Schwag and desperation

The aisles of Internet World last week weren't haunted by the ghosts of the tech boom past. The Valley of the Giants —AOL, Sprint, Intel, with Microsoft and Real standing shoulder-to-shoulder representing for Seattle—continued cavernous. Down on the lower level the folks at The Humor Network presented a graveyard of dead dot-coms, but it was a ghoulish giggle rather than memento mori. And upstairs, the conventioneers swirled and scrambled for schwag.

Schwag (for the purposes of this discussion) refers to trade-show toys, the stuff you take home to placate your kids or officemates. Exhibitors imprint various items with their logos and URLs in hope that even though most schwag-hounds cruising the aisles grab the goods with only a casual glance at the booth offering it, the continued presence of the item in that person's home or office will inspire a false memory of contact made, product presented, deals in the offing. Schwag is proof that someone paid attention, however brief, to the booth you spent so much money on for the company you have tried so hard to get off the ground.

The first Internet World was held at this very convention center, though it covered only a space the size of a decent living room. All dozens of us clustered around the O'Reilly booth and got one of the first public glimpses of the graphical Web, which we struggled to differentiate from the software ("it's called a browser") we used to see it and the site (the long-gone GNN) we were looking at. It was 1993. Clinton was our still-new president. Friends of mine had quit their jobs to rush to Washington and add their helpful hands to the new Camelot. There were no dot-coms to speak of. There was no schwag at the show to speak of.

At Fall Internet World 2000, I walked the aisles and wondered where they were hiding the desperation and how I could connect these noisy halls to the sullen hush of the coming election. In 1993 the only George Bush we knew helped the Contras sell coke to Americans but never himself indulged; Al Gore was a technocrat whose role in the development of the Net we understood and whose aims, we thought, were geekish and true.

Seven years down the road, a baby Bush who most certainly inhaled and thinks that there "ought to be limits to freedom" runs neck-and-neck with a vice president too haunted by an unfortunate "invented the Net" statement taken out of context and insufficiently haunted by his support of the First-Amendment-crushing Communications Decency Act and its progeny. All my idealistic friends left Washington for the dot-coms, and two of them in the past week alone have watched their companies fold, with more behind and more ahead.

My tote bag was full of press kits and schwaggery. My feet hurt and my back hurt and I didn't see how most of the people at this show could in good conscience be here distributing coffee cups and Silly Putty and little foam toys when the two white guys angling to lead the country did not between them have enough heart or brains or courage to lead a successful dot-com, let alone the last world superpower. I wondered if anyone I knew had enough heart or brains or courage to lead a successful dot-com anymore. I wondered how this sad and jaded Dorothy ended up in this ramshackle Oz.

It was the kindness of a fellow Seattleite that put it into perspective. Drawn by the promise of a comfortable couch I went to the AtomFilms booth, where I poured out my troubles to a kindly soul named Scott. What is there to say about these elections? This place? What sense does any of this make?

He fired up the AtomFilms Web site and showed me a beautiful thing:, known also as Capital Ill ("if this was truly how campaign debates were, a hell of a lot more people would vote!"). It was deeply silly. I laughed for the first time since I'd walked into the trade show, through the aisles of dot-coms handing out schwag and pretending that corporate death could only happen to funny companies that deserve the Humor Network treatment.

And I understood. The lizard-brain instinct of that first Internet World—cluster around the pretty pictures and let them inspire you—was still the impulse most relevant to the general Net community today, just as it's how we got to this Gore-Bush sound-bite nation. It makes us shallow. It makes us easy to divert. It got me through the show and back to the business of ignoring the desperation in the eyes of my dot-com friends, who truly believed, and look where it got them.

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