Dot-Com Sentimentality

It was one of those moments when you realize you've been doing some bizarre, uncharacteristic thing totally unconsciously. I discovered that I have created a small shrine devoted to dot-com memorabilia. There are squeezy fruits labeled "organic.com," some packs of glitter goo from ChickClick.com, and (one of my favorites) a mouse pad from a VeriSign company that actually called itself Dotcom.com. I think it was supposed to be a kind of news portal for dot-comers; today it's one of those undead sites covered in ads for VeriSign's registrar service.

But I have other, more significant items: things that, dear reader, actually have a kind of sentimental value for me. There are the old issues of the Industry Standard from 1999 and 2000, covers blasting psychotically cheerful economic predictions. Filed in among their smudged pages I also have the bankruptcy statement the legal eagles at the Standard sent me when it died still owing me money for a freelance job. I also have my ticket from the 2000 Webby Awards, where I watched the back of Bill Gates's head and then ducked out of the opulent party afterward to get some cheap Chinese food with charming free-software activist Richard Stallman.

Then there's the even weirder ephemera: a glow-in-the-dark pen from Zupit.com (saved because I couldn't believe any company would want its name to rhyme with "stupid"); an old ad for Evite.com that reads, "Lick guests, not stamps." Genius, sheer genius. Hard to imagine it working outside the borders of New York City and San Francisco, but whatever.

Let the dot-com nostalgia begin. The odd celebratory yet dark documentary Startup.com was stage one. In the same vein, a couple of "I was there" corporate memoirs about the wacky, bizarre life at dot-coms have hit the stores: one about Amazon and the other about flash-in-the-pan teen site Kibo.com. These cultural blips have made me think that the next cool retro trend is definitely going to be dot-com kitsch. People will throw dot-com theme parties and pink slip parties and wax nostalgic about the raves they attended in South Park, once the heart of Multimedia Gulch in San Francisco.

We become sentimental about something when we have forgotten all the bad things about it. Now that the tech stock market has settled into a comfortable necrosis and the pace of gentrification in former dot-com haunts has slowed, we're starting to pine a little bit for the good parts of dot-com life. Those Aeron chairs rocked. And the dot-coms themselves were often just plain fun, with their purple walls and slides and Ping-Pong tables and video games. The work was generally creative, or at least it was supposed to be. Plus, so many jobs were open that you could almost always get your friends hired too.

Misty-eyed recollections of dot-coms are practically a tradition in the computer industry. In 1992, Jerry Kaplan began the dot-com retro trend with his book Startup, the tawdry tale of his stint as CEO of GO Corp., the company that tried -- and failed -- to create the first "pen computer," that is, a handheld computer with a screen you could "write" on. (Later, Palm brought out its line of PDAs, and the rest is history.) OK, so Kaplan's hyperfunded company wasn't a dot-com, but its (lack of) revenue model was the same -- as were the excitement and techno-buzz surrounding it. Funded by venture capital and driven by a creative lunatic, GO was the blueprint for dozens of failed dot-coms. To be fair, GO actually had a great idea; one can hardly say the same for Pets.com and Dotcom.com.

What's sad is that I see so few survivors among the good ideas that brought us the dot-com revolution in the first place -- for every Collab.net and Mondo Media, there are a dozen companies like Yahoo!. The latest from Yahoo!: without warning, they deleted queer community Web site Guerrilla Queer Bar, allegedly for "pornographic content." Aside from a few pictures of drunken queens, there was nothing even remotely pornographic about the site, which is the home base for a group of queer barhoppers in San Francisco. After a great deal of protest, Yahoo! reinstated the site, but its owners are going to relocate it to a less homophobic digital environment.

Meanwhile, e-business (never a good thing) has devolved into direct-mail spam. A couple of weeks ago, after forwarding several pieces of spam to abuse@ftc.gov (the Federal Trade Commission's spam-alert address), I got put on a government spam list for the FTC! Even when I follow the "unsubscribe" directions, I still get their e-newsletters. No wonder I'm nostalgic for the good old dot-com days. What is nostalgia, anyway, but a fantasy about a time that never was?

Annalee Newitz (sentiment@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who misses the golden months at GettingIt.com.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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