A Decade of Bubbles
If you follow the tech industry then you know all about Bubbles.
Before going any further, read this wonderful article at the Bloomberg Businessweek website: This Tech Bubble is Different.
This tech bubble may be different, but many of the social and economic underpinnings are the same as a decade ago. As our nation wrestles with financial issues: quantitative easing policy, debt ceiling limits and deficit discussions, it seems we are again at a crossroads.
Almost ten years ago I wrote an article entitled “The Revolution of Rapid Disillusionment” that spoke to some of these issues. What goes around, comes around. The original article, written in 2002, appears below. It remains a cautionary tale.
The Revolution of Rapid Disillusionment © Copyright 2002 Dom Virgilio .
The Industrial Revolution began in 1698 with the invention of the steam-driven pump to remove water from mine shafts. Three centuries later, a very different revolution is coming to a close: the Dot-Com Revolution. As the country looks for protection from economic meltdown, it is no longer Survival of the Fastest. Instead, slow, steady, safe passage is the common goal. Invention, innovation, and a collective, nation-wide focus will be required to navigate successfully the inevitable finale of this quickly-disintegrating Age of Irrational Exuberance. The financial debacle in the boardrooms of Enron and others, the hyper- depressed economy, the continued threat of terrorism, the disturbingly high rate of unemployment, and the seemingly endless exit of U.S. jobs to other countries are an emphatic indication that the emperor truly has no clothes.
As we reflect on the one year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must keep our eyes wide open and begin another journey, another revolution. Call it the Revolution of Rapid Disillusionment.
First, a little history.
FOUR YEARS AGO, midway through the Dot-Com Revolution, we were technologically absorbed with ourselves, our jobs, and our stock options. Everyone was dot-com manic. If you weren’t working for a dot-com, then you had plans to join one or start your own “in the next 3-6 months”. Got an idea? Any idea? Glow-in-the-dark headbands for parrots? Sounds like a winner. Here’s ten million dollars, kid, go start GlowingParrotHeadbands.com. How about an “online community” to exchange ideas about foot fungus? Great idea. And, just that quickly, MyFootFungus.com was born. Don’t believe it? You should. It really was that easy.
We no longer hoped to “make it rich” – we expected to “close our 2nd round next month” and be gazillionaires by the age of (substitute your age plus 1 year). If you weren’t “on track” to be a gazillionaire then you had better put your 401k/life savings into a company that had someone who was already a gazillionaire or “on track” to be a gazillionaire “in the next 3-6 months”. What did we do all day? Excessive CNBC viewing, over-frothed $6 Starbucks coffee drinking, needlessly wireless Palm Piloting, overly-tiny cell phone obsessing, etc.
Moms and Dads “coordinated” who will drop (meaning “dump”) the kids at web cam linked Day Care so they could “make ends meet” to buy the family a back-up SUV, matching His/ Her BMWs and, don’t forget, the kids’ personal DVD players and $150 sneakers. Everyone had to have the latest and greatest fashion-friendly MP3 players to individually block out communication with the rest of the family (and the rest of the world). Hello, Napster. Goodbye, family interaction. Pass the potatoes, please. Sorry, what was that? I had my headphones on.
More nonsense: Let’s watch the evening news to see if MindlessBusinessIdeaOfTheWeek.com announced their IPO. Everyone wants to “be a player” and get into the market, without knowing anything about the market, the company, the product it sells, or its competition. There were new questions that popped up at the electronic water cooler: How come I never have the time to watch Bobby and Sally play soccer in those $150 sneakers? Why am I always “working late”.. meaning “always working”… meaning “never with my family”… meaning “always miserable”? Did you see the Super Bowl commercial with the talking sock puppet? And, oh yeah, what’s an IPO?
