The Road to Dystopia

There is no joy in Webville today. Yesterweek it seemed the crown jewel of the New Economy, a packet-switched Cibola in a cubicle desert. A 56Kbps promise of prosperity and pet-friendly workplaces for wage slaves in thrall to massive corporation-states.

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On message boards and e-zines the prophets’ calls echo still: “Cast off your gray flannel suit and wingtip shoes! Throw aside your Pendleton skirt and low-heeled pumps! Jubilee is at hand – follow us to the Global Village!”

And follow we did.

An infohighway to heaven#section2

At first but a few hardy souls dyed their hair, >pierced their extremities, and Daniel Booned to cheap office space in the slums. From these pioneers came back tales of trendy lofts, walls papered with stock options and twentysomething backsides ensconced in Aerons.

More tantalizing still, they were doing something real. No servile middle-management muckety-mucks these, but genuine stakeholders in the corporate good, whose every effort showed in the product. They mattered – and so did the companies for which they worked.

They were changing the world for the better. They set free information so long withheld from the masses, made mail and commerce dance at the speed of light, ripped asunder tollgates that plagued international communication, and remade workplaces into something more akin to their own living rooms than to the rabbit warrens of old.

Traffic jam on the road to riches#section3

As tales of paradigm-shifting and fantastic riches spread, the trickle of souls into digital Xanadu became a flood. Disillusioned corporate pawns and wide-eyed new grads alike eschewed the corner-office dreams of their parents. What need had we of hierarchy, gold-watch retirements, and wood-paneled offices? Those were hallmarks of proletarian oppression. We had stock to offer and hordes of daytraders eager to buy it. We would show smug baby boomers what it means to change the world. We would create a truly New World Order financed with easy VC money.

No Summer of Love this; it was the first rumbling of the Long Boom. We would not be subverted or diverted by the Man, for he would draw his salary in Flooz and spend it on Amazon.

Utopia, as close as your mouse#section4

We would waste no time changing the system: we would become the system – eat it from within – working our way from the server room to the boardroom while the suits groped for the On button.

We wouldn’t be fooled again. While hippies had swapped Birkenstocks for Bimmers, we already had Bimmers – or would very soon.

While boomers had traded the freedom of being flower children for the fulfillment of raising real children, we would telecommute to our revolution, mouse in one hand, baby in the other. Ours would be no latchkey kids but color-blind, gender-neutral, techno-literate children of the world.

They laughed when we sat down at the keyboard#section5

At first our corporate masters chuckled at our youthful ideals. They had, after all, seen it before. What difference would adding 8-bit color to CB radio make? They lent us spare change and played at understanding what was so interesting about those little beige boxes. To them it was slow TV or ugly print, but it was cheap and, apart from the odd pedophile or virus, harmless enough.

Words, pictures, animation and in time even sound and video poured from our little boxes into more and more homes ’round the globe.

Business school academics began to take notice: there’s eyeballs in them thar hills, eyeballs attached to wallets. Scant months before there had been only a few college-age geeks and a handful of physicists; now there were multi-million dollar corporations and national brands. Yahoo!!!! Wall Street, the heretofore impregnable bastion of the Old Way, rang with our call to battle.

Breaking Windows, opening doors#section6

America went Online and was seemingly ours. Even the master assimilator, the Behemoth of Redmond, was impotent before our speed. Redmond’s Gates trembled, Window to the corporate soul no more. Their stronghold was under siege by the stick-wielding scions of Roosevelt on one side, and a million angry penguins on the other.

There was no company they could buy to save themselves this time, for our allies had set the software free. God was our co-pilot, destiny our Navigator.  In time, even barons and earls of old began to trade their estates for titles in the new aristocracy. For our part, we traded the piercings and tattoos for blue oxfords and khaki; a squeaky-clean army marching in lockstep to anthems downloaded free from peer-to-peer.

Pride goeth, uh, somewhere#section7

As our ranks swelled, so did our hubris. Trade journals popped up like dandelions on a fresh-mown lawn. First online, then in print, we ocumented our derring-do: launch parties with rock star entertainment … corporate headquarters with corkscrew slides … offices with foosball tables. We celebrated our cleverness with gala events in grand halls keynoted by the celebrities we were.

Plans and profits were irrelevant; we were first-movers with mindshare to burn. Second-round financing complete, millions in the bank, latecoming investors still pounding at the door. Let the orgy begin!

Buzz, buzz#section8

Of course, the whisperers had been there all along: economists tsked about P/E ratios and market caps; prim journalists wagged accusatory fingers at questionable pasts; grizzled veterans of the CD-ROM halcyon proffered cautionary tales of bygone days; academics sneered at thin ad revenues; historians pointed to parallels with early days of television, radio and the automobile; frustrated busnesspeople growled about pirates; financiers saw shadows of great bulls from the ’20s, ’60s and ’80s.

