In the words of a very great man, "What looks large from a distance, close up ain't never that big." In terms of Bob Dylan's lyrical legacy, it's probably not even in his top 10, but as a filter for sifting through the week's news, it beats any number of the alternatives. Already in 2001 the hype is flying thick and fast.
Take IT, a.k.a. "Ginger," for instance. What is it? Is it Individual Teleportation? Instant Tanning? Invisible Tripwires? Idiot Tantalization? Whatever it is, Bezos and Jobs are investing, VCs are swarming, book publishers are handing out $250K advances, and The Register (don't we love those guys, the closest thing the tech industry has to a tabloid—and bless 'em for it) is bitching about the hype. Haven't we got anything better to talk about? Well, no—this is more fun than most current industry rumors because it is, at the moment, entirely irrelevant. (Think of it as Harry Potter-style hype for grown-up geeks, although I saw enough of you in line with me last July 8th to know that Harry Potter is his own Harry Potter for the likes of us. But I digress.)
Unless IT really is Individual Teleportation or a cure for cancer, the hype about Ginger's being bigger than the Net just serves as a welcome distraction from what the Net has become—which is grounded in reality. Whatever Dean Kamen is cooking up there in New Hampshire, it's currently the most wonderfully stupendous and spectacular thing in the world, simply because we can't see it and can't watch its stock tank—and for the dance-of-the-seven-veils spectacle, I thank him most sincerely on behalf of the bedraggled and burned-out Internet rank and file. It'll all deflate soon enough, I fear, especially since Reuters is reporting as I write this that the whole thing is just some kind of motorized scooter.
In the not-that-big-is-actually-better department, George W.—who seems to have forgotten that he doesn't actually enter the Oval Office with any kind of mandate (confidential to Mike G.: no, Shrub's Harvard and Yale degrees don't prove he's smart; with Daddy a major politico and an alum and Grandpa a senator and an alum and a university trustee, for Pete's sake, he'd have to have the IQ of a mashed potato and a felony record as long as his leg not to get in at least as a legacy)—is now suggesting that what technology needs to really catch on in America is a "tech czar." After surveying the handiwork of the drug czar, I really must encourage the incoming Pr . . . oh, God, no, I can't say it. . . . I really must encourage Bush to remember that he was elected, so to speak, as a Republican and traditionally Republicans are the smaller-government set. Don't do it, Dubya.
From the you-only-wish-it-got-smaller files, it took a year and a day for America Online and Time Warner to tie the knot, but they managed to build their $99 billion Frankenstein's monster with only minimal caviling from the various government agencies charged with keeping humongous trusts from coalescing and undermining the public good. I thought for a minute the FCC might step up, but basically, they shrugged their collective shoulders and told AOL to play nicer with the next generation of instant-messaging products. In related (as far as I'm concerned) news, Unisys, Dell, and Microsoft announced that they're teaming up to create an electronic voting system, a development which doubtlessly fascinates various local firms who thought they were already on the case. So if Microsoft is dangerously powerful all by itself and doing Net-browsing software, are they less scary teamed with two other giants and threatening to take control of the very mechanism of democracy? (They are less scary that way? Sheesh, logic like that is exactly why I washed out as a political reporter.)
And finally, from the and-it-looks-bigger-again-in-the-rearview-mirror department, the tech world mourns the passing of Bill Hewlett, HP's cofounder—scientist, engineer, businessman, philanthropist, and one of the last of that old guard to whom we owe so much. The one-car garage in which he and David Packard founded HP is now a California state historical landmark and, according to the legends of our people, the very birthplace of Silicon Valley.
Will we one day look back on Dean Kamen's labs like that? Will our tech czar be as impressive of a humanitarian (a quality which ought to be prerequisite for the job)? One thing's sure: If AOL-TW had existed back then, it never would have noticed Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard geeking out in their California shack, changing the world. All the really big things look small from a distance. That's how they sneak up on you.