False Economy

The impact of the bursting of the internet bubble has seen companies dissolve overnight and the creation of a new generation of transient workers, moving from failure to failure, but being paid very well along the way. Here, a certified 'dotcom casualty' ruminates on the impact of these changes and looks at the wider picture that is unkowingly affecting us all.

By Periphery Jones

No matter what your level of involvement in the Internet, we've all had quite a laugh at the fate of the New Economy over the last six months. How can you not raise a self-satisfied grin at the thought of Cahaart-wearing charlatans losing their jobs after having spent much of the last two years being paid twice or three times that of a hard-working teacher or nurse to turn out something as simple as a website?

A collection of numbers, words and images, no less. Not to belittle the work that can go into the creation of a website – I've seen people spend three whole days in their office, sleeping under desks and working twenty-hour days just to try and meet that deadline. But what needs to be examined by society in order to prevent such mindless, greedy optimistic opportunism occurring again are the causes of the failure of capitalism's most modern and indulgent manifestation. This is not a passing fad but rather the growth of everything the current Brand-is-God attitude propagates; image over product and quick profits before workforce benefits are wholly unsustainable ideals.

The new economy was based upon dreams built by people who didn't understand the legacy of the old economy and the old-guard were too frightened by the power held by the 'youth' (the ones who actually knew how to build the things) to effectively voice their opposition. Like your dad trying to dig Slayer when you were a kid for fear of losing touch with what made him passionate about music when he knew what was going on, so the Managers and Executives listened with awe-inspired ears to the rantings of kids without actually stopping to think, 'hang on, do I actually like the sound of this bloody awful racket?' It's similar to the House of Lords — sometimes you need a bunch of past-its to inform you why a new-fangled idea wouldn't have worked in the past and thus, why it probably wouldn't work today.

In the past, the history of success was rooted in companies being conservative in their business practices — traditional supply-and-demand criteria ensured that long-term business plans were the staple for stable growth. Job security was something that employers took seriously and employees would regard their bosses with a mixture of awe ('they pay my salary so I can live') and healthy disgust ('I hate having to go to work' – well, don't we all). Maybe it wasn't a good situation, but having equal respect for your employer as for yourself meant that you were part of a supporting family of people who worked for each other's benefit, not just your own.

The bastion of the post-industrial workforce, the union, was a re-enforcement of community above and beyond organisation designed to solely benefit the individual, while the Internet generation workers had only one driving compassion – themselves. The modern-day premise of keeping a job until you find a better one goes against the intrinsic human desire to foster a community who support each other, something companies unknowingly promoted in the face of generally disintegrating family and societal values – themselves eaten away by a developing work culture that promoted the overwhelming hunger for financial progress at any cost. And the root of this destruction was born in the opposite of such right-wing sounding ethics, ironically that other great Conservative belief — the power of the individual to forge their own path in the modern capitalist society.

Perhaps the biggest shock to the system to have come out of the internet age so far is the vast increase in skilled youngsters in Asia who have seized the opportunity to escape the sweatshop trap that currently threatens to swallow many of them up in favour of learning development skills. Many fear that this will simply result in development sweatshops. No one can accurately predict what is going to happen, and this is why shares have tumbled and dotcom companies have crumbled. In hindsight, we can see that an old assistant to the get-rich-quick mentality was behind a lot of the chaotic failure – speculation.

The internet economy prompted this much-feared and also revered beast to become the significant driving force behind the development of capitalism for the first time since the Gold Rush. Instead of "There's gold in them there hills", (meaning the real, geographically physical hills of West Coast America) – the Internet entrepreneurs were looking to find semi-real money in a virtual world – when you looked at in retrospect it seems almost laughable. Just as the gold prospectors spent most of their time not striking it rich – because there were more prospectors than gold — so the majority of internet-based companies have been desperately panning for business in the rivers of the economy, only to draw a few nuggets. Not enough to justify the effort. The big difference is that the prospectors didn't secure millions of pounds of funding beforehand and then blow it on £500 office chairs. Hell, most of them didn't even wash their underpants.

The fact that billions of pounds have been lost as a result of bad management, ego-driven dreams and opportunist careerism is not exactly a laughing matter. Having found myself drawn into the world of internet-based work over the last couple of years, I have now had the pleasure of losing my job two times in the last six months as I stood helpless to better the misinformed decisions of the 'cool' seeking suits. This doesn't exactly bother me too much. I never really wanted to work in what I already thought was a fickle environment anyway – but it doesn't exactly make my life any easier too. Having seen various high-level executives spunk money away like it was, well... spunk, on things like – cabs from London to the Midlands because the train is for the 'plebs', champagne breakfasts for the marketing department in order to make people feel that they really are truly 'valued', training for software products that would then be rejected because the necessary information hadn't been read by a top-level executive in the right hour – it doesn't take long for those who have actually had to work in a supermarket and deal with real products and real customers to realize that the dreams of the righteous could never result in more than a desperate fight to get the best pay-off for those who've bullied and blagged their way to the top of an industry based on false promises. Real work comes from a desire to get a job done well, not to get the hell out as soon as possible after making your fortune.

Have any real lessons been learned from recent events? Surely the modern business mantra of 'image over substance' has to fall flat on its face soon? How much more dramatic than the dotcom decline does it need to be? A stockmarket collapse? Another Great Depression? This is not just a trend in one industry but a wide sweeping attitude towards what we are as workers and how we react as consumers. The morally suspect have just got richer than ever before at the expense of the economy as a whole (where do you think all that Venture Capitalist funding came from? Pension funds, saving accounts, investment that could have gone into the Manufacturing Industry and so on). The worrying thing is that the profit over people attitude has had a big shock to the system – and it doesn't look as if those who call the shots have truly learnt the necessary lessons.
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