This Excerpt from WIRED cofounder Louis Rossetto’s New Novel Parties Like It’s 1998
Louis Rossetto cofounded WIRED in 1993. From his perch as editor in chief, he watched as the nascent internet took off, fulfilling his prediction that the world was about to be swept by a digital “Bengali typhoon.” Among other things, that epochal storm spawned a dotcom wave that was cresting in 1998. Now, two decades later, Rossetto has written a novel that captures the optimism, greed, fervor, and madness of that era. Set in a fictional San Francisco, Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet, follows the intertwined adventures of a startup CEO, a WIRED reporter, a code-writing true believer, and many more instantly iconic characters ripped from the mists of the first dotcom boom. What follows is a chapter from Rossetto’s novel, which takes place during a wild party thrown by the fictional WIRED magazine. —The Editors
Wednesday, January 7, 1998, San Francisco
Love at first kiss
Carl Hess stands in the line flowing into a looming warehouse off Third Street in the Mission Bay wasteland that was once the old Union Pacific yards. He’s still carrying his backpack with the skateboard strapped to it. His wide eyes drink in the excitement of the chattering dotcommers in line with him, the hiss of the rotating klieg lights out front, the sweat of the meaty bouncers guarding the door, the blacklit fluorescence emanating from inside like radioactivity, the sweet African melodies ramping as he gets closer. The cool, foggy air of this San Francisco night envelops him with limitless, sensual possibility.
This morning, the 18-year-old hacker was fleeing his home in Paris, Kentucky, on a Southwest time machine to the future—to the digital revolution here in San Francisco. Now he’s on the verge of accomplishing his dream of working at Gnuhere, a search-engine startup that has become the hottest web company in South of Market. Carl looks around. He can barely believe he’s standing in this scene.
At the door, he hands over the invite he scored from Steve Jefferson, the drug dealer/VJ/computer-game developer he met earlier this afternoon at the Gnuhere offices. And then the danceable rhythms, sensuous harmonies, and soaring guitar lines are loud and wash over him, the bodies are close, and their heat embraces him like a humid jungle. The projections on the stage screen behind the African band are a psychedelic assault.
As Carl becomes used to the warm swell of the crowded dance floor, the legendary Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and his Orchestre Afrisa International band wind up their song and a hush falls across the cavernous space.
The psychedelic images on the giant screen dissolve into the DayGlo orange of the current January 1998 issue of WIRED and its screaming “Change Is Good” headline. A figure with a mic steps forward on the stage. A spotlight hits her.
“Good evening!” the beautiful young woman in a Dolce & Gabbana party dress calls out. “I’m Jane Metcalfe, WIRED’s cofounder and president. And I wanted to welcome you—and congratulate you! You are the most powerful people on the planet today. Not the priests, not the pundits, not the politicians or the generals. You, the people creating and using digital technologies, are making a revolution that is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon. And tonight this is the white-hot center of that revolution. Let the festivities begin!”
The crowd goes crazy in exuberant self-congratulation. Tabu Ley’s band fires up again. Bodies resume rubbing against one another. The grainy black-and-white image on the big screen behind the band is a progression of blindfolded heads kissing, some tentatively, some lustily.
On the edge of the dance floor, Carl finds himself in one of two lines approaching a big plywood box from opposite directions. When he gets to the front, to his discomfort he discovers that this is the “Kissing Box,” and the images of the people sticking their heads into the box and kissing are what’s being projected on the screen. But before he can object, he’s blindfolded and his bushy red head is guided into the hole on his side of the box.
He kisses anonymous lips in the dark, and the big club screen displays their immense image. Pent-up desire infuses dancing tongues gliding over smooth teeth as her lips press and pull his with an erotic intelligence he’s never experienced. Carl is lost, like this is his first kiss, like he’s never kissed before, tender and fierce simultaneously. Time stops, the sound outside stops, there are only lips, and the mint taste, and the dancing tongue sliding over his teeth and around his tongue, wrapping, teasing, he is getting lost, he could stay all night touching those lips, dancing with that tongue, until finally he can hear the voices outside screaming, OK, enough, our turn, and arms pulling at his shoulders.
Both kissers withdraw, remove their blindfolds, and are surprised to discover that they saw each other that afternoon—the lips Carl kissed were those of Danny Katz, the WIRED reporter he’d run into earlier in the Gnuhere reception area.
Red-faced, Danny hurriedly disappears into the crowd. Carl is giddy. It’s as if the digital revolution itself has just kissed him.
He tries to find her.
Go land that story. Overthrow the state. Get laid.
Danny ducks into the VJ booth where Steve in his salmon Lacoste shirt is mixing images on his laptop with a “Kill Your TV” sticker on it. What he’s projecting on the party walls at the moment is science fiction, sleek, outrageous. Clips from Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, The Fifth Element, NASA rockets lifting off and rushing past the cameras on the gantry, astronauts walking goofily on the moon, the Space Shuttle blowing up into contrail devil’s horns. Other images include genetic engineering, manufacturing processes, robotics, space stations, and animation of nano-assemblers, before he elides into the infamous porno video of Pam Anderson giving head to Tommy Lee on the motorboat, etc. And then there are his own animations from his computer game in progress, The End of History.
