Ever wonder where all the dot.comers went after the Internet bubble popped? Enough of them have migrated from cyberspace to DeanSpace – that is what Howard Dean’s campaign calls it – to overwhelm the candidates of the Democratic party’s traditional constituencies.
America’s last presidential election gave the popular vote to the Democratics and the Electoral College vote to the Republicans, by margins that tested the limits of measurability. Now it seems all but certain that the Democrats will field a candidate almost certain to lose, and by an unthinkably wide margin. If not as individuals, then as a political entity, the Democratic Party is engaged in a form of mass suicide reminiscent of Stone Age peoples who have the misfortune to encounter a modern world to which they cannot adequately adapt.
In a rational game, both political parties would converge on the political center in order to maximize their likelihood of victory, as George W. Bush and Al Gore did in 2000. Rational calculation in American politics, though, has succumbed to existential despair. At risk in this case is techno-Utopian youth culture, which exhibits the same self-destructive urges that characterize hopeless ill-situated primitive cultures. Existential despair persuades primitive peoples, such as the Guarani tribe of Brazil and the U’wa people of Colombia, to choose death en masse in the face of the extinction of their culture (Live and let die, April 13, 2002).
Of the roughly 6,000 languages now spoken, two or three become extinct each week. America’s young information specialists have more spending power and personal freedom than any generation in history, and suffer more ennui and frustration than their forebears. Break the old bonds of traditional society and men will seek a substitute.
For two generations, young Americans have learned that religion, morals and gender are a matter of personal caprice, and that finding pleasure in one’s own idiosyncrasies is the object of existence. Visualize the world as an enormous fair in which pleasure-seekers can seek out kindred spirits at light-speed, and you have the techno-Utopian concept of the Internet. It is all quite silly; the fact that intelligent people work themselves up over such a thing gauges the spiritual misery of the standard-bearers of American popular culture.
We are accustomed to hearing the policies of Zimbabwe’ s Robert Mugabe or Palestinian Yasser Arafat characterized as suicidal, but Howard Dean provides just as compelling an example. Dean’s advisers utter inanities about the Internet long since discredited in the stock market, but still incandescent in politics. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, previously consulted for Internet companies and employs a trio of “Internet theorists.” By tapping individuals online, the Dean campaign has raised over US$25 million, slightly less than half of what the Bush campaign has brought in, but enough to crush the other Democratic candidates. That should be no surprise. The Internet bubble embodied the hopes and dreams of millions of technologically adept, affluent young Americans. Even after the crash, enough of the dream is left to launch Dean (however briefly) into orbit.
It seems like a dim memory, but only two years ago intelligent people still thought that a new global enlightenment was fermenting in the Petrie dish of cyberspace. “Underlying the generous valuations of technology stock was a futuristic vision of a world of mental insects drawn helplessly to the cyberspheric beacon, and plunging into the flames of a globalized youth culture,” I wrote shortly before the attacks on the World Trade Center (Internet stocks and the failure of youth culture,” August 31, 2001). “The collapse of the Internet bubble has a broader cultural and political significance: It informs us that the slimy tide of popular culture which spews out of American commercial media and washes over the world will not erode the bedrock of the old cultures that preceded it.”
A Dean campaign office, observed New York Times journalist Samantha Shapiro last December 7, “looks a lot like a dotcom start-up from the mid-90s: preternaturally pale-skinned young men, crazy hours and slightly messianic rhetoric. The men take turns sleeping in an easy chair with torn upholstery and appear to subsist almost entirely on donated food.” Shapiro tells the marvelous story of a freelance technology consultant jilted by his intended bride who found a new purpose in life and a new love interest in the Dean campaign. This story, she observes, “is actually one of the more conventional at the Dean headquarters; he arrived with a paying job that he had secured in advance.” Numerous other staffers quit their jobs, sold their homes and turned up in Burlington in search of salvation. The volunteers, many of them unemployed dot.com survivors, “are overseen, loosely, by Zephyr Teachout, 32, the campaign’s director of Internet organizing,” Shapiro’s report continues. “Because she runs Dean’s web effort, Teachout finds herself keeping company mostly with the 21-and-under set … Teachout, sitting at the very edge of her seat, tells me that ‘the revolution’, as she calls it, has three phases; the first is Howard Dean himself, the second is Meetup.com and the third is the software that [the staffers] work with: Get Local, DeanLink, DeanSpace.
“DeanSpace,” Teachout says, “is the revolution.” Dean’s techno-Utopians, to be sure, have no more chance of success in politics than they did in business. No matter; like the Guarani or U’wa, the dot.com tribe does not wish to adjust to the world as it exists, because it will find nothing acceptable there. America will continue to fall back on more traditional beliefs and institutions, to the continuing chagrin of Utopians everywhere.