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July 29, 2003

The Upside of the Downturn

Friedrich --

Assuming that we're still living in the wake of the dot-com crash, and making all necessary noises about how much I'm on the side of economic growth, etc. Still, in some ways, life is more agreeable than it was when money seemed more abundant, isn't it?

1) Geeks. Five years ago, they were in a bullying, The-Rule-of-Geeks-Is-An-Inevitability mood, and it felt like the rest of us were doomed to live in a universe designed by and for weirdos. Do all geeks harbor superman fantasies, by the way? Does that help explain their love of sci-fi? Anyway, these days they're no longer so puffed-up, and it no longer seems likely that geeks are, any day now, going to assume their rightful position as Lords of the Known Universe. Thank god for that. These days, their fantasy lives seem under better control, and your typical geek is, once again, just an overweight guy with a bad haircut whose idea of style is a Ralph Lauren shirt. Hey, what is it about geeks and Ralph Lauren? Do they like horse logos?

2) The young people arriving in the NYC arts and media worlds. Five years ago, the newbie contingent was the worst I've ever seen: arrogant, primed for some serious throat-slitting, enraged at the slightest hint that you might not be eager to play along and be submissive. These days, young people seem more modest and agreeable -- even willing to entertain the possibility that it might take them, oh, as long as a year or two before they become billionaires.

3) Restaurant and retail-store employees. Five years ago? They almost defied you to place an order: get in line, buddy. These days, they're out on the sidewalk, wearing big smiles, urging you to come inside and examine their wares, offering deals. You might almost think they want to attract some business.

Conclusion: Maybe the occasional chastening episode isn't such a bad thing.



posted by Michael at July 29, 2003


Amen for your "The Upside of the Downturn"

Posted by: Judith on July 29, 2003 12:20 PM

We must know different Geeks. The ones I know and work with are nice people who have an affinity for computers and how they work. And as far as I know, they don't ALL read sci fi. Nor do you have to be a Geek to read sci fi. Besides, my winsome, geeky son reminds me to be nice to Geeks, someday you may work for one.

Posted by: Debd on July 29, 2003 01:38 PM

Totally agree. Plus, check out the travel bargains. Amazing. Which is why it struck me as so odd two weeks ago when I was unpleasantly splashed into boomtime bad-customer-service by American Airlines, who had to return to the gate 5 minutes after takeoff, told us we would ascend again in "a few minutes", and then held us hostage on the runway with no air conditioning, in Las Vegas, in 105-degree heat, for two and a half hours. No EXPLANATIONS to the paying passengers of course. Practically have to tackle a flight attendant to get a question answered. Didn't tell us about another flight which took off in the meantime. It really stands out in this economy, as opposed to 5 years ago when it felt like it was to be expected, they didn't need your business, plenty of that to go around. And no wonder American is in the shape it's in, by the way.

Posted by: annette on July 29, 2003 02:08 PM

I rather liked the dot com boom. My computer programmer friends had jobs they liked, and they weren't afraid of losing them because it was easy enough to get other jobs.

These days, I watch them suffer from months or even a year or so of unemployment. No doubt my sympathies are in the wrong place because I like science fiction.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 29, 2003 02:31 PM

As an employer, I would agree that the expectations of my younger staff seemed to get out of whack back in the bubble days. I remember being a bit perturbed when one young lady announced that she was moving on to a "better" opportunity after I had spent six months training her. I take only a small amount of pleasure in recalling that the "better opportunity" was with the now-defunct Global Crossing. Another young lady quit my employ (after I had, in effect, financed her move to California from the east coast) to take a job with a second employer; the purpose of the move was to polish her resume so she could get the job she really wanted, which was with Arthur Andersen, as I recall. On her way out the door she ever-so-nicely informed me that I didn't know what I was doing. Actually, that was literally correct: my core business was sliding into the tank and I was faced with the task of re-inventing my company (for the third time in 15 years). Apparently the sight of someone making it up as he went along in the face of adverse conditions didn't fit her just out of college notions of business world acumen.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 30, 2003 03:03 AM

Another upside. Semi-Staunch art traditionalists like me (I'll use the computer but I wont like it!)get to be smug when all the slick graphic designers got laid off and they can't pick up money doing cartoons in the park. Take that Adobe Generation!

Posted by: John Leavitt on July 30, 2003 10:21 AM

well, michael, you could've saved yourself some typing by using one juicy ivy league word: schadenfreude.

the 'they' used to address your subject (on an implied gen-x vs. boomer axis) gives schadenfreude the secret ingredient it needs for maximum satisfaction---joy of the misfortunes of 'others'. unless you'd like to prove an exception and revel in your own----as a masochist ;-)

i respect your intellect and would love to read a meandering exegesis on the destructive yet all-pervasive forces which might be behind the [epi]phenomena you described (including but not limited to the following): militant meritocracy; burning media spotlight on that most-coveted 18-25 demographic; 'give me fame or give me death', etc.

Posted by: dan on July 30, 2003 03:48 PM

Deb, Nancy -- Did I say something mean about geeks? I know a few and I like some of them, and good for them for knowing their way around computers. But it isn't disrespectful to notice that they were riding higher five years ago than they are now, is it?

Annette -- Remind me to use up my American Frequent-Flyer miles now, before the company goes deservedly under.

FvB -- I remember that general gestalt: "Hi! Here I am! Now, how can you help me?" Glad that's over, if only for now.

John -- "Adobe generation," that's perfect. Or how about "Quark kids"? I notice that 20somethings often actually look like they've been run through Photoshop. Something to do with the piercings, tatoos, stretch fabrics.

