Bonfire of the e-Vanities

Tom Wolfe gets drowned out by the Latin dot-com hype

“Is it too late on a Friday night to talk about Hegel?” That was the question put by celebrity author Tom Wolfe to the well-heeled crowd of several hundred gathered before him inside Overtown's Ice Palace studios two weeks ago. In certain circles such a quip might have produced a round of chuckles. But here at the launch party for Punto-com (Spanglish for dot-com) -- a new Latin-American e-commerce newsmagazine and accompanying Website -- Wolfe was met only with stony silence. Undeterred, the silver-haired avatar of intellectual Waspdom simply smiled and pressed on. After an anecdote on historical inevitability, he made a second attempt to earn a rim shot: “Is it too late to talk about Mann?”

As the roomful of Miami Internet bizzers exchanged confused looks and murmurs, perhaps asking of their twentysomething wives, “Tell me again who this guy in the white suit is?” Wolfe embarked on a bizarre dissertation that touched on (in order) Karl Marx, the proletariat, American intervention in the Southern Hemisphere, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and -- just for balance -- the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's possible Wolfe's speech accidentally was switched with that of the Nicaraguan ex-Sandinistas testifying on the righteousness of capitalism over at the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship, a prayer session-cum-rally being held simultaneously at downtown Miami's Hotel Inter-Continental.

Respect my authority: Tom Wolfe tells the Punto-com crowd to shut up
Alberto Mosquera
Respect my authority: Tom Wolfe tells the Punto-com crowd to shut up

Or maybe he just got confused by the fiery press release from Punto-com's chief executive officer Esteban Piedrahita that declared: “The Internet is revolutionizing the business world in Latin America, and we are offering a road map to that revolution.” It certainly would have been an honest mistake; in the pre-Net monied demimonde on which Wolfe made his name reporting, when smartly attired Latinos got together at a Miami private function to discuss the Latin-American business world and a looming revolution, it often meant they were planning a coup d'état, not a dot-com venture.

The evening's end result may not have been quite as epiphany-loaded as some of the Wolfe-chronicled tête-a-têtes from that other revolutionary period -- Ken Kesey partying with the Hell's Angels or the Black Panthers holding a bail fundraiser in the swanky Park Avenue duplex of conductor Leonard Bernstein -- but it wasn't without its own comic moments.

After several minutes of battling a hissing and loudly squawking PA system, the rattle of silverware sawing into thin cuts of skirt steak, and the low rumble of an audience much more interested in its own conversations, Wolfe gave up. He abruptly stepped back from the podium, dramatically folded up his speech, and then stormed off stage.

After some frantic backstage pleading from a Punto-com-er (and no doubt a reminder that he was receiving a speaking fee in the mid-five figures), Wolfe was coaxed back onstage and given a new microphone. (This is a high-tech company, after all.) Gazing out sternly at the assemblage of Miami's Net elite, he chided them like a kindergarten teacher threatening to cancel recess: “Either you can talk or I can talk, but we both can't talk. And there's a band scheduled to come on next. I love to dance, so we can do that, too.”

The chastened crowd quieted down and got another ten minutes of Wolfe-speak on the battle of the sexes, trophy wives, “the era of the casual insult,” and the time when a stunning young blonde pulled up at a red light alongside Wolfe's car and rebuffed his flirtation with a summary, "Eat shit, you old bastard!" Then, seemingly remembering the night's catered affair had something to do with the Internet, he closed with a bon mot from Michael Lewis's increasingly stale The New New Thing. And that was it. After a round of polite applause, Wolfe headed straight for his waiting car, followed quickly by about half the room, all apparently uninterested in hanging around for legendary Cuban mambo man Cachao's subsequent performance. Then again, they could have been miffed that Punto-com's first choice for the evening's entertainment, the Buena Vista Social Club, was off touring Europe.

So what on earth does Tom Wolfe have to do with Latin-American e-commerce? “Nothing,” replied CEO Piedrahita to Kulchur with a shrug. “We just wanted to have somebody different.”

To Punto-com's largely U.S.-educated and acculturated editorial crew, Wolfe must have seemed not just a novel choice but also some eye-catching window dressing (as well as a way to trump the guest list from Terra.com's Loews shindig back in June). If William Shatner can help Priceline.com sell airline tickets and groceries, then perhaps Wolfe could convince Latin CEOs to begin reading Punto-com.

Wolfe himself seemed less sure. According to one Punto-com staffer, Wolfe originally demanded to be flown down to Miami via private jet before finally acceding to a first-class seat on a commercial flight. Then, during the ride over to the Ice Palace, he changed his mind about being the subject of a Punto-com profile, refusing to answer a single question from one of the magazine's writers sitting in the car's back seat next to him.

Still, whatever Wolfe's misgivings about being associated with Punto-com, he obviously understands one critical feature of today's Internet economy: Forget about stock options; take the money and run.

That lesson seems lost on the heads of Punto-com, which burned through a nice-size chunk of its most recent four-million-dollar infusion of private investment on this night alone. This at the tail end of a week that saw flurries of pink slips at highly publicized Latin dot-coms such as Salud.com, Submarino.com, and Miami's City Search -- not to mention the tanking of AOL Latin America's IPO on the stock market, despite its initial price being halved to attract skittish investors. Punto-com was still touting the glorious future of e-commerce down South, holding up as proof a (pre-April NASDAQ crash) report from NYC research outfit Jupiter Communications. That report's numbers are worth examining closely, particularly since it's cited with near-biblical reverence by so many Net business figures.

According to Jupiter, by 2005 Latin-American e-commerce is projected to total $8.3 billion, with some 66.6 million users online. What's rarely mentioned from the same study is that in 1999, e-commerce for that entire region only reached a paltry $194 million -- less than many major net companies' operating budgets. The forecast of a more than 400 percent growth rate for anything should be occasion to give pause, especially in light of the stock market's recent tremors and their chilling effect on the flow of venture capital. Moreover, if the future of the Latin-American Net is so rosy, why aren't companies such as Punto-com setting up shop there instead of hedging their bets and heading for Miami?

Contacted by phone, Jupiter's Lucas Graves, the company's senior analyst for Latin America, was a bit wary of how his own research figures were being used to buttress an if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy. "We were never that bullish," Graves stresses. “If you look at the figures, Latin America has some severe obstacles to overcome when it comes to growing e-commerce.” He points to the low use of credit cards there, as well as Latin consumers' lingering fear of using them on the Net. Even more troubling is Latin America's persistent poverty -- broad masses of people still don't even have a home telephone. “The biggest obstacle is low penetration of the Internet,” Graves continues. “That's somewhat mitigated by the fact that people going online tend to be the wealthy, but nonetheless you're talking about a region where only two to three percent of the people are using the Internet today.”

Back at the Punto-com bash, a New York City publicist confided to Kulchur that her firm had been begging the magazine's editors to drastically downsize the event. In New York and San Francisco, the lavish launch party had become a victim of the NASDAQ crash. Fiscal responsibility was the new catchword, and any executive who would blow his company's precious funds on an extravagant fete clearly had his head stuck in the Silicon Beach sand. "We thought the press would kill them with this," she said, motioning incredulously to the sprawling array of gourmet food and liquor -- even a hunched-over cigar roller -- that circled inside the cavernous Ice Palace. “But people in Miami seem to love this stuff!”

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