“You look … confused,” Steve says, queuing the next video on his laptop while simultaneously passing out baggies and bindles to, and collecting money from, partygoers who keep appearing at the booth.
She blushes, embarrassed about kissing that young geek Carl, then becomes serious. “I was fired an hour ago.”
“Change is good.”
“What do you mean ‘good’?” Danny asks. “I love my job. I was on track to –”
Steve laughs at her. “You can’t tell which way the train is running by looking at the tracks.”
“Why do we keep saying ‘change is good’? Fuck WIRED and its social programming. Change is scary.”
“You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust, what do you have to be scared of?”
Despite her unease, she has to laugh.
“Go out and do something,” he continues. “We’re all going to be dead soon enough anyway. That ‘story of our times’ you’re always blabbing about writing and winning a Pulitzer for—it could be out there on the dance floor right now.”
He improbably points at a frumpy middle-aged couple looking lost amid the revelers.
“Go land that story. Overthrow the state. Get laid.”
“You’re a big help,” she says, scanning the crowd from his aerie.
She spots Carl, who has now spotted her and is heading her way. She immediately ducks out of the booth, flees through the crowd, only to stumble across …
Three-letter government agency
“Get away from me!” yells Ben Tucker, the CEO of Gnuhere.
“Dude,” Jonny Satoh says. Jonny is a thirtyish Japanese-American with round wire-rim glasses, and he’s holding Ben’s arm. He’s smiling.
Danny rushes up and starts shooting with her WIRED digital video camera. She’s standing next to a silver-haired scarecrow with a beard, whose name, she will discover shortly, is Max Stirner.
“Still snitching for the FBI?” Ben yells louder, and yanks his arm away. His girlfriend, Nicole, is at his side. A crowd is gathering around them.
Behind Ben, one of Steve’s animations scrolls huge on the screen left to right:
It is the business of the future to be dangerous. —A. N. Whitehead
“Man, it’s time to let bygones be—” Jonny says.
“You sold out, you sold me out, you put me in jail.”
“You have only yourself to thank for going to jail, buddy,” Jonny says. “After all, it was all on you to release PGE into the wild.”
Jonny is alluding to Ben writing and then releasing Pretty Good Encryption to the net. PGE was Ben’s version of private key encryption, a sophisticated method of protecting data and communications that was used by governments and large corporations, and its export was heavily regulated. Anyone could use encryption to securely send data over the net—almost no understanding of how PGE worked in detail was needed. The moment Ben put PGE on the net, it immediately went around the world. The NSA arrested him and charged him with unauthorized export of a weapon—cryptography.
“We broke encryption loose from government control in a big way,” Ben says.
Jonny laughs. “You’re accusing me of selling out? You, who’s chasing the dotcom fever to become a billionaire.”
“Maybe I just found a better way to fight that fight!” Ben screams.
People in the crowd are pointing at Ben. He’s a celebrity. He can’t go anywhere, this party included—perhaps this party especially—without attracting attention.
Jonny is still smiling, arms raised slightly from his sides, palms up as if showing he’s unarmed.
“Anger might not be a good place to come from”—Jonny echoes Ben’s words to Danny earlier in the day—“if you want to be a revolutionary.”
“And what would be?” Ben asks sarcastically.
Ben actually stops to consider that, because it’s precisely what he told Danny in their contentious interview in his office this afternoon.
“That’s better,” Jonny says, holding out his hand. “We were close once. And we may have different perspectives. At least we don’t have to be enemies.”
Ben finally accepts Jonny’s outstretched hand.
Another hand enters the frame. The hand of the silver-haired scarecrow standing next to Danny. He covers the lens of her camera.
She recoils and tries to withdraw the camera from his grasp. He shakes his head disapprovingly and keeps his hand firmly clamped over the lens.
Jonny keeps his grip on Ben’s hand, leans in close, and whispers so that others can’t hear, “I don’t work for the FBI—I work for another three-letter agency. We need your help with PGE.”
“When hell freezes over,” Ben says, trying to pull his hand away.
Nicole can see the long-suppressed fury at Jonny rippling under the skin of Ben’s face. He’s about to lose control. Nicole pulls at Ben. “You’re making a scene.”
“It’s time to get over your naive fantasy about overthrowing our ‘evil’ government through technology,” Jonny says. “The world is different today. There’re some really bad actors using your program who really mean to hurt us.”
“Show me how the government’s ability to violate the privacy of any citizen has prevented a single major disaster. They’re abridging the freedom of all citizens—to defend us against a bogeyman that they won’t explain.”
“Privacy is quite dead,” Jonny says.
