When E-Prophecy Fails
It was hard to tell who was more annoying: the shirtless, apparently medicated fellow wobbling up and down Lincoln Road as he bellowed out Doobie Brothers tunes, or the officially sanctioned performers, bashing through some generic altrock atop a small stage. And that felt about right. This was, after all, a street fair on a stretch of South Beach rarely distinguished by its discerning outdoor musical booking policy. The fact that its organizers had christened it an Internet street fair did little to change matters; as far as most passersby were concerned, the high-tech firms manning several blocks' worth of booths simply were part of Lincoln Road's rotation, to be followed next weekend by the more familiar antique dealers or fresh-produce sellers.
In the meantime a kerchief-bedecked tarot-card reader competed for attention with the more staid-looking futurists of eBrand Solutions, and a busking guitarist repositioned himself out of earshot of the thumping hip-hop at Super Bad Software's display.
If you were looking for a tidy epitaph for the Internet economy's boom, metaphors certainly abounded -- not least in the type of tchotchkes being offered up. At last August's extravagant launch party for Punto-com, a Latin-American Net biz journal, several hundred guests were treated to a catered steak dinner, music from Cuban jazz legend Cachao, and a speech from famed author Tom Wolfe (who stormed away from his podium midspeech in a pique at being ignored by the chattering diners). To this day Kulchur never ventures into uncertain terrain without his trusty Punto-com compass, Swiss Army knife, and steel lunchbox -- just some of that evening's booty.
At the May 5 Internet street fair, however, a Punto-com advertising rep sat behind his table empty-handed. About the best free goodies to be found were the neighboring booth's individually wrapped pretzels -- one per person, please; there's a recession on.
Yet e-commerce postmortems that address only fiduciary matters miss half the story. Yes, the numbers speak for themselves: Beyond NASDAQ's spectacular tanking, analysts at Chicago's Challenger Gray & Christmas have recorded more than 92,000 dot-com pink slips in the past year and a half. But the pursuit of wealth was never the sole attraction for intrigued outsiders drawn to gatherings such as Miami's Tuesday Network, the Beach's First Tuesday, or any of the other dot-com networking shindigs and conferences elsewhere around the nation. Nor does the current financial slump speak to why so many press accounts of those events now carry the tone of spurned lovers. Mapping the Internet universe was less a pure business venture than a romantic commitment.
In the same way that the Sixties' young cognoscenti naturally gravitated to the milieu of the New Left, their end-of-the-millennium generational counterparts embraced the New Economy, and with the same intoxicating self-assurance. For Kulchur mixing with them provided a seductive frisson of intellectual ferment that was unmatched anywhere else -- particularly if you were a twentysomething Miamian looking for life beyond the nightclub VIP room.
If these upstart entrepreneurs all too often proposed business plans that were as vague as many student radicals' Sixties proscriptions for American capitalism, well, wasn't a revolution all about charging off into uncharted waters, bending history to your will? What seemed at stake -- once again -- was nothing less than the construction of a new world, one that gleefully upended moldy orthodoxies. If in the process you might become fantastically rich, so much the better. To paraphrase Che Guevara, whose stint guiding the Cuban National Bank certainly acquainted him with the difficulty in fashioning new economies: "One, two, many IPOs!"
"There's a sense of similarity, the same latter-day messiah-ism," laughs Tuesday Network cofounder Seth Gordon at the notion of equating the SDS politicos of 1969 with 1999's dot-com vanguard. "There was the same degree of ageism: Older people just couldn't see what was really happening with the Vietnam War, and old-economy guys just couldn't get it ."
Last week's Tuesday Network meeting at the Coral Gables Omni Colonnade Hotel had just ended, and the crowd of about 150 (a quarter of its peak size) began heading for the bar, in need of a little buoyancy after hearing from several newly humbled speakers. Terra Lycos's Rafael Monteiro, for one, had uttered previously blasphemous phrases such as "eventual profitability" or at least "breaking even" -- quite a change from the grand pronouncements delivered at Terra's own swanky launch party last June on the grounds of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. Still, coming only hours after the company announced it would be laying off fifteen percent of its workforce, Monteiro's guardedly optimistic words raised more than a few cynical eyebrows. Watching true believers recant is never pretty.
Twice the age of most of his Tuesday Networkers, Seth Gordon has traveled quite a way from the youthful ardor of a nineteen-year-old attending demonstrations in Boston during the fall of 1967. Now a prominent publicist and widely considered a behind-the-scenes player in county politics, he looks back on his own past with a note of bemusement.
"We saw things so clearly then, as if we were the sole possessors of the truth," he recalls with a rueful chuckle, speaking in the royal sense of a loose assemblage that gathered around the Boston underground newspaper the Avatar. Serving up a colorful assortment of pieces on draft resistance, black liberation, and astrology, the Avatar soon found no less than 50 of its street vendors arrested and convicted on obscenity charges. Although subsequently overturned, the convictions only underscored for the paper's staffers how out-of-touch was the local press, indeed the entire Boston political establishment.
"There are a bunch of dirty cocksuckers down in Cambridge who are giving us a hard time about our goddamn paper," declared the Avatar's Mel Lyman in its November 10, 1967, lead editorial, practically daring authorities to initiate another round of obscenity arrests. "Well, fuck 'em."
On that issue's very next page was one of Seth Gordon's own dispatches. It eerily echoed not only the old versus new economic disconnect three decades later but also why a young man might feel inexorably drawn to pick his camp -- regardless of conventional wisdom, or perhaps precisely to stand against it.
Previously ambivalent about the antiwar movement's aims, Gordon visited a suburban pro-war rally and soon found an angry crowd pummeling a fellow whose sole crime was holding aloft a peace sign. He wrote: "It was at this point that I decided who must be right, by comparing the type of people on both sides. On one a vicious mob, on the other a lone young man pleading for peace.... Fight for God, Family, and Country!' stated a sign in Wakefield, Sunday. I would fight for God if I believed in him, my family if it were in jeopardy, and my country if it was worth it. My America was inhabited by Lincolns, Washingtons, and Jeffersons. The America I saw Sunday was infested with wolves, vipers, and savages."
Gordon cringes a bit as Kulchur quotes back to him some of his own prose. "Nobody should have to re-read what they wrote at nineteen," he says good-naturedly. "There's an important difference, though. Thirty years ago, with my contemporaries, there was never a single moment when we felt we were wrong." But today's dot-com disciples, Gordon adds, "are willing to admit to themselves: 'Oh shit! I believed my own nonsense!'"