Commentary: Hey, We've Got History on Our Side

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

As economists raise their glasses to the end of the recession, here we sit in high tech's Lake Doughbegone with egg on our faces. Dang it, we didn't manage to end hunger and eliminate war--while paying our mansion mortgages entirely with banner-ad proceeds from our personal Web pages. Instead, Nasdaq keeps lurching from one pothole to the next, and our leaders are a little too busy appearing in court, tearing venerable icons such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HWP ) apart at the seams, and defending their accounting practices instead of providing much leadership.

In dismal times such as these, when the fantastic deeds that got the Internet revolution rolling seem a distant memory, we need to keep all this in historical perspective. Xerox Corp.'s (XRX ) legendary tech guru John Seely Brown put it best when he said that the true test of a technology's success is so pervasive that it disappears into the fabric of of everyday life. Based on some rare historic documents I've uncovered, we shouldn't feel so special in our initial hyperventilating and subsequent letdown in the e-space. Here are some examples of ancient techno-spin-meistering that also didn't work out quite as expected:

Asia, 500,000 B.C. After lightning struck his spear this week, Thlog Andreessen thought to trade the torch he found himself holding for a mastodon sandwich. Pundits immediately proclaimed fire-based business--or f-biz--the New New Thing, and they now believe fire will generate not only heat, light, and smoke but also revenues of $1 billion by 10,000 B.C. "This is a paradigm shift for the `I'll Club You and Take Your Stuff' Economy," according to a loose translation of one cave painting. Skeptics do wonder if the pervasiveness of fire-starting and fire-nurturing tools might make intellectual-property claims on fire a little weak (not to mention hard to enforce).

Mesopotamia, 3500 B.C. "This market is so hot I could put a wheel and axle on my grandma and take her public," crowed the CEO of a wheel-based startup at the leading edge of what moneymen are calling the "post-drag economy." Venture capitalist John Cave-Opening has announced yet another twist on w-commerce: He's funding "wBay," which blends customer service with w-tech. Employees of wBay will appear with a cart full of rocks, hold an auction, and dump them on the enemy of the highest bidder. Cave-Opening called the innovation "the largest quasi-legal creation of wealth in the history of the world," since rock-dumping on people is outlawed in just a few tribes.

Germany, 1455. Johann "Gutster" Gutenberg has become a pop icon across Germany following his enablement of peer-to-peer, pulp-based communication, which insiders have dubbed p-biz. Initially, the Establishment blasted Gutenberg as a heretic, but church officials soon realized it would be impossible to stop p-biz after a host of copycat publishers appeared with their own presses, including Gnutenberg and Kazaa-berg.

Boston, 1876. While no comparable valuation models exist, Wall Street has fallen in love with the possibilities of t-biz following Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the "telephone," announced last week. The ramp-up of phone installations is doubling daily, despite what users say is some confusion about what in the world one should say into the devices. "Right now, we're not looking for profits. It's an earlobe game," says Wall Street analyst Henry Blusterget. "The race is on to develop sticky phone handsets that can keep an ear glued to the receiver for 10, 20, 30 minutes at a pop. The next trick will be to monetize that experience." Not to mention build content, since user group testing reports that after several repetitions of "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you," some users get bored and hang up.

Fun aside, we all know f-biz, w-biz, p-biz, and t-biz didn't transcend the rules of commerce or turn straw into gold. They became absorbed into the world economy's tool chest. So, there's no use crying in our Fruit Loops that using "e" to do business is no longer remarkable enough to sustain a p/e ratio of 200 all by itself. We know tech will emerge from its grumpy slump, and we know that "e-biz" has permeated millions of transactions every day. It is crossing the invisibility threshold--and that's reason to cheer.

Hamilton writes on Silicon Valley culture.

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