No one will ever see Tomshales.com

Sep 3, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In an old Monty Python sketch that no one but me seems to recall, an imaginary high-rise apartment building is kept erect by the fact that all the building’s residents believe it to exist. If anyone falters in the delusion, a flamboyant fakir named Professor Mystico (or something close to it) will rush in and reinforce the doubting person’s will to believe. And then the tottering building would bolt upright again.
This is how I think of the Internet, of the World Wide Web, of this whole alternate cybernetic universe that has grown up around us, or among us, or inside our heads, in the past decade or two. I don’t believe it exists. Not quite. And now, as with Professor Mystico’s apartment building, there are signs that chunks of it are falling away.
It probably does not mean the whole thing will crash to the ground. It does indicate, I think, that entirely too much of a fuss was made about it too soon, and that when you really look at the damn thing, it amounts to a lot less than the sum of its hype.
Certainly it has been a boon to pornographers. This we cannot dispute. They’re as happy as pismo clams. In addition, purveyors of useless junk that nobody needs have found a grand new avenue on which to set up their shops. For the hapless consumer, buying things over the Internet is ridiculously easy (unless something at the Web site screws up, which is likely), so much so that you hardly notice your money flying out the window.
Who has been banging the drum loudest for the Internet? The usual array of techno-geeks, yes, but even they may have been out-shouted by a certain wacky faction of our society, which from the beginning has reacted to the Web with excess giddiness and glee: newspaper editors. Yes, them. They all went inter-nuts.
It’s a fairly safe bet that at every newspaper in every town in the country, editors felt they couldn’t assign or print too many stories about this magical wonder of the age.
The magical wonder is looking less wondrous every day. It seems to be-along with commercial television, both cable and broadcast-spearheading the New Bush Recession so rapidly taking root throughout the land.
“Dot-com bombs” is how a friend refers to the wild rash of Internet failures that now fills the business pages of the paper (in stories edited, perhaps, by some of those same savants who ordered up all the Internet-revolution pieces in the first place). The dot-com bombs are raining down like crazy.
“So far this year, 367 dot-coms have gone belly up,” UPI reported a month ago, “compared with 58 in the corresponding period of 2000.” The story said the rate of dot-com mortalities was actually slowing, but maybe that’s just because the population has already been so heavily pruned.
“Flooz.com to File for Bankruptcy,” notes a recent headline from the Associated Press, which went on to report: “Online currency site Flooz.com Inc., which made a splash with billboards and TV advertisements featuring Whoopi Goldberg, has shut down and plans to file for bankruptcy protection, the company announced on its Web site.”
Yeah, Flooz, there was a great idea. What a masterstroke. You bought stuff and you collected Flooz dollars and when you had bought a ton of stuff and had a pound of Flooz dollars you could trade the Flooz dollars in for more stuff. Talk about fulfilling a crying need. How did we ever get along without Flooz? We’re about to find out. We face a Floozless world in which all those Flooz dollars are worth less than-well, just worthless.
Flooz’s demise was speeded by fraud, The New York Times reported. It seems the company had unwittingly sold $300,000 worth of Flooz to a ring of credit card thieves in Russia and the Philippines. The FBI is looking into it now. Poor little Floozie-woozie.
The news pages are littered with these sad stories of demises and falls. When something that calls itself the Industry Standard goes belly up, as it just did, that can hardly be seen as a reassuring sign.
Another report from the AP says that dot-com bombing is such a scourge that “companies left and right” are changing their names so as to drop the “dot” and the “com” and distance themselves from the legions of flops. Thus did Internet.com become INT Media Group in May and Intra-net Solutions turn itself into Stellent Inc. just last week.
“Industry officials say thriving dot-coms are trying to avoid being lumped in with the rotting corpses of such failed dot-coms as Pets.com, Garden.com, Furniture .com and Living.com,” the AP said. Living-dot-com has unfortunately succumbed to death-dot-com.
Bridget Levin of a Minneapolis-based company called Nametag International summed up the situation accurately, if inelegantly: “Companies are distancing themselves from that smell,” she said.
Appearing with Roger Ebert (no, he’s not my evil twin) at a newspaper publishers conference a few years ago, I said aloud that I didn’t care if I never heard the term “dot-com” again. Oooh, that didn’t sit well with the crowd. It was as though, as Liz Smith would say, I had slapped the queen. Everybody believed back then. The Faithful were the majority. They were devout and fanatical and so long as they believed, the building kept standing.
I don’t mean to sound as if I am reveling in anyone else’s failure-the way I did when, say, John Travolta made a big fat fool of himself in “Battlefield Earth.” This isn’t the same. But I do get very suspicious when a new technology is greeted with unbridled hysteria, when everybody goes nutsy-cuckoo and proclaims a Second Coming on the basis of sci-fi speculation and wishful whimsy.
Even as the dot-coms continue to topple, jolly Jack Valenti is polishing his crystal ball and seeing a Utopian future for movies-on-demand and video-on-demand, all via the Internet, of course. Goody-goody: another nirvana. Valenti says this will be an “encrypted” service and therefore piracy-proof. Uh-huh. Yeah, right, Jack. It’ll probably take some enterprising 14-year-old computer whiz all of two hours to break the code and begin downloading miles and miles of movies for free.
We might call it “dot-communism.”
And who am I? I’m just a (wonderful) guy who sat on the sidelines being very, very skeptical. I haven’t lost a lot of money because I never had a lot of money and even if I had, I don’t think I would have jumped on the dot-com bandwagon the way so many others did. That bandwagon went down a primrose path that, unfortunately, emptied into a big black hole.
We’re probably just in a traumatic shakedown phase, and obviously the Internet is something that’s here to stay. But seldom have the ballyhoo and the reality been farther apart on such an appallingly massive scale. Oh Professor Mystico-where are you when we need you???