I finished Kurt Andersen’s Heyday: A Novel on my week off in long island. It’s a grand story about four friends’ adventures together in the United States during the years of 1848, 1849, and 1850. It starts in New York and ends in San Francisco.
At various times during the book, I felt that Kurt was writing about today instead of 150 years ago. I posted about one of those moments a while back, but it was the part about northern california during the gold rush that really felt like it was a direct analogy to what is going on in the web technology business, which of course is also centered in northern california.
As that summer began (summer of 1849), the heyday of California was either ending or beginning, depending on where one looked. An era of acute uncertainty had begun. …. The excitement was an echo of last year’s, but everything else had changed. Not only had there been more gold in the ground and fewer people looking for it, but all of the men at the mines in ’48 had managed to get there fortuitously …. Each of these new "forty-niners", on the other hand, had made a large and risky investment. Each had abondoned his family and friends and job and familiar surroundings on a bet, persuaded by mere stories in newspapers, equipped with no special advantage, nothing but a longing for good luck… The Eden of 1848 was disappearing. Economic life was returning to normal. The losers and middling survivors would once again vastly outnumber the winners, as they always had.
Maybe it’s because Kurt and I went mining for gold together in 1999 (the last gold rush) and came up mostly empty, that I see the analogies between his story of the heyday of the mid 19th century gold rush and the web technology business. This new gold rush that we call web 2.0 is certainly different, but Kurt’s words about economic life returning to normal ring true to me.
Many of the best web 2.0 companies were formed during the bleak "nuclear winter" of ’01/’02/’03 when nobody was looking for gold. The balance was tipped in their favor as a result. The opposite is true today. Everyone is mining for gold, at least everyone I know in the web technology business. So it’s a different dynamic and the losers and middling survivors will again vastly outnumber the winners, as they always have.