Space-age whiz kids

Now that we're all taking a little rest from throwing money at each other by the fistful, is there the slightest chance we can settle in and get some work done?

One of the nice things about being a tech journalist is that I have a great excuse for not wading into the market: It's unethical for me to do so. (We won't get into the part about not having any money even if it weren't unethical, but such are the parameters of life at an alternative weekly. Could be worse; could be The Stranger.)

I thus had a peaceful ringside seat at last week's Ride of the Valkyries, along with an entire nation of folk who managed to keep their heads on straight and their pocketbooks closed—or, in some cases, had tech stocks, but got smart and got out when they realized that the engine driving the tech portion of the current economic boom was in fact not an engine at all but Cthulhu, the blind dancing idiot god.

A good sociologist might have told them that it's been a quarter-century coming.

Back in the '70s, folks used to worry that video games would inure the youth of that day to violence. Our parents worried that we would all become so jaded from blasting space aliens and gobbling power pellets that we'd lose our humanity and become dissociative personalities who couldn't tell the difference between reality and what we saw on our computer screens.

They were half right. We did become numb to reality and risk, but instead of becoming a nation of coldhearted killers, we became a nation of day-traders. A modicum of strategy combined with quick-trigger reflexes to produce high scores and an adrenaline rush—am I talking about stock trading or Space Invaders? Weren't most of the actual companies buoyed by the day-trading crowd as unreal to those people as the jagged little aliens floating across the Galaxian sky? (Not sure about that? Here's a hint: Cisco and other back-end folk plummeted last week, too. Jettisoning your shares of fluffburger.com is one thing, but only a moron sells off infrastructure.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm not insensitive to the hurt that these drops cause. It's only play money until it's a mainstay of your retirement fund or (in the case of options) the main currency in which you get paid for your 100-hour weeks in the trenches. But do you think the stock market really cares that your company really is onto something worth investing in for the long term? Anyone who watched the value of their company's stock rise when someone tacked a ".com" at the end of the name knows that the market has been insensible to the allure of a solid business plan as compared to a sexy domain name.

The pixie dust fueling Wall Street in the '80s was cocaine. In the '90s it was dot-com. Both lead to delusions of omnipotence and, later, nasty jitters and paranoia. Both booms made money easy to get for a number of smart folk with good ideas; unfortunately, those people (then and now) are all but lost in the indiscriminate tide of hucksters and charlatans who populate such eras.

Worse, the people with the good ideas often get drowned out by the people with the loud voices, since good ideas actually take a certain amount of hunkering down and doing the work, while hucksterism takes mainly smoke and mirrors. The halls of history are littered with good ideas that did not survive because bad ideas took all their oxygen. If you managed to wrest needed funding for a good idea out of the market in the past few years, good for you, but don't kid yourself that it was strictly on the strength of your idea. No matter how sane you are, the market is still crazy, and odds are that it's stronger than you. It boosted you up. It can pull you down. Please tell me you got some work done while the money flowed easily.

Of course, the punch line is that within a couple of days—maybe even by the time you read this—the markets may well shake off the dizzying effects of the drop and get back to the previous foolishness; a majority of day-traders may well wander back from their Oprah viewing and try their hands again. Maybe I and the other spectators are wrong and the tech market is simply readying itself for the next level. Power pellets, anyone?

 
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