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
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
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
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 hed moved here because of what Id
written. Though meant in jest, hed laugh and say, "its 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.
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.