The Crash of 01

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Silicon Alley Reporter

A million years ago back in 1998, at this magazines' second annual Rising Tide Summit, your reporter gave what Austin Bunn described in the Village Voice as "a slightly rambling, aggressive talk in which Gullette threw the question of the conference back to the audience. 'Will the 'rising tide' elevate us or drown us?'"

The rambling covered fairly safe terrain. I pointed out the dark linings which the silvery clouds of technology so often bring--Hiroshima, pollution, the industrial strength existential nausea of the 20th century. I noted that science fiction has a great record for anticipating the high prices of our love affair with technology, and proposed that as we eagerly christened the great ship New Media, we might do well to envision the socio-political storms ahead--the digital divide, the loneliness of the long-distance economy, the inevitable hangovers and mutations greed always brings.

I got pretty heated up and emotional as I tend to do when facing an audience, especially one in business attire, and I flattered myself that I had flung enough rebellious mud at their tidy little assumptions that I wouldn't be invited back.

So when Jason Calcanis proposed that I write a column in his fledgling magazine, I was taken aback. Why would the trade publication of the shiny new world of digital media want a "Grouchy Luddite" column in every issue? And yet in 18 columns--perhaps, I sometimes though, because no-one read them--my rants ran.

It was a giddy time. The lansdcape was humming with unbelievably pretentious ads for dot coms which promised to transform the fabric of human life for the better. Half-researched, wildly argued and often purely fictional, my essayistic sights swang like a drunken sniper across the moving targets of the funhouse--the hollow soul of Silicon Alley, the inanities of branding and IPOs and Crunch gyms and overwork, the big lies of 90's consciousness, the greed syndrome. I indulged in solipsistic musings on the future after 50 years of dotcomism, the urgent need for minimalism, and blagged about the use of spicy food to cause entertaining nightmares.

The columns underlying message, though, has been this: the internet commerce revolution and the mentality that heralds it are fundamentally unhealthy: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and in the long run, financially. None of the so-called "content" is any good. 90% of the commercial dot-economy is a cocaine-and-birkenstock retread of the greedy 1980s get-rich-quick fantasy, with no creative heart to it--and it won't last. The "visionaries" are a bunch of shopkeepers and accountants with swollen heads. The karma of this digital economy project has self-destruct written all over it. And so on...

Why would anyone listen to all this crap?

First, booking me--and some of the other pundits who frequent these pages--was the sign that Jason was a what Frank Sinatra called "a big-leaguer." If Silicon Alley was going to be a real empire, it would need satirists, amchair bombthrowers and scrooges. Calcanis cast me as a the court jester in the throne room of the Digerati--the fool specially licensed to tell the king he's a vain, emptyheaded fool. "Capitalism gets stronger by absorbing dissent," said some marxist literary critic, back in the '80s.

And since it's all bullshit anyway...hey, whatever, it's kinda amusing. I'll flip past it in the mag as I cruise in a chauffeured Ford Explorer checking my email on a cell phone en route to an IPO-prep meeting. The stock is going up because history is driving it. The new economy is just going to keep getting bigger and better and more lucrative and then when it converges with cable TV the whole world will have a new media attention wanders to fantasies of my broadband millions...

POP!!!!! SSSMMASH!!! the vehicle of your ambitions flips with no warning into the ditch. Hey Rube! It is fall 2000 and the suckers are onto the scam. At this writing the NASDAQ is down 35 percent for the year with the Dow staggering after. The stock options of the boom are buried under stacks of Chapter 11 paperwork.

Is there a moral to the story of the vanishing money? Well, some were happy enough to philosophize when the stock was rising that it was practically a sign from God.

Look us at now. What does it all add up to?

A small number of Big American Corporations have been born; yay for that. Bizarrely, most-powerful-man-on-earth Alan Greenspan turns out to be an acolyte of the insipid neofascist hack Ayn Rand. A recession seems to be on the way. A great many talented and hardworking people are already out of work, with more--perhaps a great many more--on the way. The web is a shopping mall full of Amazon knockoff sites. There's still barely a single exhibition worth of internet-based content worth a damn. The digital divide is growing. The alleged productivity gains of the digital workplace are being reinterpreted as futile workaholism. Computer use is linked to severe physical problems, and a widespread and growing social disease I call simulation nausea. It now looks as if a messianically hyped global computer network is just a very large computer--a glowing box on your desk that gives you lots of information. Meanwhile real life remains problematic.

The party is over, and we now have a second chance to think about what it all means to have computers as part of our world--and what it doesn't mean. Crisis equals opportunity: for reflection, not for another get-rich-quick scheme. The imaginary empire called the New Economy was grand while it lasted, but, hey, empires rise to fall. At this rate, even the court jester may be out of a job soon.