Totally Wired: On The Trail Of The Dotcom Swindle, By Andrew Smith

A high-energy romp through digital boom-and-bust has lessons for today

Pat Kane
Thursday 20 September 2012 15:56
Boom, boom: Facebook advertises its shares in New York
Boom, boom: Facebook advertises its shares in New York

One can imagine the elevator pitch that would sell this rumbunctious account of the madness of the Nineties dot-bust to Hollywood: "The Social Network meets Hammer of The Gods via Warhol's Factory". With Mark E Smith's The Fall clattering out beneath the titles. I'd go: wouldn't you?

Andrew Smith, whose previous book Moonshot has come to mind in the wake of Neil Armstrong's passing, has written a similarly humane and garrulous account of space exploration. But this space is the one that opened up between computers and networks 20 years ago. And whereas at least some men actually got to the moon and back, Totally Wired is mostly about how these early dreams of cyberspatial utopia were thwarted.

Yet in his tale of Josh Harris, a brilliant though damaged screenager whose digital company Pseudo encompassed the best and worst of the "creative age" of the Nineties, Smith wants to alert us to the roots of our current unreality. Now the mediations of "confidence" and "reputation" define the fate of stock markets, national governments and over-valued social network companies.

In a charming style which could be described as gadget-dad gonzo, Smith captures the tulip-tinged froth of Nineties cyberculture with great accuracy. I wrote for this paper in 1997 about my time with a parallel outfit in London, Microsoft's Blizzard, which laboured in the same Sisyphean fields as Pseudo – trying to attract punters onto an exclusive network, with over-ambitious content that could barely sputter down the available phonelines.

Yet while both our audiences were tiny, at least Harris used his venture capital to host fantastic, gilded-era Manhattan parties. Propeller-headed Truman Capotes orchestrated polymorphous, performance-art revels – which were filmed, live-cast and contractually captured as "property of Pseudo". Sound familiar, reality TV fans?

Smith sticks with this flakiest of uber-geeks – trailing him from his fly-blown hideaway in Ethiopia to the bullshit lounges of the Sundance Festival in Colorado – because he believes Harris was a pioneer of the communicative omnitrance of our current smart-phoned, iPlaying, big-brotherly era. However prescient Harris was, the accelerando of digital culture continues apace, making the extraordinary ordinary. Skype and Google Hangouts can now do everything that Pseudo and its chemically-fuelled net-heads were trying to squeeze through their tiny pipes. Except now, it's a quotidian tool for hobbyists and activists on your average high-street clever-phone.

Even Harris's Matrix-like paranoid fantasies – about social media softening us up for "mental harvesting" by some mysterious power – are only wrong about the mystery. We know exactly who they are. As the current nostrum has it, if you pay nothing for your net-service, then you are the product. Google or Facebook enable you to become your own mini-Murdoch, but the cost is a panoptical tracking of all your input, the better to target a micro-pitch at your innermost consumer desire.

Totally Wired is an account of financialisation, as well as intoxication. For a self-confessed economics rube, Smith is very clear about how the liberalisations of the Fed meshed with the euphoria of the early dotcoms. Smith also believes these net-idealists were the victims of a "heist", shafted by market-fixing bankers in a shares scam known as "laddering". Such financial innovation, he suggests, paved the way for the sub-prime chicanery that led to the 2008 crash.

Smith is a little too wired himself at times, occasionally seized by the ecstasies of communication. And when things get too capitalistically vaporous, it's nice to recall that Harris stole the idea of "pseudo-names" from the public-sector network Minitel, launched by that lumbering democratic-socialist dinosaur, France, in the early Eighties. There's a Net that's as close to the public library, or the town square, as it is to Burroughs-like experiment and quantitative easing. WikiLeaks and the Arab springs barely make a mention here. But Smith does us a service in reminding us how total wiredness can so easily lead to total weirdness. And that the off-switch is right over there, just a finger-stretch away.

Pat Kane is the author of 'Radical Animal' (

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