Goodbye Chris Locke

News reached me yesterday my friend, Chris Locke passed away on Dec 21.

Chris had a remarkably large impact on my life and the way I thought, during my critical transition from working for large companies like IBM and AT&T to early stage startup companies. The Internet was just a baby learning to crawl. Chris expanded my thinking, kept me from doing dumb things, and never belittled my inability to see what was so remarkably obvious to him.  Chris was many things, a futurist, a provocateur, music and art lover and perhaps the best conversationalist ever as Doc Searls so graciously and accurately captures in his obituary here. I knew him best as a brilliant marketer, futurist and friend whose path intersected with my own in the area of business development. In that process I got to know him as a man, one who loved and cared deeply about his family, particularly his daughter. He could never stop talking about her, especially when she was young.  Our daughters were similar in age and as many fathers did, we compared notes, desperately seeking insight and understanding of these unfathomably amazing beings and what we might do to help minimize the obstacles that would no doubt impact their future selves. Neither of us, if I recall, would conclude there was much we could do but “stay out of the way.” Years later he introduced me to the music of his brother, Joe Locke, and I eventually managed to collect about ten of Joe’s recordings. Chris was intensely proud of Joe (an internationally recognized jazz vibraphone player) and the music he produced.

Just about the time we got together, Chris had started a publication called the “Internet Business Report,” when no one had even the foggiest idea the Internet was much beyond news groups and games. Later Chris provided the brains and the writing behind Mecklerweb.  If there was a theme to my friendship with Chris, it was that he could see the future.  Chris and I met when we both were in New York, me working for IBM-funded Prodigy Services Company while Chris was with IBM proper, helping them with a large-scale AI project, a mismatch of epic proportions.  We instantly hit it off and were closely involved personally and professionally for the next couple of decades.  We drove together to Esther Dyson and Jerry Michalski’s first “Retreat” in the early 1990s and later I recalled and wrote about it. Below is a summary, the full story can be found here.

1996: Things will Never Be The Same:

“Driving back to New York from Philadelphia in my ’91 Nissan 300ZX, I loved it.  In the car with me is Christopher Locke — rambling intensity, endless chain of menthol light cigarettes, a three gallon tank of cappuccino and a raspy, boyish, brick-through-the-window rage.  We were high as kites because we’d just left a conference outside Philadelphia where 50+ of the brightest people around had taken a few wonderfully unstructured days to throw paper airplanes and talk about what they thought and what they wanted to do. And all of it had been so possible, so absolutely open and feasible, that it had been like being present at the discovery of a new world. Whether an individual’s interests had been commercial or social or political or spiritual, there had been something there – a sense of things shifting and moving smoothly, like tumblers in a great lock.

When Chris and I get there after the long drive down from New York, we’re immediately pointed to tables and given t-shirts and magic markers so we can write on and decorate them. We also get green and red and yellow paddles for use in the next day’s sessions — a green paddle held up will mean “I agree with you,” a yellow paddle, “Hmmm, where are you going with this?” A red paddle, “Bullshit.”

The conversations are incredible, and for the first time in my life I participate in a real dialogue with 50+ people. Jerry Michalski leads the group in making a determination on what we want to talk about, where do we wish to focus our energy and then moderates. It’s a wild group and while I first get the feeling that Jerry’s task is somewhat akin to herding cats but after a time he appears more like Coach Pat Riley coaching the Los Angeles Lakers in their prime. Some people go off and prepare, then come back and present to the group, others present with little to no preparation.

Many things of interest, but nothing compares, though, with Chris’ free form rant. He’s been waiting to get on for a while and finally goes on our last full day. He’s enraged — you can see it in him as he walks. I’ve noticed him seething at our table — not always — mostly during the particularly techno-dweeb or business-as-usual ramblings. The amphitheater is terraced and on each level there are tables and all the energy seems to drain down toward the speaker, good or bad.