“The universe believes in encryption,” Ben says. “It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it.”
“That people still worship at its corpse doesn’t change that.”
“I am never going to work for a three-letter government agency,” Ben says angrily, leaning in close to Jonny.
“Don’t take the bait, Ben,” Nicole implores as she pulls more insistently on his arm.
With eerie confidence, Jonny whispers in Ben’s ear, “One way or another you’re ours. You just don’t know it yet.”
Ben shakes off Nicole and angrily pushes Jonny in the chest.
Jonny immediately pushes back, and Ben squares up against him.
Nicole surprises herself by reflexively stepping between the two of them to defend Ben from Jonny, and from himself.
“Get out of my way,” Jonny says as he tries reaching around her to get at Ben.
“Go find another idealist to betray,” Nicole says, her voice quivering with anger and anxiety at drawing the crowd’s attention.
Jonny pulls up as if smacked—then actually does smack Nicole in the face.
The crowd inhales. She starts as if to smack him back but stops, leaving his aggression unanswered, to expose him to the gapers as the asshole he is.
Instead, Ben launches himself at Jonny, and Jonny at Ben, but somehow Nicole stands her ground between them.
She stares icily at Jonny.
“At least he didn’t betray his best friend,” she says with contempt. “He stood up for what he believed in.”
Jonny shakes his head in disgust.
“Just leave him alone!” Nicole yells with a fierce protectiveness for Ben she didn’t know she had.
Jonny laughs at her.
“Come on, Nicole.” Now it’s Ben who is doing the pulling as he drags her away. “Let’s find someone else to save me from.”
Nicole pulls back her arm but allows herself to be steered away.
Ben glares back at the smiling Jonny. You’re mine, Jonny mouths.
The path of revolution isn’t a straight line
“What do you think you’re doing?” Danny says to Max Stirner, the silver-haired scarecrow standing next to her, as she yanks her camera free.
“Private things should remain private,” he replies in a thick German accent.
“What’s it to you?” Danny asks.
“Let’s just say I’m a former comrade in Chaos.”
“The German hacker group?” Danny asks.
“We are cypherpunks,” Max says.
“No, cypherpunks. The word has a precise meaning,” Max says. “Cypherpunks are dedicated to creating anonymous systems. We want to build a world where an individual’s informational footprints—everything from an opinion on abortion to the medical record of an actual abortion—can be traced only if the individual chooses to reveal them. We use cryptography, anonymous mail-forwarding systems, and electronic money to do that.”
“The government would say there are already laws to guarantee privacy.”
“I want a guarantee with physics and mathematics, not laws.” Max regards her suspiciously. “And you, what is your interest?”
She holds up the camera with its WIRED sticker.
“I’m Danny Katz. And you?”
“There’s something not right about what we just saw,” she says.
“The less we know, the more we suspect,” Max says.
“How do we know this isn’t misdirection? That Ben isn’t already working with Jonny for some ‘three-letter agency’?”
“Because Jonny sent Ben to prison.”
“Why? The law had never been used for cryptography before.”
“Because PGE is so powerful, the government wanted to make an example of him.”
“Funny, though. Ben got what he wanted—his reputation as an outlaw hacker has served him well. It’s like his releasing PGE was a stunt.”
“The spooks don’t think PGE is a stunt. Putting industrial-strength encryption in everyone’s hands is a nightmare to them. Remember, he was tried for exporting ammunition without a license. Takes hundreds of years to decrypt PGE, even a simple email, even with NSA supercomputers.”
“How do we know the NSA didn’t get Ben to put a back door in it?”
“I know Ben. He wouldn’t.”
“So you’re OK with him becoming a billionaire on the back of his reputation as a rebel hacker?”
“The path of revolution isn’t a straight line. And we’re literally in a race between our ability to build and deploy technology and their ability to build and deploy laws and treaties. Maybe it’s helpful to have someone on our side with money and power and technology.”
Danny tilts her head at him and narrows her eyes. “You know more than you’re letting on.”
But before Max can answer, the middle-aged couple Steve pointed out from the VJ booth approach her and tug on her arm.
Danny wheels to confront them, then stops. Frumpily dressed, ill at ease, they look completely out of place among the hip crowd around them.
The housewife-looking woman introduces herself and her husband, in horn-rimmed glasses, as the Wozniaks. “You’ve got to help us,” she tells Danny. She is almost hysterical. “They’re after us.”
“You are the only person who can help us,” says her worried husband.
Danny is taken aback by the paranoia shimmering off them like heat off summer blacktop.
When Danny looks back for Max, all that’s left is a retinal afterimage.
Flirting in plain sight
As he moves through the party, people continually call out to Ben, and women flirt boldly. Tall and lithe, with arresting gray eyes, Nicole is a magnet for guys’ naked lust. Together, they make a striking couple.
