when i saw the emperor

Evidently it’s a ‘mood’-y week. When I arose from achieving my nearly-eight hours of sleep, it was mid-morning, and… let’s say I’ve been disinclined to tackle my projects. So I read some Dick Francis thrillers for a while, then wandered back to Michael Lewis’ The Big Short.

Have you seen the movie version? See it. It’s a compelling romp that distills the book beautifully, though it made our B nauseated when we saw it one New Year’s Eve. (“They haven’t changed anything that happened in there, have they?” “No, baby, I’m afraid not.”) Read the book, too — it’s a similar romp, but with the increased depth that a book can bring.

So why am I writing instead of reading, on this a sloth-like day in a slothful week? Because I’ve reached the tipping point in the book’s roller coaster, and the view suddenly reminded me of a time I saw that same view for myself.

“We kept trying to find people who could explain to us why we were wrong. We just kept wondering if we were crazy. There was this overwhelming feeling of, Are we going out of our minds?
— Charlie Ledley, quoted in The Big Short, p 134

I was in my late 20s as the World-Wide Web was born. My friend Bruce, who is way savvier than I am, made a valiant effort to sell our upper management on this open-source, free-as-in-beer way to easily share information… easier and vastly cheaper than Lotus Notes, easier and a little cheaper than Microsoft Exchange (since we already licensed Microsoft stuff), easier than Gopher. He lost; the senior management folk enamored with Notes were not dissuaded from their romance, and Bruce, a realist, shrugged and learned Notes…

…while he and other colleagues started running WWWeb servers for us techies to use. Free, remember. Interesting, because it was so very new. Intriguing, because it was so very easy.

Perhaps a fourth of my responsibilities included helping our firm’s non-technologists cope with the tech they had in front of them. I saw this internal Web as an information-sharing method that might frighten them less than the ways I’d had to use before. I could toss up some web pages, send an email with a hyperlink, and with one mouse-click suddenly the details they needed would unfold. Same Frequently Asked Questions format, but one could jump around instead of scroll and scroll and scroll. Same digital repository elsewhere, but they could arrive with a mouse-click instead of typing >ftp anonymous@server >list >get document.txt.

(“Wow, you’re such a great web developer!” <raises eyebrow> Thanks. “What software do you use to make your pages?” Umm, Notepad. “No, really, you can tell me!” No, really. That’s all I used. The Web was young, and I trafficked in words, much the way I do now. Words are easy to display.)

So I made a bunch of web pages for work. I had a baby. I got insanely frustrated with the results of a reorg at work. I applied to grad school. I had another baby. I headed to grad school.

In the meantime, Web 1.0 took off.

It’s hard to now envision, I think, just how magical it was. The cool things my colleagues and I had been rummaging through — originally via text commands within Usenet — became quick and relatively intuitive once browsers took graphical interfaces (like Mac OS or Microsoft Windows) out to the servers of the world. One no longer had to be willing to study arcana to explore these riches… click, click, click, and it’s all there for you.

Bully for you, non-technologists. It’s fun stuff; enjoy!

I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the businesses arising from this new clickability. As I recall, I consigned it all to a “well, capitalists gonna capitalize” bucket, and kept doing the pressing things of my days. There were a lot of things more pressing for me than web businesses or even initial public offerings: two babies, grad papers, the cherishing of a beloved spouse….

Still, I noticed enough to look up and say: this Amazon thing is cool, this Rx.com thing is cool, but it’s just a catalog. Flip through, look at the pictures, place an order.
A catalog. Right?

My mom was (is) the queen of catalog shopping. From the privilege of her New Yorker gift subscription, she was offered glossy pages from an amazing array of merchants. I, who’d started with the Sears Wish Book in babyhood, amused myself by browsing through the sublime and the ridiculous, noting which things arrived for birthdays or for Christmas. (Note: I would not have taken my precious, profoundly ADHD, little sister out shopping either. Not when other options were on offer!)

Catalogs were great. And what could be niftier than a catalog that’s no longer bound to the print cycle? When something’s out of stock, simply remove it from view. When prices need to change — shipping costs rise, product expenses rise, excess inventory calls for a sale — simply reach in the code, change a few characters, and everything’s good to go.

Except I start hearing news reporters breathlessly describing a New Economy. Nothing will be the way it was. Selling and buying will be transformed; it will be a new world!

Wha? What’s different about “send me a pair of shoes and I’ll let you bill my credit card for $34.98 plus $7 for shipping”? Still shoes-? Still a bill-?

Then Living.com not only became a business, but went public. Open-mouthed, I watched as they touted how the New Economy was transforming the furniture industry. Do what? Who’s going to pay thousands of dollars for an ordinary sofa AND for the freight costs to get it to your house? Even my mom (and dad) were willing to turn my sister loose when buying a new sofa, or dining table.

The Yahoo IPO was my last straw. Yahoo, at the time, was primarily an index of websites. Before Brin & Page’s doctoral thesis revolutionized the way we kept track of websites, Yahoo was one of the best-managed site indexes around. (They employed lots and lots of cataloguers… that is, grads from library schools like mine who specialized in deciding how people were likely to find things. A glorious moment in cataloguing history.) To my mind, this was the same as offering an IPO on a library system like Austin’s…

…not necessarily a bad idea, but an extremely odd one. If we hadn’t done this before, why all of the sudden are we doing it now??

The New Economy, that’s why! Money will rain down from the sky, because this is On The Web!

I looked out, and there was the emperor, walking down the street without a stitch on.

***

It is unsettling to realize you’re seeing something that seems obvious to you but no one else. One spends a lot of time trying to figure out what information others must have that you don’t, because otherwise they’d see what you do. Right?

As a not-especially capitalist person, it was also hard for me to fathom how deeply people’s desire to follow money around would cloud their judgement. Who would keep handing money to a business that flatly stated that they were hemorrhaging money but that would all change “later”? That said sure, prices for the furniture had to stay the same as the local stores’, that shipping a sofa cost what it cost, but that “later” buying sofas that had to be shipped would be more popular than buying sofas that were delivered locally for free?

I went to a career fair the spring I finished my MLIS, so in about March 2000. I visited the Living.com recruitment table and traded my email address for a t-shirt. They didn’t contact me; they wanted programmers, not information architects. But I didn’t want them either. I just wanted a trophy t-shirt.

Not long after, Living.com imploded, leaving their stockholders queued up for pennies on their dollars. I didn’t have anyone to say “I told you so” to, but I thought it anyway.

By 2003, the “New Economy” bubble had shattered, littering Austin with Aeron chairs, foosball tables,
and programmers.

Now, in 2018, buying and selling is different because of the Web. But not so different that the basic elements of goods, exchanges, and profit stop mattering. Instead, I think the Web has served as an intensifier—a wider array of goods is available, a wider array of exchange methods is possible, profit margins can be further shaved as transaction volume can be ratcheted ever higher. But still… there are shoes, and shipping, and a bill.

I still have my trophy t-shirt from the time I saw the emperor without clothes.

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