Po'nography

Disguised as journalists, the Po Bronsons of the world seek only to titillate.

A WHOLE constellation of business publications is engaging in what's known of late amongst journalists as "money porn." Money—particularly the making of money in high-tech endeavors by young, attractive people who were virginal free spirits before finding ecstasy in the seraglios of the Net economy—is this decade's favorite fetish (and certainly a less embarrassing read in waiting rooms and on airplanes than the other kind.)

Problem is, that particular Virgin Seduced plot line was old when Pharaoh's wife put the moves on Joseph. Worse, like traditional forms of porn, most money porn is rather poorly written—no plot development, supporting characters existing only to whet one's appetite for the main character's fall and rise, dag-obvious story arcs. As insightful commentary into what makes the new economy tick, business reportage these days rarely rises above the level of bathroom literature.

Which is why I had such hopes for Po Bronson, whose The Nudist on the Late Shift promised to be—could've been—a real William Thackeray moment in the history of high-tech histories. Bronson's a terrific observer and a seasoned fiction writer, which makes him perfect for covering an industry relentless in both self-orbiting and self-fictionalizing. What the industry needs is less Vanity Fair the magazine and more Vanity Fair the book. Po Bronson, stand and deliver!

Alas, 'twas not to be. Though it's a fun read, Bronson's book is essentially Jacqueline Susann: Valley of the Dollars. Which makes me wonder: If the current world of high-tech business writing is simple smut, who exactly are the old men in the dirty raincoats who make it all possible?

Bad news, folks: If you're reading this, you're too close. Money porn, like the other kind, is designed to put you in a total-immersion environment of vicarious achievement while disguising the fact that you personally aren't getting any. Think I'm wrong? Meditate on these similarities—if, that is, you can tear your eyes away from the stock ticker:

Porn is without larger context. In the land of pornography, everyone is happy, willing, attractive, and able. Silicon Valley is likewise a universe of happy, nubile folk, on whom the world's larger issues intrude but rarely.

Porn objectifies. OK, cheap shot; this is business reportage, and objects—the getting and disbursing thereof—is what business does. And to be honest, most of the other kind of porn is too stupid to take seriously; most of the women I know who can't laugh your average mainstream smut out of the room really need to spend some time growing a thicker skin.

Besides, the Upright Citizens of the culture are amassed against traditional porn as we know it; from the halls of government to the classrooms of academia, folks are jamming smut into little boxes to be regulated, dissected, and otherwise intellectualized into obscurity. Money porn, however, is still free to titillate, which is why we all know more about Bill Gates' new house than we're likely to know about the one our neighbors are building.

Po steps a bit ahead of the pack here, tracking some of the folk who don't live to tweak their stock portfolios, but even he regards the old programming I-do-this-for-the-pleasure-of-doing-it-better-than-anyone-else ethos as sort of old hat. When it's time for even the most ironic adulation, geek chic gives way quickly to the kind of tongue-out reporting fashionable in the days of Rockefeller and Astor and Guggenheim. (The comparison between the sinking of the Titanic, which ended the era of those robber barons of yore, and the more hysterical Y2K rumors is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Porn makes you think everyone's having a better time than you are. Serendipitous encounters between folks with prodigious endowments—am I talking about softcore or startups here? Yes, the high-tech industry has made many millionaires. However, I'm willing to bet that you're not one of them; the odds are against it. And that's not about your lack of initiative. To hear Po tell it, fortune favors the brave nowhere more than in Silicon Valley/Alley/Forest/Coast: "Great characters," he says, "feel this rush to the money."

BOSH. Fortune favors the people who like to make money more than they like doing other things. A disproportionate number of folks making the money are in their twenties, and as such are quite likely to discover that they actually like doing other things (hence the mythology of the 22-year-old, no-underwear-wearing, Nepal-hiking, pierced-tongue Net billionaire, possibly the first myth cycle in the history of humankind to be propagated by ads on the sides of buses), but the fact remains: Money porn's deadly undercurrent whispers that if you ain't rich, you ain't smart, and if you ain't making money now, you're missing the boat. And just as the heroes of traditional smut are insatiable, so are the heroes of money porn. Too much is never enough.

And, like most porn, after about ten minutes it's all too boring for words.

Now that The Nudist on the Late Shift has proven to be wearing a fig leaf of the usual conservative cut, I'm holding out hopes for Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin's Netslaves, in which we find that some folks in high tech are having a good time but only at the expense of the rest of us poor fools in the sticky seats. Netslaves details the lives that most of the rest of us are living—the perma-temps, the content providers shuffling from three-month contract to three-month contract, the programmers who work 100-hour weeks while their bosses' bosses leave work every day at five to hobnob with the similarly fabulous; the guy who was Employee #5 when only Employees #1-4 got in on the friends-and-family stock deal. (Po again: There's always a fifth Beatle.)

Sometimes reality sidles into the money-porn picture: the high-tech firm that increases its profitability by firing its $15/hour janitors, who will return as outsourced labor at $6/hour; housing prices in the hot urban areas (Seattle included) pushing the working class further and further into the suburbs with no tax base to build on; the mom-and-pop businesses who hopped online only to see the Amazons and Wal-Marts of the world shout them down there, too. But these are not the stories we hear. Never mind Thackeray; if we want to see what and who makes the high-tech economy tick, the Net is still waiting for its Steinbeck. And we have but a Po excuse for one at the moment.

 
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