Ben stops to say hello to Andy Bechtolsheim. Andy is a Silicon Valley legend. While a doctoral student in electrical engineering at Stanford, he designed a powerful PC with built-in networking he called the SUN workstation, after the Stanford University Network. In 1982 he joined with two Stanford Business School graduates, Scott McNeely and Vinod Khosla, to write the business plan for what became one of Silicon Valley’s most famous hardware startups, Sun Microsystems. Andy was employee number one. By the time he left in 1995 to start Granite Systems, he was a billionaire. When Cisco bought Granite two years later before it had even launched a product, the sale added another $200 million to his net worth. So he co-founded HighBAR Ventures to do angel investments. Gnuhere was its first.
“All good?” Andy asks.
“Couldn’t be better,” Ben tells him.
“Need any more money, you know who to call,” Andy says.
Ben laughs. It’s their standing joke. Both of them know that Gnuhere long ago graduated past angel funding.
“Andy, we’re doing so good,” Ben says, clapping him on the back. “Pretty soon you won’t be asking me if I’ll take more of your money; you’re going to ask me for money and to join your fund. Change the name to HighBARB.”
Enter the bankers, stage right. Morgan Goldman’s Brad Terzo and Maria Martin are celebrities in their own right. They met with Ben this afternoon so Ben could sign their letter of intent to manage Gnuhere’s IPO. Based in the Valley, Brad’s internet startup practice has done the most IPOs, raising the most money at the best valuations since the sector got hot after the Netscape IPO in 1995. And Maria has been christened “Queen of the Internet” ever since her research for the bank earlier in the decade had broken the space wide open.
Now she’s decided to make the leap over the Chinese wall and leave research to join the banking side. This afternoon at Gnuhere was her first call with Brad. It started well enough, with her demonstrating how Morgan Goldman managing the IPO would turn Ben into a billionaire. It didn’t hurt that there was an undercurrent of sexual attraction between the two of them. But the meeting ended badly, with Maria claiming she needed to do her own due diligence on Gnuhere, even though Brad had been doing his for months. Ben refused to sign the letter of intent.
Not only was Ben unhappy, so was Brad, who had been pressured by the bank’s partners in New York to allow her to join his team. At a ceremony earlier in the evening, where Maria collected the Society of Equity Analysts’ Achievement Award for 1998, Brad told her that if she didn’t straighten up, he was going to turn her “career into a smoking pile of rubble—and then make the rubble bounce.” Recognizing her move to the better-paid side of the business was in jeopardy, Maria apologized and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Now Brad and Maria, who still has her trophy in her hand, bump into Ben and Nicole.
“I hope you didn’t get any false impressions today,” Maria tells Ben, her voice frankly affectionate as she gives a quick flick of her eyes to Brad to be sure he registers that she’s a team player. Brad nods to her approvingly.
Then Maria serves Ben a playful stare.
“You understand”—Ben smiles at her and they lock eyes—“we can’t be too careful. We’ve waited our entire lives for this moment.”
Nicole looks at them with her head tilted. Could they actually be flirting in front of her?
“Just to be clear”—Maria smiles back at him; he has this magnetism made even more delicious by the obvious conflict of interest—“I want to see this deal happen as much as you do. I want Morgan Goldman to be your bank. I intend do everything I possibly can to make that happen. And I want you to enjoy every minute. All we need is trust, and a little bit of pixie dust.”
Yes, they are shamelessly flirting.
“And just to be clear,” Ben says, now that he knows they want him as much as he wants them, “I’d never lie about Gnuhere, because I have nothing to hide.”
In flirting with Maria, Ben isn’t looking to ditch Nicole. But given the state of their relationship, some part of him is feeling that maybe Maria is an upgrade. Never know unless you try?
He’s playing with the thought of Maria, wondering what she feels like, how her nipples perk, whether she has an outie or an innie. Does she shave?
On Maria’s part, normally she doesn’t indulge in this kind stuff; she’s phenomenally disciplined. But still, he’s charismatic, she has to admit. If she rode him, would he last long enough?
“And I’d never lie about Gnuhere either,” Maria jokes, and everyone laughs. But her eyes are serious, appraising Ben.
Even as Nicole glares at both of them, Ben’s callous indifference to her feelings isn’t new. Her inability to suppress her mounting rage is, to her, simultaneously surprising, thrilling, and scary.
Put the puck on the ice
“Hi,” Carl says to Steve up in his VJ booth.
“If it isn’t my redneck homey,” Steve says as he mixes a Teletubbies video into solar flares into Pam Anderson on his laptop.
“Do you believe in love at first sight? Or kiss?”
“No, I just believe in me. Yoko and me.”
“Gnuhere it,” Steve tells him sarcastically, but with a broad grin. Carl wasn’t the only one who found that grin disconcerting. Steve’s grin made it seem that regardless of what words came out of his mouth, he really wasn’t being mean, he was just sort of playing a harmless game for his own amusement, pushing buttons to see which would throw you off balance. But wasn’t that in itself mean?
“You’re so cynical—do you believe in anything?” Carl asks.
