So many stories of the Silicon Valley read like a Po Bronson book: wide-eyed immigrants fascinated with the 101 as they get their first glimpse at the 'Promised Land', fast-moving overmonied techies paying millions for a house they haven't even seen because it will be sold in the next 20 minutes, and other true tales of excess and insanity. Even to this day, the God of Opportunity still frequently holds sway. But Hardship, never unknown, has come to take back what is his.
Do not be deceived: Hardship in the Valley has never been absent. Over a year ago, there were stories of the
high-tech homeless, tales of men with three degrees who speak five languages sleeping in their cars or seeking out shelters, amazed that with so much Opportunity, Hardship held sway in their lives. But that was February of 2000; 15 months later, May unemployment in San Francisco bounced up to 4.2% from 2.6% a year ago. Many more high-tech workers have gone from six-figure salaries to unemployed Hardship. Worse yet, as they paid their obeisance to the God of Opportunity, many of these techies worked more than a hundred hours a week, and now they lack even a basic social net to fall back on for assistance.
In the wake of layoffs and cutbacks, stock downturns and dead startups, there are questions. Who is to blame? Is it the workers, who should have saved more? The personal savings rate had been falling for a decade, dropping negative in the year 2000 as people collectively spent more money than they earned. Or perhaps congress is to blame, for bringing in more H1B workers, when critics claimed that the tech worker shortage was a fabrication. Could it be the legion of day traders sending the stock market to record highs, in an irrational tulip-buying frenzy? That certainly had its impact, as the resulting crash has left a great deal of money on the sidelines, afraid to invest. The capital markets are dry, and funding for new startups, even good startups, can be hard to come by.
For the vast majority in the middle, disciples to neither Opportunity nor Hardship, but somewhere in the middle, subject to both their pulls, this is a chance for reflection. What drives you, and what price will you pay? Those who are struck down chasing the almighty dollar seem more apt to renounce their materialistic folly, and even those who become the next tycoon will claim the money was "just a way of keeping score". But the mass in the middle, they often have other reasons for being there. Sure, stock options were fun, and it is better to make more than less, but techies will still tell you the reason they won't ever pack it in is the camaraderie. They want to be involved in the next big thing; to say they were there, dabbling in the fate of the computing world. They want to be on the bleeding edge of technology, and this is where first blood is drawn, over and over.
With the spectre of failure and homelessness looming over more people each day of the downward spiral, one has to ask: why were these people the first to go? Many people have said: the work is still there. Many talented engineers still have a half-dozen places they know they can go if their current job disappeared. Are they better networkers? Those in the dire straits brought on by the slowdown have been portrayed by some technological elitists as the HTML-monkeys of the 90s, talentless nobodies whose time had come, yet there sometimes seems to be no rhyme or reason to who is touched by cruel fate.
Finally, where has all the progress gone? The Internet era is not over. Despite the rapacious press feeding on dot-com misery like a pack of vultures, the Internet has changed the world, and some growth is still happening. Businesses are making money on the Internet. Where is the investment in tomorrow's technology? How long will venture capitalists let the fields lay fallow? Like all cycles, this one has a beginning and an end, and the new beginning may be near. When the cycle begins again, will we be any wiser the next time?