of mine had gone to work at Osborne Computer Corp. and was editor of its user magazine, The Portable Companion. I became her associate editor and after the company went bankrupt, I wrote a couple of pieces about it for InfoWorld, which was the reigning trade publication for the PC industry. Stewart Alsop, who had just become editor, liked them and hired me. (I actually moved into John Markoff's old desk there.) I stayed for a year and then I got recruited to Electronics, the venerable McGraw-Hill publication, in 1985. I was West Coast editor at Electronics for a year. Around November of '86 the San Francisco Examiner asked me to come write a column for their Sunday business section, which I did for about five years.

UBIQUITY: How did you get started doing the technology newsletters and conferences?

CARUSO: In 1987 or '88, I became interested in the very quiet rumble that was starting around Apple Computer and its big hush-hush, super-secret Multimedia Lab that Kristina Woolsey was running up on Sacramento Street in San Francisco. I finally got an invitation to see what they were doing and realized that digital media was very interesting and in fact had the potential to change everything, which has in fact turned out to be true. Shortly after that, I started my first newsletter on digital and interactive media, which was called Media Letter. A few months later, Jonathan Seybold recruited me to start a newsletter for him because he had also seen the writing on the wall about digital media and had started the Digital World conferences, which were happening in Hollywood.

UBIQUITY: What was the atmosphere like at those early conferences?

CARUSO:It was amazing. Jonathan brought together people from computers and telecom and entertainment and media to talk to each other for what was really the first time. We called it "the convergence" back then, but it was really the beginning of what eventually became the Internet economy. These people had barely known each other existed. They had no idea how to talk to each other, and they certainly didn't know what if anything they had in common. They had no idea about each other's businesses, what they did or why or how they did it.

So between Digital Media, which was the newsletter I started for Jonathan, and Digital World, we had a pretty good run there for about four or five years where we really helped these people get to know each other and understand each other's businesses. It was exciting, because we were at the very beginning of the wave. I left Digital Media in '94, to start a company for Norman Pearlstine, who is now the editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. He was starting a next-generation media company and one of the properties was the company I started for him, called Technology & Media Group -- unfortunately short-lived because we had some investors who very publicly didn't like each other very much. And very much too bad because we were definitely in the right place at the right time. When we shut down Technology & Media, The New York Times called and asked if I wanted to write a column for them. I wrote the Digital Commerce column for them for almost five years. I left at the end of March of this year to start the Hybrid Vigor Institute.

UBIQUITY: Have you ever found technology intimidating as a self-proclaimed former English major?

CARUSO:At the beginning I guess I did. Well, let's be honest: yes, I definitely did. Every day was terrifying. It was horrible when I went to InfoWorld. The managing editor would throw these press releases over the top of his cubicle to me and say, "Do a story on this." And I would look at them and say things like, "What's a circuit board?" That's how raw I was. But I caught on fast -- I had to -- and I learned a lot.

It makes me sad when I look back on it today because when I was in high school, nobody paid any attention to teaching girls about science and math, and clearly I must have had a facility for this stuff, buried somewhere inside me. But there was no effort ever made to bring girls into this world, to help them explore and learn and see if they did have the facility for it. If you were already brilliant in math or science they let you be, but you were kind of a freak. They never encouraged you to learn it like they did the boys. I wonder sometimes what I could have done if I'd had the opportunity to know that I was actually pretty good at this stuff, instead of believing the only thing I was good at was reading and writing.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that has changed?

CARUSO:Oh yeah. It's very exciting now. There's a lot of emphasis being put on how to cultivate girls' interest in math and science, and of course they're taking to it -- why wouldn't they?! When I talk to some of my executive friends in Silicon Valley and they tell me how their girls are really into physics, really devoted to it, it makes me so happy. It's such a wonderful thing, not to have to teach yourself so much and to be encouraged to be smart.

UBIQUITY: Nowadays there are many, many technology conferences, and ACM itself sponsors conferences on virtually every topic having to do with computers and communications. How do people make sense of the conference scene?

CARUSO:I've always had a pretty clear perspective on what conferences are good for. What conferences are really good for is the schmooze. This has become especially true over the last five or six years as the industry and the surrounding industries have heated up in terms of the economy. Most of speakers are running public companies now. So these guys never get up there and say anything interesting anymore because they're afraid that they're going to affect their stock price. Which nowadays, of course, they will.