“Forget about love,” Steve says. “There’s a whole room of fertile women out there. Ask them and they’ll tell you they’re all looking for love. But they’ll settle for lust.” He sweeps his arm at the river of youth and anticipation. “See that nymph over there?” He points to a particularly attractive girl in the crowd. “Try your luck. Put the puck on the ice.”
“Been thinking about your game. You’re gonna have cheats, right? You know, access to all weapons, unlimited ammo, unlimited money. And my favorite, a one-minute do-over—so if you die, you can go back one minute before you die and correct what you did.”
“The real world doesn’t have cheats; why should games?”
“The real world doesn’t have cheats?” Carl snorts. “People are cheating all the time. Lucas cheated when he had Greedo shooting at Han.”
“Fucking right, Han shot first.”
“And you know what would be really cool? How about real interactivity, not just fake in-game interactivity? What if what you do in the game makes something happen in meatspace?”
Cheats for the real world. Steve grins. I like that. Even if the kid is a dork.
Then Carl remembers why he’s here. “You wouldn’t know where I can score some acid?”
“You tried E, a rube like you?” Steve asks, reaching into his backpack.
“Of course I’ve tried ecstasy,” Carl tells him. “Paris, Kentucky, may not be San Francisco, but we still have E. I’m not talking about E, I’m talking about acid.”
“Acid, like LSD? You tripped?”
“What do I look like,” Carl asks, “a virgin?”
“OK, say I haven’t –”
“I don’t care, blow your brains out.” Steve holds out his hand with a Mickey Mouse head grinning off a small red blotter tab. “Two hundred fifty mics pure lysergic acid. Ten bucks.”
“And give me a tab of E too.”
“Sure. You’re not stoned enough if you can lie on the floor without holding on.”
Are you a real reporter, or do you just play one on TV?
The paranoid middle-aged couple has Danny boxed in.
“Aren’t you the one on the WIRED show on MSNBC always going on about fighting the establishment?” says Mr. Wozniak as he peers around nervously.
“We have a story for you,” Mrs. Wozniak says. “But you have to be brave.”
“We’re in hiding,” the man says conspiratorially.
“In plain sight?” Danny asks.
“We don’t sleep two nights in the same bed,” he says.
“Are you brave enough?” the woman repeats.
“Wait,” Danny says. Are these guys nuts? “Back up. What are you going on about?”
“Three years ago, the Justice Department gave us a contract to write a software program.”
“It tracks legal cases.”
“It’s called CasePro.”
“We had a small company, so we had to hire 20 more programmers. We wrote the code.”
“Worked round the clock for two years.”
“Submitted it to Justice a year ago.”
“And they didn’t pay us the last installment on the contract.”
“The biggest installment.”
“This is news?” Danny spots Maria with her banker posse, carrying her glittering statue. People react to her as if she’s a celebrity. “It’s the government,” Danny says distractedly. “It’s a payment glitch.”
“They won’t talk to us.”
“They say we were never contractors.”
“They’ve driven us into bankruptcy.”
“We’ve lost everything.”
“Our lawyer thinks it’s a secret National Security Agency project using the Justice Department as cover.”
“Former Attorney General Richardson wrote an op-ed about us in The New York Times.”
Danny is plainly skeptical, even annoyed, still tracking Maria with her eyes. “This sounds like a story for the –”
“We tried the mainstream media.”
“They don’t understand the software angle.”
“The Village Voice had a reporter researching the story. They say he committed suicide in a motel room. Right.”
“The software is incredibly powerful.”
“And no one is interested in challenging Attorney General Janet Reno.”
“Been watching too many X-Files, have we?” Danny asks archly.
“Are you a real reporter?” the man asks, “or do you just play one on TV?”
“This story is so big you could win a Pulitzer Prize.”
“OK, don’t believe us,” the wife says.
“But maybe you’ll believe this guy,” the husband tells Danny, peering around nervously as he thrusts a card into her hand.
“Yeah, believe the opposite of what he says,” the wife says. “He’s part of the conspiracy.”
“Yeah?” Danny asks distractedly. “What does your software do, again?”
“They told us they wanted it to track cases, but we think they want to use it to spy on American citizens.”
That gets Danny’s attention. But before she can continue, Maria bursts in and gives Danny a big hug.
When Danny turns back to the couple, they’re gone. The blessing and curse of big parties—you lose people in the crowd.
She stares down at the card they pressed into her hand. It has an FBI crest on it, above “Agent John Smith,” with a San Francisco address, and a phone number on the back.
This man buys and sells revolutionaries
Carl looks at the two hits in his hand—the round yellow ecstasy pill with the winking smiley face and the red paper LSD tab with Mickey Mouse on it. Easy choice. He pops the tab of LSD into his mouth, wanders around waiting for it to take effect. In due course, he finds himself at the bar, where he orders a beer. Next to him a discussion is taking place that catches his attention.
