From start-up to burn-out: Is this 26-year-old the first victim of 'Dotcom Death Syndrome'?

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The Independent Online

In many ways Aaron Bunnell was a poster boy for the young, thrustingly ambitious internet generation.

In many ways Aaron Bunnell was a poster boy for the young, thrustingly ambitious internet generation.

He wore tatty T-shirts, baseball caps and flip-flops to work. He listened to loud rap music and the Beastie Boys. He worked furiously, unstintingly, often around the clock. He threw ideas and concepts out like a magician might fling confetti out of a top hat, was forever cajoling and inspiring colleagues to meet his ferocious deadlines, and helped establish his website through sheer force of will as much as hard-nosed business savvy.

But Aaron Bunnell is now dead, apparently a victim of burn-out at the age of 26. Last week, on a business trip to New York, he checked into the Waldorf Astoria hotel and never checked back out. The cleaning staff who found him saw nothing out of the ordinary except for an empty champagne bottle. Although the New York medical examiner is still inquiring into the cause of his death, his relatives are inlittle doubt that his body was simply overwhelmed by too much work, too little sleep, and a growing reliance on alcohol and upper drugs to keep him going.

Back on the West Coast, where Aaron Bunnell worked for the technology-oriented Upside Media empire founded by his father, David Bunnell, his death has rattled nerves throughout the internet world.

It feels like an uncannily appropriate metaphor for the New Economy, which not so long ago burnt like a freshly lit rocket but is now sputtering badly as stock market investors bail out of the hi-tech sector and ask hard questions about how viable much of the extraordinary entrepreneurial energy really is. And it also raises troubling questions about just how hard the internet generation can drive itself without reflecting on such unhip, seemingly irrelevant concerns as relaxation, pleasure, vulnerability and death.

"In this dot.com atmosphere, people get totally fixated on work,'' reflected Adam Feuerstein, a senior writer who worked for Aaron Bunnell at the online magazine Upside Today. "It becomes their obsession. Aaron worked all the time. If the software wasn't right, he was in programming something. He worked and worked and worked. You've got to step back, have some balance in your life.''

Balance was not something that Aaron Bunnell paid much heed to from the moment he answered his father's call to help out with the Upside empire two years ago. Before that, he had enrolled in the prestigious film-making course at the University of Southern California and was busy making documentaries about the Second World War.

But from the moment he breezed into the internet world, he became hooked to the point of obsession. His father had made a name for himself publishing such magazines as PC, PC World and MacWorld, and was determined to further his success in the then booming online field. His son might come up with a few ideas, he thought, more as a summer project than a full-time commitment.

Aaron soon proved to be unstoppable. Although not a computer geek, he quickly got to know the programming side of his website inside out. He wrote columns and analyses of new hi-tech trends, organised the entire editorial content of the upside.com site, hired more than a dozen new recruits and increased the "hit rate" (the online equivalent of readership) from less than 1 million visits per month to more than 7 million.

He had gone to New York to launch a radio venture which he had hoped would double the Upside staff. According to his colleagues, he sounded upbeat about his initial meetings and showed no signs of depression or suicidal despair. The habitual flurry of round-the-clock phone calls and e-mail messages kept up its frenetic pace right up to the last minute - somewhere between Sunday night and Monday morning at the beginning of last week - and then went uncharacteristically, strangely silent.

"I knew from a couple of his friends that he was getting very burnt out,'' his father told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I was very worried about him working so late. I don't think he was taking very good care of himself. I knew he drank. He would even have a few drinks and go back to the office. He worked until 4am frequently. Sometimes he would work so late, he would check into a hotel near by. Other times, he would just sleep on the floor.''

It would be one thing if such a lifestyle were out of the ordinary, but it is the ideal that every young Silicon Valley entrepreneur aspires to. Aside from becoming the crucible and experimentation chamber of the New Economy, the internet has also spawned a whole subculture - an all-consuming world in which everything revolves around work, the workplace and the virtual possibilities opened up by the worldwide web.

The dot.com set prides itself on living informal, non-hierarchical lives in which human needs are pared down to the minimum and everything is focused on the task at hand. The near-mythological image that many online companies strive to emulate is of workers hunched over their workstations in open-plan offices in the dead of night, sleeping bags or bunk beds laid out next to their cubicles, and half-munched takeaway pizza strewn among the internet print-outs and programming schedules on the desk-space and floor all around them.

"Silicon Valley today: Get lean, get stripped down, live on nothing. Bare bones. Focus. Be a fighter," is how the author Po Bronson characterised the thinking in his recent portrait of Silicon Valley life, The Nudist on the Late Shift. "Forget about love that nourishes. Forget about food that satiates. Forget about long conversations that get good only late in the middle of the night, when the third bottle of wine is uncorked. Forget about poetry ... Get ready for ultracapitalism."

In his book, Bronson found himself fascinated by young people at the proving point in their lives whose behaviour suggested they would "either succeed wildly or go down tragically". That was in the prehistoric - by internet standards - days of 1999, when the stock market was booming and multi-billion dollar companies were seemingly being created out of thin air.

In the intervening months, the true knights of the New Economy have become rarer, replaced by a growing army of hangers-on and wannabes more attracted by the culture of the internet workplace than by the work itself. This is a world with its own sense of chic, its own rules and its own vocabulary.

The colleagues who saluted Aaron Bunnell on the Upside website wished he had spent more time "yucking it up", "chillaxing" and "marinating the scene". "It sucks to lose him," wrote one colleague. "Aaron, you rock," wrote another.

Aaron himself, however, seems to have thought little beyond his own creative ideas. In what now seems like a macabre touch, he recently set up a "Dotcom Graveyard" on his site to catalogue those companies which had once seemed so promising but were now out of business. "Check back to see who bites the dust next as we tally the carnage," his tagline promised. One wonders if he realised he himself was destined to be one of the next victims.

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