Andrew Smith's writing has come my way before, in his garrulous yet also moving interviews with surviving moon astronauts, Moondust, which I reviewed. But his book reminds me of a mid-90s era when I was also involved in the early ecstasies of dot-commery (and wrote about it for the Independent too). His style, a little too reckless for the astronauts, totally matches the gonzo-digital tale of Josh Harris.
Totally Wired: On The Trail Of The Dotcom Swindle, By Andrew Smith
Reviewed by Pat Kane
The Independent, 22 September, 2012 (Unedited version below, Independent version here)
One can imagine the elevator pitch that would sell this rumbunctious account of the madness of the nineties’ dot-bust to Hollywood: “The Social Network meets Hammer of The Gods, via Warhol’s Factory”. Mark E Smith’s The Fall clattering out beneath the titles. I’d go: wouldn’t you?
Andrew Smith, whose previous book Moonshot has come to mind again in the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing, has written a similarly humane and garrulous account of space exploration. But this space is the one that opened up between computers and networks twenty years ago. And whereas at least some men actually got to the moon and back, Totally Wired is mostly about how these early dreams of cyberspatial utopia were frustratingly thwarted.
Yet in his tale of Josh Harris, a brilliant though damaged screenager whose digital company Pseudo encompassed the best and worst of the “creative age” of the nineties, Smith wants to alert us to the roots of our current unreality - where the mediations of “confidence” and “reputation” define the fate of stock-markets, national governments and over-valued social network companies (naming no names).
In a charming style which could be described as gadget-dad gonzo, Smith captures the tulip-tinged froth of 90’s cyberculture with great accuracy. I wrote for this paper in 1997 about my time with a parallel outfit in London, Microsoft’s Blizzard, which laboured in the same Sisyphean fields as Pseudo - trying to attract punters onto an exclusive network, with over-ambitious content that could barely sputter down the available phonelines. [FYI: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/click-and-im-a-microserf-1265773.html]
Yet while both our audiences were tiny, at least Harris used his venture capital to host fantastic, gilded-era Manhattan parties. Propeller-headed Truman-Capotes orchestrated polymorphous, performance-art revels - which were filmed, live-cast and contractually captured as “property of Pseudo”. Sound familiar, reality tv fans? Smith sticks with this flakiest of uber-geeks - and the writer is dogged, trailing him from his fly-blown hideaway in Ethiopia to the bullshit lounges of the Sundance Festival in Colorado - because he believes Harris was a pioneer of the communicative omni-trance of our current smart-phoned, i-playing, big-brotherly era.
However genuinely prescient Josh Harris was, the accelerando of digitality continues apace, making the extraordinary ordinary. In terms of function, Skype and Google Hangouts can now do everything that Pseudo and its chemically-fuelled net-heads were trying to squeeze through their tiny Nineties pipes. Except now, it’s as quotidian as a tool for hobbyists and activists on your high-street clever-phone.
Even Harris’s Matrix-like paranoid fantasies - about social media softening us up for “mental harvesting” by some mysterious power - are only wrong about the mystery: we know who they are. As the current nostrum has it, if you pay nothing for your net-service, then you are the product. Google or Facebook enable you to be your own multimedia channel - but the cost is a panoptical tracking of all your input and clickery, the better to target a micro-pitch at your innermost consumer desire.
“Harvesting” isn’t too bad an agrarian metaphor: but the appropriate resistance is closer to that of the Diggers or the Chartists against enclosure, than battling the otherworldly “Ticklers” generated by Harris’s DMT’d delusions.
But Totally Wired is an account of financialization, as well as intoxication. For a self-confessed economics rube, Smith is very clear about how the liberalisations of the Fed - and all those 401K pension funds sloshing around the 90‘s US market - meshed toxically with the euphoria of the early dot-coms. Smith also believes that these net-idealists were the victims of a “heist”, shafted by market-fixing bankers in a shares scam known as “laddering”. Such financial innovation, he suggests, paved the way for the sub-prime chicanery that led to the 2008 crash.
Smith is a little too wired himself at times, occasionally taken by the ecstasies of communication in a manner that many po-mo types will rather shufflingly remember. And when things get too capitalistically vertiginous, it’s nice to recall that Harris stole the idea of “pseudo-names” from the public-sector network Minitel, launched by that lumbering democratic-socialist dinosaur France in the early 80s.
There’s a Net that’s as close to the public library, or the town square, as it is to Burroughsian experiment and quantitative easing: Wikileaks and the Arab Springs barely make a mention here. But Smith does us a service in reminding us how total wiredness can so easily lead to total weirdness. And that the off-switch is right over there, just a finger-stretch away.