SILICON LOUNGE: Goodbye, Tech Hype

The glow is off. Turns out, gulp, high-tech is just another industry. Lots of cliches apply to this moment at the very end of the 20th century. The emperor's clothes are lying in an invisible heap on the Stock Exchange floor. What rockets into the heavens will splatter even harder when it hits earth. What goes around will spin right back where it started, probably drawing blood as it lands. Even: Do right unto others so they don't bite you in the ass.

Despite a ridiculous helping of hype, and a fleeting love affair with anything tech-related, consumers and the stock market are finally facing a bit of (not-apparently-so-) common bear sense. That is, in order to age gracefully, healthy companies must: have a good product that people want; deliver it on time; treat their workers right (you, too, Amazon monster); avoid antitrust coups and other cheating schemes; develop a sound business plan; and, yes, make money. Duh.

Obviously, all that conventional wisdom was bucked in the last few years. No more; the fat venture capitalist has cashed out. And it's about time. Maybe we can finally get down to the business of the Internet, and figure out what it's good for -- and what it's not. Somehow that bit of intelligence gathering got lost in the hype. Think about it: The tech crowd (don't let the hipsters fool you; most of the "pioneers" are nerds with minimal social graces, taste and outside interests) told us that within fill-in-the-blank years, we'd be doing all our shopping online. Who needed local ties, anyway? We'd build … drum roll … cyber communities! No need to ever leave the condo. And if you work for a tech company (and all of us would, sooner or later, they assured), your sweat equity would pay out in golden stock dividends. And all of us would be indebted for decades to high-tech for "saving" our economy.

Bullshit: Shopping online is boring and lonely -- if not for computer drones, definitely for the rest of us. We need live interaction. We need to wander the aisles of good bookstores and strike up conversations with folks with similar interests. We need our kids' friggin' Santa toys under the tree on time, you eToys bozos. (Don't get me started on so-called "customer service.") Even worse, many of us have RSI (repetitive stress syndrome) because of all the time spent clicking and mousing instead of walking and stretching. (Too much of my own spare time is spent in physical therapy.)

History will likely eye the dot-com golden period with bemusement (much as it does the boom just before the 1929 bust, and the heady selfishness of the Reagan yuppie era). Despite our recent illusions, there is nothing impressive about a group of rude, juvenile businessmen getting rich off corporate welfare and then thanking their communities by refusing to charge sales tax. There is certainly nothing worth emulating about dot-com guns who lure workers away from decent jobs and then work them to death, give them no time off, refuse to pay overtime and even, in some cases, sexually harass them. It's no wonder women started leaving this industry even before the shoe dropped last April. Nerf basketball ain't a benefit, boys.

I must admit a belief in karma. And, undoubtedly, a lot of bad karma permeated the tech industry the last few years. I suspect the cyberseflish (to use writer Paulina Borsook's word) just caught on: The party's over. They're going to have to start behaving like grown-ups. People have stopped buying a new box every time chip speeds jump a bit. Consumers shopped in stores again this year (and hopefully lots of local ones). E-commerce is only working for the big-box retailers. And venture capital isn't there for the grabbing any longer.

Does this the mean the era of the Internet is over? Certainly not. Let's just say it's passed through its terrible twos; it still is an amazing communications and activism tool, if not a good marketing medium. (Imagine: The world embraces a tool for something other than capitalism). But it's still in its adolescence, and we must stay diligent. For one, we must force politicos to accept that the Internet is just a new medium -- and that it too is subject to the First Amendment. It can't be censored at will, as Congress just tried to do (again) by passing Sen. John McCain's silly filtering bill. (Can't work; unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court should zing it if Dubya doesn't pack it with more ring-wingers anytime soon.)

And it's ridiculous to argue that the Internet industry, on the one hand, should be exempt from sales tax -- who made you guys transcendent Gods? -- but on the other should be showered with corporate welfare and tax credits. Imagine last year's Y2K nonsense occurring with today's tanking economy (and during the actual millennium): Would Congress really with a straight face ask that software programmers be exempt from any lawsuits resulting from their nearsighted negligence? They certainly couldn't pretend to hold the county's economic future hostage this time around. No one would buy it. Literally.

But last year was a dramatically different climate. The emperors of Silicon Valley -- and its satellite operations -- had dazzled and seduced us all. No longer. We may not be done with the Internet, but the dot-com revolution can stay in the 20th century where it belongs.

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