It's very difficult to do the kind of work that Jonathan Seybold and I tried to do, and that I tried to do in later years at my own interactive media conference, Spotlight. You tell people, "Look, I'm going to pull you off the stage if you give your standard schtick. Nobody wants to hear your schtick. We've all heard it a million times. We want a little value-added here." But it's almost impossible to get them to do that these days because nobody wants to. It's a real Catch 22. You want people to know that you're thinking ahead, and you've got this intellectual capacity and you're looking for what's next. But at the same time, people record every scratch of your nose when you're a public company because of the volatility of the stock market, and your competitors are looking to scoop you on anything you do, so you aren't so willing to be frank. So the conferences are consistently really boring in terms of what happens onstage. All the action happens in the hallways, and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

UBIQUITY: And yet, you sense a lot of exciting new things going on. What do you find most exciting?

CARUSO:The things that I think are exciting are things that I know people are working on -- stuff that I've started to uncover from the research I've been doing. I'm still just as interested in computer science and technology as I am in all other disciplines. For example, I'm looking at some of the collaborations that are happening between UCSF and Cal, where engineers are working with medical researchers on really cool bio devices. In fact, I'm meeting a lot of people who are working in the space between biology and engineering, so that's very interesting to me.

Then there's the nanotechnology stuff that everybody's raving about today, but everybody laughed at when Eric Drexler talked about it (and I wrote about it) 10 or so years ago. The common reaction then was, "Yeah, right. Little itty bitty molecular machines. And pigs will fly." Which someday they probably will, if there's a buck to be made doing it. And there's a lot of really wonderful software that's being written in the area of knowledge management and information extraction, by really smart people who are trying to help us make sense of all the data that's available to us via the Net. It's remarkable what's going on.

UBIQUITY: When you were working with writing your columns for the New York Times would you get much reaction from readers?

CARUSO:No, not really. The most reaction I got was from the people who were on my personal distribution list. It's just one of those things about mass media. People just don't take the time to respond. Unfortunately, most of the feedback that I got was not people disagreeing with me, which would have been useful, but people agreeing with me. The people who disagree just tend to dismiss you rather than engage in the conversation. Now that I've left, I hear from people all the time who say, "Yeah, you sure called that one a couple of years ago." But at the time I didn't hear much, which I still find a bit surprising.

UBIQUITY: Speaking of surprises, what has most surprised you over the last five or so years?

CARUSO:This is going to sound really naïve, but I've been stunned by the gullibility of people who believed this "Internet economy" nonsense. That was the biggest surprise to me. I would just pick up the paper everyday and wonder what fresh horror awaited. I just kept saying and writing, "Who do these people think they're kidding? There's no business model! There's no profit! There's nothing here that makes any sense whatsoever!" Most of the dot-com mania was completely self-inflated and self-perpetuating and a total ripoff shell game Ponzi scheme. I could not believe that everybody was going along with the gag. So I would have to say that that's the thing that surprised me the most.

Other than that, I can't in all honesty say that I expected the up-tick in the commercial Internet and the big rush to the Web. It was astonishing to see how fast everybody jumped online, ignoring virtually all the serious concerns that we'd all been writing about for years like privacy, security, intellectual property -- all of which has come back to haunt us. I had a forum on America Online in the mid-'80s before America Online was anything at all. It was just all Mac users and message boards -- virtually no media. It was fun and useful, but it was not the cultural tidal wave that it became.

UBIQUITY: At some high-tech conferences back then Steve Case essentially got heckled, as though what he was doing was actually nonsense.

CARUSO:Yeah. He got the last laugh, didn't he? I still have my AOL account, by the way.

UBIQUITY: You do? There used to be a tremendous techie snobbishness against having an AOL address.

CARUSO:I know. But I've had my account since 1985 or something ridiculous like that, so I feel quite confident that I'm legit. And of course, I have four or five other email addresses as well.

UBIQUITY: When you were with The Times, did you feel that you had extra credibility?

CARUSO:Oh sure. Absolutely.

UBIQUITY: And what did that buy you?