The mind share was this: Technology is the future – if you don’t embrace it, if you don’t wallow in it, it’ll pass you by. Owning/using leading/bleeding edge technology meant you were one step closer to the future. Run out and buy the fastest computer: do you really need a 1GHz computer to play solitaire and browse the web? We must have the smallest and coolest looking cell phone: how come I now feel compelled to carry my cell phone everywhere I go -and- do I really need or want to get calls and 150 character text messages sent to my phone while I am in the men’s room? Immediately turn on your computer, get online, and order huge quantities of dog food that will go stale and books that you won’t read for a month: isn’t it actually cheaper (without the shipping) and faster (rather than wait 3 days for delivery) to go to the store occasionally (without stocking up to avoid inflated shipping and handling fees)?
Anything that took away from work just “took too long”. Why? Because we were on “Internet Time” – it was the Survival of the Fastest: speed would make us millionaires quicker. No time for “non-work” things – I can’t put those stock options in jeopardy. If I just had time to see little Bobby and Sally in the school play this year. Next time I’ll remember to add the family BBQ to my online calendar before I synchronize with my PDA. Well, Jane and I will have some time with each other and the kids when we go on that Disney Cruise Line at $4500/head “after things settle down in work”, meaning “never”…
TWO YEARS AGO, everyone was dot-com-bomb depressed: happy to have a job if you still had one. Everyone knew multiple layoff casualty stories – either in your family or in a friend’s family. The media covered everything. You couldn’t get away from it. Brutal stuff: Salary cuts, “corporate downsizing”, reorganizations, disappearing benefits, dreams shattered, fortunes never made, and retirement savings lost. What happened to my gazillions? Vacations cancelled. The office refrigerator no longer stocks Snapple, just the cheaper, knock-off brands. Possible inflation. At least I’ll make a million. Probable inflation. Projects cancelled. The company picnic isn’t so extravagant this year. Where’s the security in my job? At least I’ll breakeven. At least I have a job. What do you mean we’re going out of business? CNN says we may be in a recession? How will we afford the $6 Starbucks coffee, the lease on the BMWs and the $150 sneakers for my Kids? Immediate layoffs? No severance? What the heck is COBRA?
Then, too much time on our hands. Layoff-themed cocktail parties in some areas of the country. Endless Monster.com searching at midnight for others. Sears and McDonalds are hiring technologists with advanced degrees. Robotic web surfing or TV watching or moping for still others. We’re “taking a break”, meaning “exhausted and out of work and the job market is nonexistent”. At least we bought the Lifetime Subscription for TiVo. (Turn on TiVo. Hit Play. Watch CNN’s developing coverage of the latest, up-to-the-minute, stock market bloodbath. Hit Pause. Walk to the kitchen for a price-reduced cup of generic brand coffee in the chipped “www. I Love My Job .com” mug. Return to the living room. Hit Play again. Realize ten minutes later that the program was “Live” four days ago and the market was closed about 6 hours ago. Shut off TiVo. Switch to live TV. Learn that the market dropped another 450 points in the past four days.)
And, then, 9/11. Horrific. Indescribable. We stopped in our tracks. We mourned. We reflected. We stopped everything. We worried: suddenly, technology can be a bad thing. Planes can be weapons. Our own tools and technology can be used against us. Safety is the important thing now. When we go to work, we could be blown up. But, if you carry your cell phone you can still say goodbye a moment before the nightmare hits.
Then, the panic subsided, we began to function again, and we started to move again, ever so slightly. But, across the board, we had been affected. We began to slow down. And, with it, a gradual, barely perceptible, shift away from speed, away from technology. And, then, people slowed down even more. In our cul-de-sac-infested suburban sprawls, we started to slow down and roll down the car window before pulling into our 3 car garages: pausing to smile and, with eyes wide open, take the thirty seconds to wave and say hello to our neighbors – some of them which we had not ever met.
