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Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Wealth! Baths! Bah!

By Annalee Newitz

I'M AMBLING ALONG a city street with Steve, and we pass by one of those corner liquor stores with the big "ATM" sign over the door. Beneath the "get cash here" logo on this particular store, there's a stack of papers. The front covers blare: The Market Goes Crazy!

"Hey, look at that headline," a middle-class-looking guy smoking a cigarette says idly to his pal as we also stare. It's nothing new: All week long, the tech headlines have been about the stress cracks opening up in the not-yet-dried facade of our Internet economy. Peapod is going under; so are a bunch of other e-commerce websites.

A couple of weeks ago, a very smart analyst from multimedia research firm Jupiter told me, "The venture capitalists aren't interested in e-commerce anymore. It's all about business-to-business." So maybe the Internet bubble is popping because of that, or because these companies had weird business plans to begin with, plans that could only work in a gift economy where everything is free.

But back to me and Steve and our late-night walk down this street full of ATM-occupied stores and restaurants with names like Firecracker and architecturally camouflaged startups with names like Wizzle.com. I had been telling Steve about my recently broken heart--a long, weepy story involving all the usual love-related detritus like desire and betrayal and unfulfilled hopes and sex and selfishness.

When your heart is broken, everybody has advice. Steve suggested alcohol, which turned out to be a bad idea. My pal Shelley, watching the results of the alcohol combined with my cell phone, advised, "Don't drink and dial." Charles, noticing the results of Shelley's advice, counseled, "Go to lots of parties and get laid." The point is distraction: When things inside you go bad, pursue things outside you. Dumped by your long-term lover? Go somewhere! Buy something!

And the biz-tech headlines all week kept reminding me of the personal-drama headlines in my brain. The Market Goes Crazy! The Web Economy Is Depressed! The Bubble May Burst! Wall Street has made technology into a giant soap opera, and our relationship with it has come to resemble a tawdry romance.

There are reasons for this that go beyond mere rhetoric. In hardcore, stock-driven capitalism, people's lives and futures are at stake. Market fluctuations can destroy whole countries. Important, beneficial pieces of technology get thrown in the ashcan for utterly irrational reasons. Rather than trying to make things work, like good techies would, people are encouraged to be greedy, selfish and generally inhumane to one another in order to "win" the money race.

Desire and money are both about risky investment, cutting your losses, merging, selling out, bankruptcy. Victorian pornographers referred to reaching orgasm as "spending." Therefore, it's unsurprising that when the market goes crazy, the market also (nefariously) offers us distractions from its own cruel betrayals.

In some deep sense, that's why Drugstore.com was calling every tech reporter on the planet last week, trying to get us to write about its new "market survey," which revealed not that the Internet economy was about to self-destruct and dump us, but that--hold your breath, dear reader--Women Like Baths!

Even the Drugstore.com PR flak I talked to admitted it was a strangely inappropriate promotional campaign. "I know it sounds retarded," she confessed. Turns out, based on a highly scientific survey of women across the nation, that women in New York like to have cell phones in the bath. San Franciscoid women like bath pillows. No word on what men want, although apparently 64 percent of women like to have special soaps, and 67 percent enjoy bubble bath.

Distraction, distraction. And you know what? Distraction won't save us. We need to fight against our urge to take baths instead of figuring out what the hell is wrong with the unstable relationship between technology and capitalism.

I don't want to take Wall Street's freaking bath. If the market is going to go crazy, then it needs to be locked up; it shouldn't be running the world and breaking our collective hearts.


Annalee Newitz (tabloid@jps.net) is a surly media nerd who is reading Michelle Tea's new novel for distraction.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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