The question, so unexpected, so shocking, hit me in the gut, like lightning striking a rusty tie clasp. "Are you now or have you ever been," he asked me, "a dot-commie?"
The truth? The truth was no. I'm not now employed at a dot-com. I never was employed at a dot-com. But he was my pal, we were having a drink and the burden of our friendship demanded I explain that, well, once I had been fascinated by concepts like "first mover advantage" and "frictionless commerce" and "e-enabled supply chains."
He cast a glance cold enough to freeze my Cosmopolitan. "So," he said, "you were a fellow traveler on the Information Superhigh-way." What could I say? I couldn't deny it. Somebody was bound to dig up the fact that I'd once attended a Jupiter conference. "Yes," I whispered.
Christ-they couldn't find out about TED. Could they?!
They could, and they would. There was no hiding, not any more. Idealism was dead. The witch hunt had begun. Friends were now stoolies; family were rats. They (and no one knew exactly who "they" were, except that they were everywhere) were coming after us: the "us" who had harbored any thought, any hope, any dream of an Internet Revolution. We were now the enemy. Tossed from work, blamed for the recession. Once responsible for tulipmania, we were selling flowers to eke out a living.
If we were lucky.
We'd been so naive. We'd fallen for an idea the way schoolgirls fall for football captains, bantamweights fall for sucker punches, TV critics fall for Ken Burns documentaries. So we went to New York New Media Association meetings, Doug Rushkoff book parties, happenings in Josh Harris's loft-openly, without guile. Ask not for whom the 24-hour Webcam records. It records for them.
It started innocently enough, with leading questions, broken friendships, and colleagues edging away from you at work. It proceeded to loyalty oaths: "I pledge allegiance to branch banking." "I swear I have never used a CueCat." That sort of thing.
But after the Seattle 10 hearings, nobody was safe. None of them-not Perkins, Heron, Shepard, Mello, Levy, Schiesel, Elmer-Dewitt, Huey, Weber or Webber-came from Seattle. It didn't matter. If you'd so much as looked at a Double Grande Skinny Moccacino, you were considered a security risk. If you'd put your own URL in print, you were a candidate for blacklisting. If you had a Roadrunner subscription, you were in trouble.
Nobody was safe. All those call-center logs of people buying Dells with built-in ethernet cards: impounded. Credit card slips for "HTML Programming for Dummies": mysteriously disappeared. You lived in fear of a knock on the door, a tap on the shoulder, the cell phone playing Bach in the middle of the night. Because you knew once it happened, you'd be gone, disappeared ... reformatted. Forty-two thousand in Silicon Alley since the beginning of the year.
All of a sudden, it seemed, the most innocent comments could be taken out of context and used against you. Take the case of "T." Foolish T. He was a young business newsman, did market reports for The New York Times/TheStreet.com joint venture. His crime? Telling a stranger his favorite movie of the '80s was "Tron."
The next day they shut his company.
My God! It wasn't even "The Matrix." Poor T. Poor, dumb T.
It wasn't long before they started casting for bigger fish. Like Walter "Pathfinder" Isaacson. Kicked upstairs, they said. Sure. No one was fooled by the AOL Time Warner thing. Everyone knew who was running that show.
I knew it wasn't long before they came for me. I'd written for Wired. "But I made fun of portals!" I'd tell them, although I knew it wouldn't matter. "I was a realist in Ad Age," I'd try-all the while knowing those columns on Internet radio would condemn me. Yet somehow, I still thought I'd be safe. Until that moment when my friend asked, for the second time, that dreaded question: "Are you now or have you ever been a dot-commie?"
I mustered all the courage I could in these damaged times and said the only thing a man could in response.
'"Have you no decency, sir?'" I asked. '"Have you, at last, no decency?'"
Copyright February 2001, Crain Communications Inc.