The Tech Boom, Then and Now

In Guernica, Nathan Deuel visits the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and daughter and writes about how the recent tech boom has changed the city. Here, Deuel recalls being in college during the first dot-com boom when working for a website felt like a novel idea, and before, as he later writes in his essay, “income inequality in San Francisco [became] reportedly on par with Rwanda”:

For me, the Internet in the mid-’90s was a place for email. Later a place to download songs. I suppose I did buy some stereo equipment, using up the last of some money I’d earned working on a fishing boat in Alaska. But the idea of working for a website—like as a career?—this felt to me like deciding to drop out of college to play a video game.

I remember watching the Super Bowl—at the geeky fraternity next to the one that had the secret pot-smoking chamber with the amphitheater seating—and all the commercials were for these fanciful new websites. Pets.com would sell you items for your…pet and it was worth $82 million, far less than grocery delivery service Webvan.com, which earned a valuation of $1.2 billion, despite having made only $5 million in revenue. That spring, in an English lecture class, someone had a Snickers bar delivered to his seat by a service called Kozmo. The delivery person had this orange messenger bag. It cost nothing extra to have a candy bar delivered to your desk.

Then 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For a while, we didn’t care much about valuations of websites. I flew out of SF a few times en route to Asia. The airport felt unloved and the city once again ranked in my mind among our nation’s second tier. We had eight years of a Bush presidency and then the massive financial collapse of 2008, followed by the inauguration of our first black president. From a great distance, California was Schwarzenegger and Boxer and Pelosi. My family had moved to Saudi Arabia, and homesick one afternoon, I surfed the Web, trying to remember what it was like in 2000, and I felt the rush that comes from encountering icons of an older age, in this case a Kozmo messenger bag, which you could buy on eBay. In 2013, we moved back to America, and judging purely on the sort of ambient feeling I could sense—Democrat in power for a second term, prosperity returning, for some—the nation felt primed, ready again to allow for the lightness (and the irrationality and the exuberance) of another boom.

Read the story

See also: A full chapter from Friday Was the Bomb, the new book by Nathan Deuel about moving to the Middle East with his wife in 2008.

Photo: Frank Vervial