Chris gets up and “What the fuck,” he says, not questioning, more like a statement of fact. “I’ve been stuck at IBM for a year with my thumb up my ass and I’m waiting for someone to figure out what the fuck is going on and they’ve got plans I give them all the time and they file them and say “Yeah, Chris, that’s great, then they take me into some fucking egg carton room and tell me what I’ve got to work with, which is nothing, no money no equipment no staff, and then they give me a check and I fucking go home and sit there, where I’ve got better tech stuff anyway than IBM where it took me two solid months to get an internet hookup, and this is what they want me to do, see, they want me to do the internet thinking, and get them into it, but the first fucking thing they tell me is you’ve got no resources and ‘Oh, by the way, don’t talk to anyone about this stuff without clearing it through channels.’ A fucking year. And I sit here and some of what I’m hearing is how to work in the system. Well I say fuck the system — it’s dead it’s stupid it’s non-responsive it’s counter productive it’s fucking socially evil and if we put any more of our goddamn time into propping up these dead- ass morons we deserve what we fucking get.”

The veins are standing out in his neck. “Just fuck ’em and move on. I’m sitting around drawing a fat check off these people and it isn’t enough. I don’t want their money. These are deathly structures with no perceptible pulse except for once in a while you run into somebody lost in the fucking halls and maybe you start to talk about something real and then the guy with the fucking glad-hand comes around and tells you can’t do that, you can’t talk.”

“This is a huge goddamn breakthrough into who knows what and as we sit here IBM is trying to figure out how to put it in a box and make it sit up to beg for airholes and fucking cheese. We’re not going to work in the system because THE SYSTEM DOES NOT WANT US.”

Go rageboy, go,” Esther Dyson yells out (ed: the moniker would stick).  “THEY DO NOT WANT US AND THEY’RE CRIMINALS BY INSTINCT ANYWAY AND IF WE PUT ONE MORE YEAR INTO FUCKING AROUND WITH THESE DEAD FROM THE FUCKING TOP DOWN PIECES OF MANUAL-BOUND SHIT WE’RE GOING TO MISS THE GODDAMN TRAIN!”

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.  “Let me tell you — I’m Program Director for Online Community Development and they’re paying me to do nothing and when I say “Hey, I’m getting paid for doing nothing they say, ‘As long as you understand the situation.’

His rant achieved eloquence, as rants occasionally can. Now, speeding toward home on the unspeakable New Jersey Turnpike, peering red-eyed through the cloud of smoke from the unspeakable Locke’s cigarettes, we’re turning over a lot of information, twisting and bending it, shooting into the twilight and the greasy salmon-smear that twilight can be around Newark, the refineries, the lights hung on the outsides of the buildings, seemingly, just like always.

How can I tell you about that conversation/monologue? Mix up a vat of hard information, coffee dregs, healthy contempt, real world pragmatism, mashed Toxico cigarette butts, visionary eloquence, trailing-off-in-the-haze 60s enthusiasms, pure rage, a sense of mission, Thirteen Ways of Saying Fuck It, a highly-tuned bullshit detector with wires and lights and everything, democratic zeal, arcane rock and roll, a dollop of Howl, a cloud of menthol smoke and a driver with his head in and out of the window, trying to breathe, at ninety or so, bearing down on the Hanging Gardens of Newark.

“We absolutely have to fucking burn the Fortune 500 down to the water-line. This is a moral obligation, this is an absolute fucking obligation.” Chris waving his left hand in the air, the smoke from his cigarette eddying around in search of free air to poison.”

Chris and I at one of the Personalization Summits.

