The Bust That Bores

The tech boom is busted, the economy teeters, and the public watches in horror as untold billions in stock market wealth evaporate. The President's political future is threatened, likewise the solvency of the federal budget.

And behind it all, the men and women whom the media made into heroes, those Silicon gods who turned out to be Silicon goofs.

What an awesome story. It has everything a journalist could ask for: Big dreams, bigger egos, a built-in rags-to-riches-to-rags plotline, and endless room for la-di-da allusions to Shakespeare and Sophocles.

So why is the coverage so unbearably dull? What is it about this story that makes even a fairly avid consumer of business news like me nod off the second he hears the word dot-com?

You can't blame the journalists, who really are trying to make this story sing. Oh, how they're trying.

"All is not well in Silicon Valley," intones CBS News reporter Anthony Mason. "All is not well along the shores of San Francisco Bay, south through San Jose, where thousands of technology companies have mushroomed. There's trouble in Silicon Valley: The bursting of the dot-com bubble, the crash of the NASDAQ, have bruised its psyche. Ask an Internet CEO."

The CEO, Umang Gupta, does his best to reinforce Mason's noirish, end-of-the-world tone. First, he likens the bust to the Great Depression. A bit later, Gupta produces a fabulous aphorism: "There's a saying in Silicon Valley that says, 'If the wind blows hard enough, even turkeys can fly.' And the fact is, in the last few years, I know a lot of turkeys that flew."

That maxim has appeared in other places, but thanks to Gupta's personal affirmation at the end, it makes a great quote, one of the most memorable that has appeared since the downturn began. Still, somehow I couldn't quite bring myself to care.

"They are our new Lost Generation," begins a Wall Street Journal review of a new memoir about the rise and fall of one dot-com, A Very Public Offering by Stephan Paternot, "the twentysomething sons and daughters of baby boomers who scorned the timeworn American tradition of working hard and getting rich slowly in favor of working maniacally and getting rich overnight."

This isn't bad writing, but it seems a ridiculous stretch to compare Paternot and his ilk to the generation that came of age in the ruins of World War I. We are talking, after all, about people whose idea of tragedy is the sudden inability to buy a caramel machiatto just, like, whenever. Call me crazy, but I find the career ups and downs of Ernest Hemingway a weensy bit more engaging that those of Jeff Bezos.

There are several reasons why the tech-bust story hasn't taken off. The first is that the devastation isn't all that devastating—not yet. A few weeks ago, a Forbes magazine cover story featured a young Silicon Valley couple whose Palo Alto house lost $1 million in market value after the crash. As two alert Forbes readers pointed out in letters to the editor, there was just one problem with this sob story: The couple's house had actually appreciated by $184,000 in three years. What they lamented was the "loss" of more dramatic gains that they had hoped to realize to finance the construction of their new $3.85 million house. The poor lambs.

Yes, the downturn is also hurting a lot of middle-class people who have lost tech-related jobs. But for hard-times stories about average folk to work, mere layoffs are not enough. You need hordes of people flirting with personal bankruptcy, in danger of losing their houses, going on the public dole, skipping meals. That's not happening. Indeed, right now much of the middle class seems to be refinancing its mortgages, taking cash out to redo the kitchen.

The second problem is that the individuals who should be the stars of the tech story, the Thomas Edisons and Andrew Carnegies of our day, are not sympathetic characters, or even terribly interesting. If you've ever tried to sit through a speech by Bill Gates or read one of his books, you know what I mean.

In another recent cover story, Forbes profiled Larry Ellison, the head of software maker Oracle Corp., who, at one point last year, briefly overtook Gates as the world's richest man. According to a Forbes source, this is a man who "doesn't foster a lot of loyalty," who hires "the best and the brightest—and then he tries to destroy them." A man whose greatest recent trial in the court of hard knocks came three years ago in a yacht race, when he encountered deadly hurricane gales and had to turn over the wheel to a professional sailor, a tremendous humiliation. Forbes reports he still cries at the memory of the ordeal, saying, "This life is just so precious, so brief." Yah.

Finally, there's the fact that, with very few exceptions, business people only make great subjects when they are either a) riding high, or b) engaging in appalling wrongdoing. When they are laid low by a combination of foolish expectations and market forces beyond their control, as now, it's just not all that stunning.

The most fascinating business piece I've seen in the past several months wasn't about a dot-comer at all. It was Vanity Fair's current, smoochy profile of Martha Stewart and her empire. Why? Because Stewart has everything the dot-com moguls lack: a meaty life story, a colorful personality, and, most crucial of all, a definite upward trajectory.