Chris Gulker: 'Independent' columnist and pioneer of the blogosphere
Saturday 20 November 2010
Chris Gulker, a former technology columnist for The Independent, was one of the world's first bloggers – even before the term was in common usage – as well as a pioneer of digital publishing and online newspapers that have now become the norm. He blogged about his impending death from brain cancer until a few days before it happened, latterly dictating to his wife Linda. He was 59.
A New Yorker by birth, Gulker spent most of his career as a photojournalist or photo editor for two US west coast newspapers, first the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner and later the San Francisco Examiner. A self-confessed "techie geek," he wrote his column "The View from Silicon Valley" in the Independent's weekly technology supplement Network from 1997 unitl 2003, attracting a readership far wider than geeks and businessmen with his sharp wit and literary ability.
"He had a child-like enthusiasm for anything tech and wanted to find out what made it tick and everything you could do with it," according to Network's editor at the time, Roger Ridey. "His favourite quote was from the writer Stewart Brand – 'information wants to be free'."
He was working for Apple Computer Inc as something of an electronic publishing guru at that time andwas later headhunted as a product manager by Adobe Systems, wherehe remained until diagnosed witha glioma brain tumour in 2006. Healso worked as a freelance photographer for Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the NewYork Times. He was twice nominated for the coveted Pulitzer Prize forhis photos while working for the Herald Examiner.
Academic experts on the history of the internet credit Gulker with being one of the first bloggers, before even the term "web log" was widely known and later became shortened to "blog." He launched his first personal website, www.gulker.com, in 1995, which he described as "a journal in words and pictures," now widely regarded as one of the earliest weblogs, although at the time he called it a "personal homepage" or a "zine."
According to internet historians, webloggers such as Dave Winer, a colleague of Gulker at the San Francisco Examiner, who launched his website "Scripting News" in 1997, and Jorn Barger, who came up with his "Robot Wisdom Weblog" later the same year, can lay claim to have been the world's first individual bloggers.
However, the Swiss internet expert Rudolf Amman says Gulker's website was probably the first to propose the notion of an actual network of what would become known as bloggers. He was also a pioneer of the "blogroll" – a list of links recommended by one blogger to another, thereby creating the "blogosphere."
"Chris foresaw what he called a new and possibly much greater 'age of letters,' not unlike the one that arose when the first reliable postal services allowed correspondents to share ideas though separated by large distances," Ammann said. (Barger is credited with first coining the term "weblog" in 1997 while Peter Merholz, two years later, broke it up into "we blog," thereby launching the noun and verb "blog" into the language).
Gulker's wife Linda recalled that, soon after their marriage in 1981, Chris sent away for something he called a personal computer. "It came in a kit and he was more than happy to get out the manual and figure out how to put it together," she said. "He was a two-brained person. Science and technology on one side, artistic on the other."
Both brains were required when he was hired by the San Francisco Examiner in 1989 not just as features photographer and pictures editor but to lead the initially daunting and traumatic transition from film to digital cameras. Soon considered a rising star inan industry undergoing radical change, he presided over the setting up of a "virtual newsroom," where both stories and photographs were electronically uploaded to an "Electric Examiner" for readers with access to computers. It was a breakthrough which helped transform the newspaper industry, where online editions often get more "hits" than paper editions get sales.
From what he called his "digital laboratory," Gulker converted the Examiner from black and white to colour by designing his own production system, which used Macintosh computers to do colour separations. The San Francisco newspaper, often in the shadow of the great Los Angeles Times, thereby became the first American daily to switch to full-colour production using desktop technology.
Christopher Frederick Gulker was born in New York City on March 10, 1951, but brought up on the shoresof Lake Erie near the Pennsylvanian city of Erie. He was educated at the Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, before graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1974 with a degree in Comparative Literature. He worked as a dishwasher, cab driver, tow truck operator and barman before being hired for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1978 as a photographer.
"At the time it was a news-driven paper, focusing on freeway crashes and house fires," he later wrote. "I kept a police and fire scanner in my car and in my house and pretty much worked round the clock without needing to be compensated for the extra time. I loved the job so much."
In his column for The Independent, Gulker wrote on July 15, 2002. "I'ma weblogger – 'blogger' for short.I'm one of maybe hundreds ofthousands who regale the planet hourly with poetry, quotations, political rant, photographs, character assassination, even, occasionally, interesting gossip. It's as if the internet has finally given us the means to test the theory that if an large enough number of monkeys pound away randomly at keyboards for long enough, eventually Hamlet will appear."
In another column the same year, commenting on the bursting of the dot-com bubble, he wrote: "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. 'It' was the seemingly everlasting tech bust of the year 2002. Try as we might to turn the tide, there seemed little we could do. So we all went over to Jing Jing, a Palo Alto eatery that is much favoured by geeks, to talk it over.
"'We' are nerds, geeks, dweebs, technorati and, in this case, bloggers, a group of about 50, mostly male, mostly middle-aged and largelyunder-employed or unemployed inhabitants of Silicon Valley. Most ofus had spent the past five, if not 10, years basking in the high wages, high costs of living and even higher franticness of one of peacetime's greatest economic expansions."
Together with his Linda, Gulker continued to inform his fellow bloggers of his impending death on his original website, gulker.com, where he had earlier this year described planting a new vegetable garden with his granddaughter Grace. A week before his death, he blogged under the heading "The Arrival of Sister Morphine":
"I think Linda and I were both in denial that we were here so soon, realizing that starting morphine is one of the final steps in the dying process. So now we're here and my good friend and retired priest David Perry is arriving today. Among other things, he'll administer last rites, which I'm hoping is the nudge I need to take the last step in departing this earth. I certainly feel I'm fading out."
Chris Gulker is survived by his wife Linda, stepson John and granddaughter Grace.
Christopher Gulker, photographer, journalist and computer innovator: born New York City 10 March 1951; married 1981 Linda Hubbard (one stepson); died Menlo Park, California 27 October 2010.
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