Over the years I began a number of start-up companies. Occasionally an unsolvable problem would arise or I found an excuse to bring Chris and his thinking into the mix, as I always knew good things would happen.  The call would begin with me saying, “Chris, I’m getting the band back together,” and long before I’d explained what we were doing he’d say, “I’m in, man. Where and when?” His involvement at Net Perceptions led to the creation of the Personalization Summit, a conference we held over several years, where Chris’ influence on the agenda and speakers catapulted the event into a “must attend” conference for everyone in the early customization and personalization space. Speakers included John Hagel, Malcom Gladwell, Joseph Pine III, Ann Winblad, Robert Krulwich, Marc Singer and Doc Searls.  Of course, Chris would always speak, sit on panels or conduct interviews.  His favored setup was free-form, unscripted dialogs with some brainiac in which they bounced ideas around. Chris would open mental windows to the sky or a new universe and the interviewee would keep up as best he/she could.  I wish I had those recordings!

Some years later when he joined me at Krugle in Palo Alto, he arrived with a massive beard and his trademark waist length hair and announced he wanted to get a haircut.  Off to the barber we went and you can see the results below.

In May 2006 Chris joined me at Krugle for a few months. He arrived with a massive beard and his trademark shoulder length hair. He asked if we could get a hair cut and off we went. You can see me chronicling the event in the mirror on the 3rd picture.

Chris also visited me for a few weeks in Arizona after we’d moved there, and that was fun.  He seemed to like the desert.

Doc Searls, one of the collaborators on The Cluetrain Manifesto with Chris.

Chris used some of his experiences at one of my companies in his book Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices,” which took some of the themes he and a brilliant group of collaborators (Doc Searls, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine) had articulated in “A Cluetrain Manifesto” and put them into practice.   I was immensely proud to have been part of his thinking.

If Chris had a problem, and this is just my opinion, it was this:  given the brain space and time spent in the future, a place he needed to go, sometimes arriving back in the here and now was difficult and disconcerting.  In his trips to the future, Chris figured out a great many things. He had a clear picture of how certain things would be, what would continue to exist and work, and what things would be discarded.  He used these insights to formulate ideas, products, services, and life in general to describe what life in the future might look like and how it would work. When Chris “came back to earth,” he was troubled to see things around he’s discarded in his head as “dead men walking,” and learned he couldn’t do some things he wanted as they hadn’t been invented yet.

It puts me in mind of Dick Tracy and his telephone watch (two-way wrist radio). The generation that remembers Dick Tracy is fading but the telephone watch is in its infancy. Chris Locke didn’t draw a comic strip but he probably saw the future that way. Following are a few of his insightful comments recorded in The Cluetrain Manifesto:

Page 167:

“How quickly will commerce move to the Web?…is this question really so important, or does it just address a detail about timing?…there is a heartfelt question lurking here…It has to do with our fear of replacing the shops—and the neighborhoods they enable—with a paper-souled efficiency that lets us search out and consume commodity products at disquietingly low prices. We’re afraid that the last shred of human skin left on the bones of commerce is about to come off in our hands.”

Page 169:

“When we can’t rely on a central authority—the government, the newspaper, the experts in the witness box—for our information, what new ways of believing will we find? How will we be smart in a world where it’s easier to look something up than to know it? How will we learn to listen to ideas in context, to information inextricably tied to the voice that’s uttering it?”

Pages 174-175:

“Invisibility is freedom. At first it feels awful that no one can see you, that nobody’s paying attention…But you get used to it. Then one day you find yourself on a network…and it’s like walking through walls…You can get away with saying things you could never say if anyone took you seriously…And if anyone comes sniffling around and wonders if this Internet stuff could be maybe dangerous, culturally subversive, it’s oh, hey, never mind us. We’re just goofing off over here on the Web. No threat. Carry on. As you were.  But we aren’t just goofing off. We’re organizing, building and extending the Net itself…”

I have to stop here before I transcribe the whole book. It was published in the year 2000, twenty-one years ago. Doc Searls does a wonderful job in his Obituary of Chris describing the impact it had.  What a mind is gone from us! Goodbye, Chris. If you get a chance, send me message from the future.

Chris in his ID photo at Krugle, looking more like a convict than our newest employee.