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The E Decade

E is for electronic, for equity, for entrepreneur, and, even for erotica. But most of all, E is for the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen. How a dream -- and it's still a dream -- changed everything.

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I began this decade writing a book about the end of American competitiveness and the accumulating evidence of the nation's certain economic decline. "There exists," I offered, "the unnerving possibility that our lives might be richer and better if our immigrant grandparents had stayed where they were born." (Seriously, this is what I wrote.) The rise of a unified Europe, I predicted gravely, would be the most profound economic event of our time; Europe and Japan, I was sure, would inevitably supersede the U.S. as global economic superpowers during the nineties.

It is an interesting and humbling experience to write a book that turns out to be wrong in virtually all respects. Not just wrong but actually ignorant -- unaware of almost every significant social, economic, and historical trend that is under way.

Still. Sometimes you can be so wrong that if you flip it, it becomes right. It was the economy, stupid -- it just wasn't a bad economy that would reshape our lives ("Shit, man, I've been downsized"), but the greatest period of economic expansion, growth, and prosperity possibly of all time.

In some ways, there is no better way to be wrong than to be wrong like this. In stock-market terms, you're calling the bottom. By saying it can't get any worse, what you are also saying is that it must, therefore, soon start to get better.

Although, oddly, no one ever appreciates that. Or perhaps brilliant stock pickers do. But you can bet that few normal, ordinarily depressed people, out of a job or unhappy with their careers, futilely casting about for opportunities as the decade began, had any idea that, just at the moment they gave up on -- call it for what it is -- the old economy, they would begin the process of being transformed by the wonders and largesse of the new economy.

"In the fifties and sixties, creative types all had a novel they were working on, and in the seventies and eighties, a screenplay. In the e-decade, you've got a business plan."

In fact, let me be a little easy on myself for writing a perfectly useless book, because what I would have had to anticipate in order to write something of value was that a population of dropouts and corporate misfits and freelancers (now called entrepreneurs, visionaries, and virtual commuters) would help create an industry -- not even imagined as the decade began -- that would grow, in little more than 24 months (from late 1993 to late 1995) from pretty much nothing to something as important as steel and automobiles were in their day. Oh, yes, I would have had to imagine, too, that the government would balance its budget and that crime would disappear. I would have had to suppose that corporations would willingly, merrily, disgorge their wealth to their employees, that the stock market would turn up its nose at profits and become orgasmic over losses, and that even the streets of New York would, in the bloom of the new economy, become beautiful.

Please!

Some of us who go back a ways in the Internet era now use the word as a punch line. We say "the Internet," and then we crack up. I mean, come on, here we are in the middle of an economic miracle -- a whole new culture, in fact -- that is founded on a technology that (a) has no demonstrable way to pay for itself, (b) has no precise use, (c) doesn't really work all that well, and (d) whose very existence has to do, fundamentally, with porn.

The Internet may not necessarily be a joke, but it's certainly funny.

We have projected all kinds of fantasies -- sexual yearnings and utopian visions and childhood dreams (come and see the teenagers in my house talking on the phone to the people they're talking to on AOL; the dream is of absolute communication) -- onto this piece of technology. In fact, the decade was not a product of the Internet; just the opposite. It's the fantasies of people kicked out of the old economy who made the Internet come alive.

The oft-told story (I am one of the oft-tellers) of Louis Rossetto is certainly worth retelling. An itinerant sixties guy who floated through jobs and experiences (Afghanistan! Soft-core movies -- a bit player in Caligula!), he is living in Amsterdam at the turn of the decade, the editor of a small and failing computer magazine, and is possessed by a utopian-ish vision. He combines his vision with a business plan. The business that he envisions is all about how technology will enhance our work, transform our communities, our very idea of community, transform the way we talk, relate, have sex. Three years later, after an extended process of raising money (raising capital becomes in the e-decade almost like voting; it is the way we participate in a capitalist democracy), Rossetto launches Wired magazine in January 1993. This is before the first Web browser exists -- at this moment, practically speaking, there is no Internet. The one e-mail address in the first issue of the magazine is rendered incorrectly: nicholas@Internet. And yet, there it is, on the page, this imaginary new economy -- waiting for the Internet to be born.

Louis himself, though he is nearly the first to articulate the new economy, is strictly from the old economy. He is a Springsteen character. The chip on his shoulder is brutish.

He has a Robin Hood vision of the new age. The centralized, corporatized, bureaucratized economy is run by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who, in Louis's vision, faces a forest of entrepreneurs, of disintermediated communication, of individual desktop tools, of new, sudden, communities of resistance (communities of interest, they are called); in other words, of people who are sick and tired of . . . well, it is not always clear what they are sick and tired of.


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