The more sober among us had to admit some of them had a point. We muttered about a bubble and daytrading crazies, scoffed at cyber-this and e-that Webonics, and bristled at the imperative that new company names end in ’dot-com.’

The other golden rule#section9

Then we returned to preaching the Gospels of David and Jakob, Nicholas and Esther. We had the laws of Metcalf and Moore. Physics be damned, there was a revolution afoot – and it started with our bank accounts.

The Golden Convergence we preached was no longer about information for the masses, but about value for our portfolios. We had cell phone bills and four-figure rents, chic gizmos delivered to our doors in less than an hour, and $10 martinis to sip as we networked to fiscal glory. When our ugly half-brother, panderer to heathen hordes, swallowed the herald of the Old Way, we thought the battle ours. Time to collect our combat pay.

Decline and fall#section10

While we danced to Nero’s fiddling, our links began to rot. Exotic contagion, thought long cured, flared once more. Unassailable daemons fell to barbarians at their gates – barbarians we’d thought our heirs. Electric lifeblood ran low, transfusions too costly for many. The Behemoth was on the move again and the dragon that had lit our fire was but a bewildered shell, a neglected pet of the half-brother who had landed our mightiest blow. Even the buzzing WaSP seemed to lose its sting.

It ended as quickly as it began. The angel investors sprouted horns and the NASDAQ Pharisees that had worshipped at our altars now called for profits or crucifixion. The people we had sought to empower obliged and turned their new power back on us. Our companies mattered no more, and the options were torn from the wall for kindling.


At first we mocked our own folly. We happily swapped pink slips for libation and followed the Wolff to Tuscany for a well-earned vacation. It was but a speedbump on the Information Superhighway, an inevitable backlash from our stunning victory. We would return, would monetize and proselytize, would be led across the digital divide by the Finn and his transcendent pads, irresistible to the masses once more.

It was not to be. Once belles of the employment ball, now we sat home on Monday morning. Even the grand old wizard’s distortion field no longer warped reality as it once had. While the companies we kept sold out their customers to stem the red flow, our war chests ebbed dangerously low, depleted by bearish predation.

Crawling from the wreckage#section12

Laid off in droves, we blinked at a sun not seen for a seven-year all-nighter. Many could not remember the taste of those exquisite launch-party martinis; they had been too busy making deadlines to partake. Our bank accounts looked as they had before the rush; many of those accounts had never changed.

Disillusioned and exhausted, we see those hoary old corps with new eyes. No longer feudal relics of 9 to 5 drudgery, now they mean food on the table and time to eat it. They mean health insurance and dental plans and 401Ks. Talk of creativity, fulfillment, and making a difference turns to security, sane hours, and profit. IPO gold was pyrite, after all. With hats in hands, we scramble for the jobs we once scorned.

So is that all it was then, making a living? Was it always about filthy lucre after all? I cannot believe it. For me this business was not about getting rich. It was about changing the world, if only a little. It was about empowering people through knowledge, about stemming the tide of deforestation by replacing paper with electrons.

Yet I sit today and watch my assets race toward null. Beyond the wall at my back the landlady paces, waiting on the four-figure check for my cozy one bedroom beside the expressway. “Any day now,” I told her. That was last week. I hit Receive Mail for the third time in as many minutes. No New Messages. So much for the dozen resumés sent out this week.

Sell out or get out?#section13

How much longer can I shelter myself with ideals? How much more integrity-flavored pasta can I choke down? If I refuse to adopt a money-first creed, must I seek refuge with time-forgotten hippies on a ramshackle commune outside Eugene, Oregon? If I decline a life of monastic privation must I whore my skill to whoever will buy, a mercenary, killing with efficiency, no questions asked? I cannot put First Things First if I cannot put clothes on my back. I cannot execute a Plan for All Seasons from my girlfriend’s sofa.

I’m not alone in my dilemma. Surely the Undesigners and Adbusters draw salary from somewhere. There must be companies who provide value to society as well as their shareholders, companies who don’t view their customers’ personal details as chattel.

But how do I find them? How do you make it known that you wish but a modest living? That you hope only that, at day’s end, you can tell yourself ’I did a good job today,’ and mean it?

This is not about artistic integrity or prestige. Not about credit or appreciation. It is about a conscience, social or otherwise. Having one has always been costly, but, in the current profit-or-die clime, has the cost become too high? Have we sacrificed our humanity to the almighty dollar, as did so many of our parents before us?

I pray it is not so, but the landlady is a-knocking. I fear she won’t take “any day now” for an answer this time.

About the Author

Chris Kaminski

Chris Kaminski is a web developer who lives and works in Bonn, Germany, and a member emeritus of The Web Standards Project.

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