The decline and fall of the first iteration of the internet, told with verve and style by Guardian and Sunday Times contributor Smith (Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, 2005).
An empire-building technological entrepreneur, Josh Harris founded the aptly named Pseudo.com after having worked at the edges of the new internet for a decade. Smith plunges into Harris’ weird world, which gets increasingly more improbable as he leaves his company in the hands of subordinates and wanders off in quest of “increasingly dangerous-looking social experiments,” for which Ecstasy-fueled, disco-pounding raves were just an aperitif. That emerging world, half real and half virtual, imploded with the dot-com bust, and Harris disappeared into the New York countryside and other very real venues afterward. Though he was a failure in absolute dollar terms in a time when trillions of them evaporated, Harris, by the author’s account, was very much a pioneer in the right place at the right time, at least for a time. He was on hand to ride the wave by which two economies emerged, “a real one, where stuff was made and value added, and a speculative one, where value was traded, leveraged, staked.” Perhaps unnecessarily, Smith veers into the Ur-world of Doug Engelbart, Stewart Brand, and the Silicon Valley thinkers before looping back into Harris’ glory days, building on themes such as the cyclical rise and fall of New York, the ever more abstract economy, and the development of a culture that is increasingly unmoored to anything real. On the last point, the author closes with a view of Harris, who is still around, as not necessarily “the cyber Syd Barrett," a martyr of the boom-and-bust digital world, but instead someone who foresaw the present, in which status is measured by the number of likes, page views, and plays a person is able to amass, a culture of which the likes of Facebook is only the start.
A valuable history for tech heads, entrepreneurs, and trend watchers alike.