“Digital revolution?” a gaunt, austere guy his buddies have been calling The Skeptic is saying. “No such thing.”
“What do you mean?” Carl butts in. He can’t help himself; the guy sounds arrogant and looks like a poseur in his leather jacket. “Information is power.”
The coterie around The Skeptic laugh at Carl and regard him with derision, the next bull entering the ring.
“Yeah sure.” The Skeptic wheels slowly to address him. “Tell it to the librarian.”
“The internet is the most amazing revolution in history,” Carl replies. “Maybe since fire.”
“Oh, we have a true believer here.” The Skeptic eyes Carl with the detachment he would reserve for a lobster he’s about to boil for dinner.
“Guilty as charged. I‘m a believer in leveling the playing field.”
“When I think of a level playing field, I think of a nice site for an office building,” The Skeptic laughs. “You must be one of those overpaid programmers.”
Carl turns to face The Skeptic. “I’m about to be hired as a coder at Gnuhere. We’re the people who’re changing the world.”
“Changing the world? You guys can’t even change your underpants. You’re a myth built around a social disease.”
Carl flashes anger. The Skeptic has touched a nerve.
“What do coders use for birth control?” The Skeptic asks, goading Carl. “Their personality.”
“What do you know about the Digital Revolution, anyway?” Carl says.
“Do you know who you’re talking to?” one of The Skeptic’s cronies tells Carl.
“This man buys and sells ‘revolutionaries’ like you,” another snorts.
“I know enough not to confuse making money,” The Skeptic tells Carl, “with the invention of fire.”
Carl’s acid is finally kicking in, and the colors of the party are flowing around him like thick oil, the sound pressing on his temples like warm hands. He leans into the Skeptic, really checks him out, can even see the pores on his nose. The aura pulsing off him is as dark and full of malignant power and menace as a Kentucky tornado blotting out the summer sun as it heads toward town. He looks into The Skeptic’s eyes, really dives in—and finds casual contempt layered over a swirling vortex of pure evil. Is this what tripping on acid is like? Where’s the euphoria?
He screams at the Skeptic: “You’re like the jerks I went to school with—I killed them all!”
Then the screen behind him goes black-and-white with images of Nazi soldiers standing in endless, ordered ranks at the vast stadium in Nuremberg from Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Triumph of the Will. Godwin’s law, Carl thinks.
The Skeptic and his coterie laugh at Carl before calmly resuming their banter as if he doesn’t exist.
That was college, a long time ago
“Looked like you needed rescuing,” Maria tells Danny.
Danny stares at the banker with naked affection.
“It’s great to see you, Maria. It’s been too long. Still chasing the American dream?”
“Well, I got the trophy”– she waves it joyfully—“and I’ve got the fancy apartments in New York and Nob Hill, about to buy a house in Woodside, and I’ve got the corporate jet on call, and I’ve got the CEO of IBM on speed dial, and I’m probably going to make partner next year …”
“Too much ain’t enough?”
“My mother told me my first word was ‘more.’” Maria’s eyes are scanning the room as if looking for the next encounter. Her gaze stops to appraise Steve in the VJ booth. He looks familiar—and attractive.
“I guess because you’re a woman”—Danny’s voice has a biting edge—“you have to work twice as hard to be a prick.”
Maria’s attention returns to Danny. “Same old self-righteous Danny.” Now Maria’s voice has an edge too. “Why is it that when a man is ambitious it’s a virtue, and when a woman’s ambitious it’s a vice?”
“Am I hitting a nerve here?”
Their shoulders square up; their body language shifts to confrontation.
“You’re suggesting I made some kind of choice,” Maria says.
“Between ambition and love,” Danny replies pointedly, her eyes locked on Maria, obviously trying to raise issues from their earlier relationship.
“But why should we have to choose?” Danny continues.
“You tell me.” Maria leans into Danny. “You were the philosophy major.”
“Maybe we don’t,” Danny replies softly, a wry smile on her lips now, the tension broken. “How’s your love life?”
Maria chooses to not to answer. She’s pretty much asexual these days, no time for a private life, living mostly in planes and hotels.
“You know I’m still in love with you,” Danny says.
“Stop,” Maria says with finality, shutting off Danny’s aggressiveness. When Danny was at Barnard and she was at the Columbia B-school, they bumped into each other on the stairs in the stacks of Butler Library and had a fling. She eases back from her. “That was a long time ago. And it was never love. Love is based on knowledge. At best it was infatuation, which is based on ignorance. You never knew me. You still don’t.”
Red phial yellow phial
This is a cutscene from Steve’s computer game-in-progress called The End of History—which is exactly what he’ s VJing onto the walls of the WIRED party.
Steve’s gameplay play
Three guys who look barely 20 hesitantly approach Steve up in the VJ booth.
“Can we talk to you?” one asks timidly.
“E is $10 a pure 100-milligram dose. Got some great blow—the stuff that killed Belushi. Humboldt weed …”
“We want to know who’s doing the animations,” they interrupt him, embarrassed.