CARUSO:That and $2.50? A cappuccino at Peet's. But seriously, people would certainly take your calls more often and under less controlled circumstances than they would otherwise. And certainly, it lent me a lot more credibility in my new venture. But it's a funny question because I don't know what to compare it to, exactly. I guess it's a slightly different thing for me because when I was doing newsletters, when I was writing to the industry, for the industry, I actually had more credibility with my subjects. I had credibility with people not in the industry by writing for The Times. But when I went to The Times, I think I lost credibility with my sources in the industry because I was no longer able to sit down and talk with them on a peer-to-peer basis like I had done for the last several years.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about your new venture.

CARUSO:I started the Hybrid Vigor Institute on the premise that it is high time we started to support and encourage interdisciplinary research. Even though some changes are underway, academia's structure and goals are largely orthogonal to interdisciplinary work, so I set out to create what I call a "social architecture" for working researchers to be able to meet each other, see each other's work, and share information across disciplinary boundaries about the topics they're interested in. Because, you know, there are often several disciplines that study a single topic but for lots of real reasons, most researchers are stuck viewing a topic only from their own disciplinary perspective whether they want to or not. I thought that we could address some of the reasons they stayed stuck by starting an institute that tried to provide them the ways and means to look for inspiration and information beyond their own fields.

UBIQUITY: What kind of backing have you had?

CARUSO:Backing for the development phase, which ends this year, came from three primary, private sources: from Mitch Kapor's private foundation, from Rich Miller of Breo Ventures, who is a long-time Silicon Valley investor, venture catalyst and technologist, from Lisa Gansky, a deal whiz who used to run GNN before she sold it to AOL. Another early-stage donor is Robin Neustein, a partner at Goldman, Sachs & Co., and her husband Shimon Neustein, through their family foundation. So is Rob Glaser, who founded Real Networks, and his wife Sarah Block, through their family foundation.

For 2000, I asked for just enough money to get me to the point where I could actually decide whether or not this was a project that could fly. In September, after talking to dozens of researchers, I realized that everyone that I've talked to has been incredibly enthusiastic about my moving ahead. So now I'm raising money for 2001.

UBIQUITY: Will it be a non-profit organization?

CARUSO:Yes, we already have our 501C3 status.

UBIQUITY: And how will it work, practically?

CARUSO:Well, practically, the social architecture takes the form of four different products or services. The organizing principle is the research topic or question -- the subject that is researched by several different disciplines, each from their own perspective. With the principle of the topic in mind, one of the products we'll provide is a quarterly journal -- each issue organized around a topic -- that will be published on the Web. We will send a researcher to find the very best work that's being done on this topic in several different disciplines, then write about it succinctly so that interested researchers can easily make connections between what they're doing and what other people are doing.

The second component is working conferences for researchers, also organized around topics. Each conference will be very small, probably 20 to 30 researchers maximum, with 20 to 30 graduate students on hand as well. As with the newsletter, we will seek out the most interesting work and bring together those researchers so they can present and listen to each other's papers. And given what we know about conferences, we will build in plenty of schmooze time so they can actually start talking to each other in a more social setting. This kind of trust-building is a critical component of interdisciplinary work.

In fact, the purpose of keeping the conference small is to help people feel comfortable about creating relationships with other people in other disciplines. Two the biggest barriers to people doing interdisciplinary work are that they don't know or trust the people that they'll be talking to, and that there is no common language. When you think about it, it makes sense. You've spent 20 years of your life becoming a specialist, learning the vocabulary of your discipline. Then you walk into a room with a bunch of people for whom your words mean something very different, who have no idea what you're talking about. We're providing researchers with a way to get comfortable with speaking to each other, trusting each other enough to find their common ground.

The third component, which is very exciting to me, is that we are developing some knowledge management tools to address the info-glut problem and also help researchers who are interested in finding out what people are doing in other disciplines -- to help them cut through the literature horizontally across disciplines, and find the stuff that's going to be the most interesting to them.

UBIQUITY: How do you propose to manage the info-glut problem?

CARUSO:Basically we're building topic databases that are multi-disciplinary, and that are driven by software that can automatically deliver information to our network members as well as allow them to browse in a way that may actually automate serendipity and discovery. We found a company down in Santa Clara that's working on a very interesting piece of software called a concept browser. The idea is that they can easily bring together databases of research papers and articles and the various ontologies that organize them conceptually. I can query this browser be able to immediately see, based on the articles that come up, where each of the articles fall in the ontologies. For example, I could type in a query about "brain dysfunction" and "food allergies" and be able to see immediately by the results which disciplines have published papers on this subject.

