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from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, September 2001 --

 

In the wake of the dot-com collapse, fortunes have been lost, and companies have evaporated. But the biggest disruptions in Silicon Valley are not financial, but personal, as the men and women who inflated the Internet bubble now survey its ruins and try to make sense of what's happened to their lives.

Over the last few months, I've talked to hundreds of people who have lost their high-tech jobs, many of whom I knew and wrote about on their way up. I've been struck, over and over, by how *stuck* everyone seems, how unable to process the magnitude of what has changed out here. The lessons people are drawing seem oddly shallow: "I should have gone into wireless," they say; or, "Next time I'll question the business plan." (I never know how to tell them that there isn't going to be a next time, not for a long while.) Others have gone limp, giving up on the idea of work they can be passionate about and retreating into early-90s slacker mode. Many bear a grudge against those who, they think, benefitted at their expense.

Recently, a few big players have stepped forward to offer their *mea culpa.* The influential cyber-thinker John Perry Barlow emailed 890 of his friends in June to say that he felt some "miniscule" responsibility for the Dot Bust, having failed to criticize the folly of companies built on nothing more than inflated market values. In August, the Valley's highest-profile venture capitalist, John Doerr, apologized for making his oft-repeated proclamation, "The internet is the greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet." By hyping wealth rather than invention, he confessed, he had distracted the industry from its role of incubating revolutionary technology.

Apologies like these are impressive, particularly because they're so rare in the business arena, where lawyers fear that they invite shareholder lawsuits. But I can't help but notice that what's prompted this round of apologies is simply the money that's evaporated.

True, the financial losses of the last year were extreme, but by my accounting there were other losses that were even greater. A lot of inspiring ideals were being tested in the gaudy experiment we called internet entrepreneurism. A short list: That a tiny company can topple an established one. That smarts are more important than experience. That a passionate life is better than a balanced one. That young people will rise to the occasion if given a piece of the action. That risk is the path to reward. That the world does not have to be as it is today. This past year, all of these ideals have been washed down the drain along with the money.

These were the ideals that jazzed me from the beginning, and I hung on to them as I chronicled the boom, in magazines and in my book. My beat was Silicon Valley's little people, the everyman (and woman) who arrived by plane with nothing but a dream and a willingness to work long hours. Recently, I've found myself reading back through my own writings, wondering whether I, too, bear some responsibility. I still think every word I wrote is defensible, but I can't help but notice that I've been reading my work like a lawyer, looking for loopholes: I never said the stock prices were justified; the only thing I promised newcomers was excitement and fast change (and things sure did change fast); I didn't publish a single article pimping the Valley after July 1999, long before the crash. But still, I was publicly associated with the entire shebang, parties and billionaires and IPOs. I leveraged the hype to build my career. At the very height of the fever, in the summer of 1999, I posed alongside some of my subjects for a cover of Wired magazine.

So if apologies are to be made, I've lately come to think, I should be apologizing myself. And whenever I doubted whether I should, a stranger would recognize me at a nightclub or a bookstore and say he’d moved here because of what I’d written. Though meant in jest, he’d laugh and say, "it’s all your fault." Most of these people were now out of a job.

Last month I put up an Apology Engine on my web site, www.pobronson.com, to generate official Certificates of Apology like this:

Dear Parents of Karla,
Don't blame Karla for being out of a job and begging you for rent money for her overpriced apartment. Blame me. I put thoughts in Karla's head. I goaded her into feeling lame for not being a part of it, whatever it was. I persuaded her that what was going on out here was real, at least on some level. Oops. Sorry.
Kindest regards,
Po Bronson

I meant it as a lighthearted joke, but within a week I had apologized to everyone from Ryder Trucking (for the bad checks from fleeing refugees) to Stanford University (for a class's inability to meet its fundraising goals). In the personal notes that people wrote me ("This will help my parents understand") I could feel a lot of underlying pain, and I knew that it needed more than humor as a salve.

It's been hard not to be mad at others for ruining something that started out so cool. I still bear grudges against stock analysts who abandoned their good judgment and venture capitalists who trumpeted upstart companies long before their time. But I don't want to hide behind the journalist's excuse, that I was just recording what was going on around me.

I don't feel responsible to investors who only had a little greedy money in the pot. But when I meet people whom I motivated to reroute their life, especially those who were called by the ideals I championed, I can't help but second-guess myself, at least a little. I don't feel guilty - I don't think - but I do empathize; I lost something, too. So the next time I'm at a bar and I bump into one of the people I helped lead out here, I'll buy him a drink, look him in the eye, and say: I'm sorry if I led you astray.

 

Po Bronson is the author, most recently, of "The Nudist on the Late Shift, and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley." His next book, "What Should I Do With My Life?" will be published by Random House next year.