Steve looks at them skeptically.
“We’re fans,” they hasten to add.
“I know him,” Steve replies blandly.
“What’s his name?”
“You wouldn’t recognize it,” Steve says.
“Do you know whether he works on games?” one of the guys says.
“Would you give him something for us?” another says.
“Who’re you?” Steve asks.
“We’re Absolutely Nominal Studios,” one says.
“Never heard of it.”
“We wrote a 3-D game engine.”
“Dime a dozen,” Steve says.
“We know. But this one is better than the Quake engine.”
“Your hallucination is duly noted.”
“No kidding. It’s faster, with better 3-D rendering,” one of the guys says.
“Yeah, it’s super-fast, hyper-efficient, and networkable,” the other says.
“Makes for just dope gameplay,” the first says.
“Blows all the others out of the water.”
Steve eyes them slyly. Can he use this for the game he’s making?
“We’d like the guy who did the animations to come work for our game company,” one says.
“Sort of like Lasseter at Pixar,” another says.
They hold out a CD case with a computer-generated character on the cover and the words “AbNom Game Engine.”
“I’ll pass it along,” Steve says, tossing it onto the table as he focuses on his laptop.
They hesitantly back out of the booth.
Steve steals a glance at the shiny disc.
The web dream
For Carl, his life is becoming engulfed by the surrounding spectacle coming at him at 126 to 189 beats per minute. Smoke machines spew fog cut by lasers streaking in a plane above his head like glowing red wire. Intellabeam spots pulse lavender and magenta, swiveling now to DJ Dmitry’s mix caroming off the concrete walls, floors, and ceilings. High-speed strobes freeze the sexual energy of the glazed, sweaty, ecstatic dancers rubbing bodies, changing personas, open to anything as they swirl in the flow. The techno cocoon is like the internet itself—no age, no gender, no time.
Smiling faces loom every which way he turns in moon-eyed wonder, his bushy hair a red halo around his head. The party grows into a wondrous dichotomy: the soft sensuousness of the dancers hugging, touching, and indulging in blatant displays of E-driven affection—as contrasted with the primitive, fearful brutalism exploding in another room nearby, where two huge 10-foot-tall Survival Research Labs (aka SRL) battle-robots are methodically demolishing each other with utterly inhuman indifference.
The verbal soundtrack weaving through the music is a cacophony of fast-talk stepping over itself:
“What good is being a pioneer if you can’t make money while you’re young enough to baste in the fat of life?”
“Of course we want to sell out. It’s time to turn this into someone else’s headache.”
“The web is a place that echoes with the footfalls of rent-me capitalists making their hasty exits.”
“What’s the difference between a dead weasel in the road and a dead venture capitalist in the road? There are skid marks in front of the weasel.”
“Digital haves and have-nots? Not. Only have-nows and have-laters.”
“The web dream is what smart kids across America are dreaming.”
“The web is a place you go without ever getting anywhere.”
“The only way to rationalize these valuations is to believe a greater fool will come along and be willing to pay more.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the Digital Revolution is a big fat waste of electricity.”
Carl is swimming through a sea of buzzwords: new economy, killer apps, embedded systems, netheads, bellheads, information infrastructure, corporate repositioning, dweebspeak, retail pet food sales, smart cards, cyberspace, network latency, digital underground, clipperchip, vaporware, searchbot, digital watermark, key escrow, immersive technology, cypherpunk, the von Neumann bottleneck, gigabit Ethernet, consensual marketing, gigahertz, technocult, algorithmic trading, hedge funds, valuation, living on internet time, HDTV, LCDs, blamestorming, null convention logic, transformational experience, Mother Nature on a motherboard, genetic algorithms, Silicon Alley, friction-free commerce, international cryptography framework, copyright compliance officer, smartifacts, PointCast, push media, one-to-many media, Manifesto of the Digital Revolution …
Carl is making soulful eye contact with beautiful girls—but they quickly stare away, as if embarrassed to see right through him to the Paris, Kentucky, hayseed in his soul.
Carl comes across the “nymph” Steve pointed out from his VJ booth. In Carl’s blissful state, she’s the girl of his dreams, angelic and sensual.
“Hey, you wanna, like, dance?” he asks her with joyful longing.
She looks him over from top to bottom to the backpack with the skateboard strapped to it that he’s still lugging around, smiles teasingly—and decides against.
“I’m not your type,” she tells him.
“What’s my type?” he asks.
“I’m gay, OK?” she tells him, giggles to her girlfriend, and walks away.
“Oh,” Carl says dejectedly. And watches her immediately begin flirting with some cute guy.
Crack! A white ball hits a number 1 yellow on green felt in the poolroom, and Carl’s mind goes caroming around the table.
When you gotta go, you gotta go
Maria has to pee. There’s a long line outside the women’s, none outside the men’s. She pushes through the door to the men’s.