It's actually startling, the breadth of disciplines that might investigate or touch on a single topic or question. It's equally startling how much discovery there is just in the ability to be able to look at where publications exist within a larger ontological structure. Since I've started poking around in this area, I've found three or four other companies, both here and on the East Coast, that are also doing interesting software that we think will be very useful along these lines.

UBIQUITY: What is the fourth service Hybrid Vigor will provide?

CARUSO:We're going to be funding two-year post-doctoral fellowships for researchers in one field of expertise to work with somebody in a different field of expertise on a joint project.

UBIQUITY: In talking about cross-disciplinary, one wonders which disciplines are going to cross?

CARUSO:The disciplines that are already crossing or at least meeting in the middle are, most obviously, biology and technology. And organizations like UNESCO are convinced that the only useful approaches to the extraordinarily complex problems probed by environmental or ecological research are either interdisciplinary or trandisciplinary, touching on everything from biological to political science and psychology. So Hybrid Vigor is agnostic about which disciplines we consider for inclusion in our topics. We're after the good, original, out-of-the-box work that can be most illuminating to the most people. And what we expect we will continue to find -- and want most to encourage -- is that the most interesting work is being done in what John Seely Brown calls the "white spaces between the disciplines."

UBIQUITY: Do you have an inventory of topics?

CARUSO:I have a list that we're in the process of vetting with our excellent advisory board, whose names you can find on our Website. We're not being public or specific about the topics at this point because it's the only intellectual property that we have. But suffice it to say that there are dozens of interesting things to look at. Certainly the five senses are ripe topic areas, because so many different disciplines study the senses, and so many people are trying to use technology to augment them. There are many important discoveries to be made by bringing those people together and having them talk to each other. I'm also interested personally in topics such as the study of time, that run the gamut from exquisitely esoteric, in the case of quantum mechanics, to extremely practical, as in cognitive psychology. Great enlightenment awaits us there, I suspect.

UBIQUITY: In your best scenario, where would you expect to be five years from now?

CARUSO:Well, there are a couple of ways to look at that: where we would expect to be quantitatively, and where we would expect to be qualitatively. I would feel like qualitatively five years from now we will be an amazing success if we've been able to convince a broad range of researchers to re-evaluate and re-invigorate their research agendas in light of the new ideas they've gleaned from other disciplines.

We will also be extraordinarily happy if we've helped to establish some best practices for how to do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, to help populate these ideas out beyond Hybrid Vigor into other institutions. And if we can successfully deploy the search and database tools we're in the process of developing, I know that that's going to be an enormous boon in the daily conduct of research.

Five years from now, I see Hybrid Vigor being both an example and a destination for researchers who are interested in learning about interdisciplinarity as a practice, as well as in the topics we undertake. Five years from now, we hope to be fully up-to-speed -- printing four journals a year, hosting four conferences a year. We'll have a fully operational post-doc program up and running, we'll have our topic databases filled and constantly refreshing, we'll keep tracking each topic that we write about, and we will have demonstrated the practical value of crossing disciplinary boundaries.

UBIQUITY: Would you expect to develop any relationships with the larger existing associations? ACM is an obvious one.

CARUSO:I'm happy to entertain partnerships with anybody who wants to help do this and who believes in our mission and goals. We just need to be careful not to let any outside organization's agenda skew the nature of Hybrid Vigor's mission, which is to give equal credence to all disciplines working in a particular topic area and to create an environment that supports a truly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach to research. I could see great value in working with ACM to introduce technology researchers to a wider group of people who would be interested in their work and vice versa.

UBIQUITY: A final question: How did you come up with the name?

CARUSO:I told Stewart Brand about the project, who of course was the creator of the Whole Earth catalogs, and the WELL, and the Long Now Foundation and any number of other great cultural contributions, and he said, "You could call it Hybrid Vigor." After he told me what it meant -- "it's why mutts are smarter and healthier than purebred dogs," he said -- I thought it was a great name, and it really does work. And then of course I thought, "Why didn't I think of that?" But at least I had sense enough to ask the right person. Which is probably as good knowing the answer, after all.

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