Forging the future is better than forging coins
Last week I had drinks and a plate of charcuterie with one of Ireland’s most successful Internet entrepreneurs and our conversation got me thinking.
My interlocutor was Michele Neylon, founder of data centre operator and ISP Blacknight, which, while hardly without competition, has weathered many a storm including the early days of the post-dotcom crash tech spending slump, the effects of Ireland’s once severely lagging network infrastructure, and the devastating financial crisis that laid waste to much of the national economy.
Years ago, as a lowly art student with an interest in the nascent field of what was then being called new media or ‘information arts’ (the field was stillborn, frankly, as there is a core contradiction between fine art and interactivity), I wondered was there any way to get some kind of business going when I left art school. It at least seemed a better idea than working in a call centre. Technology was the obvious answer but, alas, in the end I was seduced by journalism.
More fool me. At this very time, people like Neylon were building businesses in the tech sector that, while modest compared to the global giants, provided a real service and created real value, something that could not be said about most of the darlings of the dotcom era, such as Boo.com or Pets.com.
In any case, there I was, a callow youth, thinking. The technologies that I had already learned – HyperCard, Macromedia Director, and the rest – are all now outdated and dead and, in any case, even then were not relevant to anything other than what we used to call ‘multimedia’. I realised that I had to spend some time learning a lot about core technologies. Indeed, in those days I was exclusively using MacOS – and this was before MacOS was actually NeXTSTEP, Mach and Unix covered with a fresh coat of paint – so I needed to learn about the systems that actually run the Internet.
At the time, I was familiar with a French-based hosting company called Altern.org and it struck me that hosting was a good business. I had already bought a copy of BeOS and installed it on a PowerMac 4400, but I soon snagged a white box PC and installed both Turbo Linux and Red Hat on it, learning the fundamentals of how Unix filesystems worked, how to compile software from source, and how to write shell scripts with the aid of books with insulting, if accurate, titles such as The Utter Amadáin’s Guide to Complex Systems Operation, or such like. Later, I purchased two decommissioned SGI workstations, an Indy and an Indigo 2, both running Irix and with a bevy of complicated software installed, and I learned even more. I still rue that I, in need of space in my tiny home, eventually brought them to the recycling centre. Heady days.
Obviously I never did start a tech business – o fortuna – and certainly it struck me in talking to Neylon that I had missed an opportunity. Today, the market is fiercely competitive, requires significant capital investment to get started, and is subject to a massive regulatory burden.
More than the thought that I had missed out by never starting my own little low-end hosting business, however, I was struck that a lot of the money sloshing around in ‘tech’ today is being invested in the hope of making out like a thief as the tech giants did in the decades following the dotcom crash.
The recent crypto crash suggests such hopes may be in vain. While crypto is not quite done for it has likely been revealed as, at best, a specialist security suitable only for investors with a strong risk appetite (which, translated into plain English means: people who can afford to lose their money). Your pension or life’s savings are probably better stashed somewhere altogether duller.
One figure from the dotcom era, or perhaps from just before it, Marc Andreessen, is interesting to think about. Andreessen, a founder of Netscape and hence a genuine Web pioneer, is today a leading advocate for DAOs in his role as head of venture capital outfit Andreessen Horowitz.
DAOs, or decentralised autonomous organisations, are at the centre of Web3 interactions, effectively making a blockchain the central store of truth and allowing for transactions. The problem is, while the benefits for speculative investors are clear, so-called Web3 brings nothing to the table, at least as far as the rest of us are concerned.
Rather than get worked up into a speculative frenzy or create a deep and unregulated shadow banking sector, which is what DAOs will become, real value could be created by designing and developing technologies that have a positive impact on all of our lives. Perhaps that will be something in biotechnology, or perhaps it will be quantum computing. Maybe it could even just be something less earth-shattering, like a useful new product or service.
Sadly, in our era of inflated tech company valuations (albeit ones with lead weights attached this year), cryptocurrencies and DAOs, many appear to harbour a real hunger to become a tech alchemist, transforming code into gold. O tempora, o mores!
Or perhaps it is simply that I am not the only one who missed the boat on starting a Web business.