MEMORIES OF GUTENBERG MOMENTS

Index_05 “Hi, I’m Ron Suskind and I want you to remember your life,” the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist had introduced himself to me on the telephone one afternoon in late 2000. “I hear you’re quite the digital guy.”

Yeah, that’s me, Silicon Valley’s everyman, I confessed. Completely digital. The next big thing. Version 2.0 of man.

Suskind laughed. “Well, I want you to remember,” he said. “I need to know how it felt to be so close to acquiring the wealth of the Gods.”

A few months later, Suskind and I arranged to meet for dinner at Bizou, the mustard yellow restaurant in San Francisco’s SOMA district, on the corner on Fourth at Brannan. Suskind, like me, an early pioneer of the Internet revolution, was writing an Esquire article about life in Silicon Valley after the dotcom crash. He had come to town as a scavenger, to dine on the rotting flesh of our digital dream.

Memories. I can’t remember the quality of our duck-liver pate appetizer, but I do remember that Suskind paid the bill.  I also remember that there were no other diners at Bizou that night. Just Ron and I. Eight months earlier, in the middle of April 2000, the technology laden NASDAQ exchange had crashed, losing a quarter of its value in a single week. Our radical dream of a paperless society had been realized. Nobody in San Francisco had any cash in January 2001.

So there we were: the journalist in the market for remembrance; and the entrepreneur who wanted to forget. That evening, I sung – or tried, at least, to sing -- for my supper. Suskind was mining my memory. But imagining Suskind as a miner is inaccurate. A priest is a better metaphor. Ron Suskind sought my confession. He wanted me to remember how it felt:

“I am sitting with a buddy in an overpriced restaurant south of Market Street—San Francisco's Internet district —when it happens. It is a rainy January night, and we are talking about what we have in common: we both were CEOS of now-vanished dot-coms. We've talked about this before, through the fall, always ending with an exchange of stories about being so close we could breathe the ether, some money raised, everything falling into place, big capital coming, on the precipice of dizzying connectedness and vast wealth. As we pick over a duck-liver pate, Andrew Keen goes through his riff about how his company—a music and culture site called Audiocafe.com—was moving from content to product sales and big-time investors were signed on. It was his moment at the epicenter of the awakening, the Gutenberg moment, the disruptive dawn. We all tasted some of that. Whole country fed off of it." (Esquire, April 2001)

Suskind’s article, “The Era of the Scavenger Begins: A Practical Guide to The Next Economy” won space on the cover of Esquire’s April 2001 issue, next to a color photograph of baseball’s Alex Rodriguez and alongside features on America’s George W. Bush and Hollywood’s Julia Roberts. But for existential drama, Suskind’s seductive description of his Dinner with Andrew outshone anything written about A-Rod, Dubya or Roberts:

Tell me again,” I say. “How did it feel to be there, in the midst of it all?”
Keen looks at me quizzically. Something’s off. Rhythm broken.
“You know. How did it feel?” I ask again.
“I’m not sure,” he murmurs, dazed, like someone who reaches down for a lost limb. Then he looks at me, startled and stricken.
“I can’t remember anymore. I can’t remember how it felt.”

How did it feel? That question lurked behind everything Ron Suskind ever said to me. The investigative journalist wanted to get inside my head. He wanted me to remember how it felt like to be a digital media entrepreneur riding on the new economy rollercoaster. He wanted a sound-bite on my Gutenberg moment.

I can’t remember, I kept telling him in that empty restaurant in January 2001. I was forgetting on behalf of Silicon Valley. I can’t remember, I can’t remember, I can’t remember….

Today in Silicon Valley, as we slide into another of our Guttenberg moments (this one officially called Web 2.0), I still can’t remember. And I doubt anyone else can either. The Law of Forgetting, Silicon Valley’s law, was as true in January 2001 as it is today.