Dan -- Not sure I'm following, sorry. You're amused? You disapprove? Unsure too why my saying that I'm enjoying the calmer-and-less-frantic quality of today vs. the puffed-up swagger of five years ago should mean that I'm taking pleasure in the adversity of others ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 30, 2003 04:14 PM


let's look at your headings: 'geeks'; 'young people'; 'restaurant and retail-store employees'...they're all people, individuals or groups of individuals---innocent (more or less) victims of circumstance, or one might say larger, greatly powerful 'economic (market) forces' or on the more 'mystical' side, 'zeitgeist'...

do you blame oil companies for the price of gas when it goes up? if you do, what do you do when the price fluctuates downwards? do they (the companies) suddenly become moral, upstanding, compassionate citizens?

in other words, looking at the situation is usually much more helpful than looking at the person; in another way, you'd probably have done the same thing had you been born 20 years later...

and puffed-up swagger is nothing new...and shouldn't be surprising---talkin' 'bout your generation ;-) (but not only)

that's all i'm real agenda here---just enjoying a bit of mental exercise...

Posted by: dan on July 30, 2003 08:40 PM

Michael, is there something ironic about using a blog to lambaste geeks?

I was caught up in the rise and fall of the technology sector but I don’t take your post personally at all. Your excellent Internet offerings enrich my geek experience.

It was really just circumstances and happenstance that got me involved in all the craziness. I had only been out of college a few years. I had the vague impression that there was this disconnect with reality but I didn’t have the experience to put it in perspective. In a way it was frustrating. I was trying to establish a career path, unsure which opportunities would be lasting.

I’m gaining that “experience” the hard way now, but no regrets. I picked up tons of know-how working in my particular field. And it was great to command outrageous rates and be a little smug about it. I’ll admit I was tempted to wear an elaborate cape to projects, but I resisted. Hey, if someone wants to throw the world at the feet of a 20-something geek, is that my problem? I think it shows a lack of planning on the world’s part.

Posted by: Matt L on July 30, 2003 10:08 PM

"I had the vague impression that there was this disconnect with reality but I didn’t have the experience to put it in perspective."

Apparently, you were not alone in that!!

"Hey, if someone wants to throw the world at the feet of a 20-something geek, is that my problem? I think it shows a lack of planning on the world’s part." Now, that does sound like a 20-something. Exactly when does "the world" stop being a third party and start being something you are actively a part of. "Lack of planning on the world's part" is very much your problem, as you are discovering...

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 07:42 AM

Why, yes, I do think you said something mean about geeks. You went considerably farther than noting that they were better off five years ago than they are now. Yes, there were some who were giddy about remaking the world (though I saw a lot more of that in _Wired_ than among people I actually know).

I know people who could be heading for real financial trouble because there isn't nearly as much money floating around loose. It may be unfair of me to conflate your schadenfreude about people who were too smug for your tastes with the actual effects of the downturn, but, well, there it is.

For that matter, I haven't seen any huge change in how retail staff behave here in Philly--it was mediocre before the downturn, and it's still mediocre.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 31, 2003 09:35 AM

Well, Nancy---when you act like they did five years ago, I don't think you can be shocked when the world is less sympathetic than it might be for their rough times...the geeks should hopefully learn a little lesson from this when the next boom comes around. It's not as if Michael was "mean" about Mother Teresa, after all.

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 12:15 PM

And PS--Michael---your reaction to Deb and Nancy is letting your "self-deprecation and ego" (who...ME???) thing show a little transparently. Why not just say, yeah, I was mean about geeks...

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 12:20 PM

Annette, I don't see one "they" for geeks. There was plenty of public braggadocio, some of it stupid, but the geeks I know were people who were interested in their work and pleased to be making good livings.

I worked part-time for a which wasn't entirely well-thought-out, but was trying to provide a legitimate service (a website and peripheral programming for medical ventilators).

It went down when the investment money dried up, but I can't see anything to celebrate there.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 31, 2003 04:34 PM

Annette, are you still mad about the plane?

I guess I was thinking of "the world" like "the man" in 70's exploitation films. Being responsible for the world in general? I consider that a factor of wisdom or power. So for me, age and experience or wealth. I only have modest levels of experience and wealth though I'm much older than I was a few years ago. (I'm 32, my decline coincided with the NASDAQ's)

Posted by: Matt L on July 31, 2003 06:59 PM

Matt---no, not still mad about the plane. Gee, thanks for asking...

Posted by: annette on July 31, 2003 07:37 PM

As a geek who has promoted the social benefits of the internet since the 80's ("Someday, people will email their grandchildren!"), and who busted my ass for most of the boom wiring rural america ("The children of Joe Sixpack will not be left behind!"), and who spent a year living in his car due to the crash (I expected it to not happen for another year, and had preached against the madness of the bubble), MY schadenfrude is towards the greedy boomers who fueled the whole thing, and THEIR economic downfall.

Where the hell do you think the money for that wanton excess came from? Boomer day-traders who wanted to get richer quicker.

Those 401k's aren't very pretty now, are they? :-)

We 20-something digirati did NOT have the connections or money to fuel that kind of bubble, and got mostly screwed for our hard work.

But we've still got time to build nest eggs: lot's of greedy boomers blew theirs, and don't have time to recover. Which is yet another reason why Social Security is the 'rob our grandkids' sacred cow it has become. "Oh, I blew it in the market, but I'll just tax little billy later."

But I'll be fine, as I'm a stubborn cuss who's crawled up from the street twice (both Bush recessions), and is perfectly happy meditating by a stream for months at a time.

If you DO want to say thank you to the geeks who brought you the ability to even HAVE a blog, send a donation to the Free Software Foundation, as it was almost all donated labor that made the net possible.

Oh, and I have a new blog url, click my name to visit :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on August 2, 2003 06:56 PM

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