More changes: Less working all of the time. Less obsessing about working all of the time. Less obsessing about obsessing about working all of the time. Less cell phone conversations while walking around in the store (looking for the decorative, high-fashion, accessory cover for the cell phone). Less pagers and being paged while driving to the store to buy more batteries for the pager. Speed for Speed’s Sake Suddenly Seemed So Stupid. These stock options are worthless. Therefore, this excessive work schedule seems pointless. Therefore, what the heck have we been doing? Technology isn’t so fascinating all of the sudden. How did I ever invest in BigBarrelFullOfMonkeys.com? Did I really think that N shares of stock from Company XYZ – that doesn’t make or sell anything (just promises to make or sell something to someone at some time) – would be worth anything (more than nothing to no one at no time)?
Even more changes: Less focus on Things. We only need the one car. This computer is plenty fast enough. I kind of like this generic brand coffee. More focus on family. Tell me about your day today. What time is the kid’s ball game? Maybe we don’t need to renew the Unlimited Minutes cell phone service package this year. It is kind of nice to all sit in one place and talk face-to-face. More focus on Country. Was this hammer manufactured in the US? Were these plums grown in this country? Made in the USA matters. Grown in the USA matters. USA matters. We bought flags. We reflected on our country. We appreciated what it means to be patriotic. We began to realize and appreciate and enjoy what we had and not obsess about what we did not. Money seemed less important. It is the People that matter, not the Things. Our eyes, once firmly shut, began to open. We were beginning to see again.
TODAY, almost a year since 9/11, our economy is still in the dumpster, unemployment is still too high, layoffs are still brutal and are being announced on a daily basis. The Dot-Com Revolution may be over, but, the lessons are still being learned – and many of them are slow and painful. We’ve been shallow, greedy, and stupid. We forgot what was important for our country, our neighbors, our family, and even ourselves. But, things are getting better. We are starting to think ahead again in business: no more investments in GlowingParrotHeadbands.com. We are now looking over the shoulders of the captains of industry as they sit in their fine leather chairs in the immaculate boardrooms of the biggest corporations in America: no more Enron surprises. We are taking time to make plans for the future: no more living at “Internet Time” speeds. We continue to be more cautious with our finances and begin to save money again: no more expectations that our stock portfolio should double in a 12 month period of time. We continue to slow down and focus on the things that really matter. We continue to change our attitudes on people and technology and business and community. We are still flying our flags – outside our homes, in our cars, and, figuratively speaking too. The illusions are beginning to disappear.
Everything that made sense before, now seems like a dream. Irrational exuberance, a shared hallucination, or a national illusion? Whatever. The new Revolution is here. It is the Revolution of Rapid Disillusionment. Slow down, focus on what is real. Focus on what is important. Forget the stock options, the IPOs, and the Millionaire Dreams. Visit your local park right now instead of endlessly planning that perfect Disney Cruise Line vacation. Forget the BMWs and the Lexus and get a tune-up for your current car instead. Buy books in your local bookstore, pet food from the local grocer around the corner, and apples from the hardworking farmer down the road. Shut off your DVD players, the Surround Sound Home Theater system, and the TiVo, and watch an old B&W movie on live TV with some buttered popcorn. Stop buying pre-cut herbs in little plastic packages in your upscale Mega-grocery store and plant a garden in your backyard next Spring. Turn off your computer and sit on your front porch with the dog and listen to the rain on the roof. Shut off your MP3 players and go to a ballgame with your family. Pull out that old record album, dust it off: it isn’t “digital quality”, but, you can remember the day that you bought it and it sounds as good as you remember. Dig out an old picture album: lots of memories and none of them digitally retouched on the computer – a good, “old fashioned” Kodak moment on “real photo paper” that doesn’t fade in 30 days when exposed to light. Do an honest day’s work, collect your paycheck with pride, do what you can to support your country, and spend the weekends with family and friends as you start anew on our collective future.
Walk, don’t run. Enjoy the stroll. Open your eyes, America – Wide open. There is a new journey ahead of us so let’s get to work. And, let’s work together. The Revolution of Rapid Disillusionment has just begun.
© Copyright 2002 Dom Virgilio .