Even history seems malleable
“What was that back there?” Nicole says.
“What was what?”
“With that Maria woman?”
“Nothing, baby. You being paranoid again?”
“You being a jerk again? Stop lying to me. This open relationship thing is really not working for me.”
“Are you still upset about the gallery?” Nicole was rejected this afternoon by hip XYZ Gallery for a show of her nude watercolors. After two years of work, she is vibrating between rage and despair. And their relationship is a convenient target.
“I’m upset about where we find ourselves. About you insulting me to my face with your women as if I’m not there. About you wanting to fuck me in the ass instead of making me come!”
“Wait, whoa, there’s more going on here.”
Nicole sighs. “Maybe it has to do with how we always help each other achieve our goals. But now you’re pulling ahead, and I’m being left behind.”
“What am I supposed to do? Drop everything to figure out how to help your career? I’m only going to get one chance to do this,” Ben says, trying to reason with her. “I have to focus on the IPO now—”
“So you can grow an even bigger ego?”
What is she bargaining for? She has to see he needs to keep his priorities straight. “Nicole, most people are the prisoners of fate. Yet there are these moments when even history seems malleable. This is one of them. I have to take advantage of this.”
“To me, it feels more like our relationship is a prisoner of your fate.”
“Forget my fate. I have the fate of 300 Gnuhere employees, who are also owners, in my hands. They’ve put their hearts and souls into what we’ve built together. They trust me to do the right thing for them and their families. They’re about to see their dreams fulfilled. I can’t let them down now.”
Both of them can feel big wheels turning under them, as if the room is starting to tilt. Ben doesn’t want to face it. Nicole wants to force it.
“Nicole, can we talk about this later? This isn’t the time or the –”
“When later? This can’t wait. What’s wrong with talking about serious stuff now?”
“Because I need to take a leak,” he says, and escapes into the men’s room they’re passing.
Bring some meaning into your life
Nicole stands outside the men’s room, staring blankly at the door, then remembers the Nikon digital camera that she’s been carrying around in her purse since Ben gave it to her. He said he got it from Nikon in exchange for advertising. She pulls it out.
Steve comes by in his salmon Lacoste polo shirt.
“Put it between your legs,” he tells her.
“Pardon me?” Nicole asks.
“Stuff it up your skirt, press the shutter, a good-looking woman like you.” Steve smiles his guildeless, megawatt Chris Rock smile at her.
“Is this your idea of picking up girls?” she asks archly.
“No, I’m telling you how to bring some meaning into your life,” he says, and strides away.
Our little secret
Ben takes the urinal next to Gnuhere’s Asian CFO, Jeff Tsai.
“We have a problem,” Jeff says, concern in his voice.
“What kind of problem?”
“A genuine crisis. You remember the big Amazon ad buy? It was scheduled to start next week? Just got a text from sales—they’ve decided to postpone it until next quarter. Leaves us a major cash hole.”
“Net net, what’s the delta?”
“At current burn rates, we’re out of money in six weeks. Empty.”
“I thought we had six months?”
“Report I got late this afternoon shows collections deteriorating. Lot of bad pays with these dotcom startups.”
“Can we accelerate the IPO?”
“If our finances look bad, Morgan Goldman’s not going to want to do the IPO in the first place.”
He flushes the urinal.
“Can our VC do a bridge loan? He’s here tonight, isn’t he?” Ben asks, as if he didn’t shoot Jeff down earlier this afternoon for suggesting they talk to their VC. He doesn’t want to go back to him now for more money. He doesn’t need his insufferable told-you-so’s; and pre-IPO venture money at this point would certainly be more costly than the equity funding to come. But he needs to keep moving forward to stay in the race with Yahoo and Lycos and the rest of them. And more expensive money from Paul Plymouth is still worth it to keep the pedal to the metal and build value faster. Ben prides himself on his ability to surf that risk/reward edge.
“I saw him at the bar,” Jeff says.
“Let’s go find him.”
“Meanwhile, we don’t talk about this with anyone,” Jeff says seriously on his way out. “Especially don’t want to spook the Morgan Goldman people.”
“No kidding,” Ben says, zipping up and following Jeff out. “We really need them to do our IPO before –”
The door shuts
A toilet flushes and Maria steps out of a stall, a knowing, excited look on her face, a wolf that’s picked up the scent of prey.
Ben exits the men’s room and rushes past Nicole.
Then Maria emerges—and Nicole’s face clenches. She turns to follow Ben.
“Hey, wait up!” she calls out to him.
“Something’s come up,” Ben says as he makes for the bar.
“We need to talk.” She chases after him.
“Later,” Ben says.
“It’s always ‘later,’ Ben. Which is another way of saying never.” Her voice is rising. “Which is another way of saying I come last.” It’s all becoming too much.
Ben stays focused and keeps following Jeff to the bar.
She catches up, grabs his arm, and spins him around. “You can’t walk away from me. You can’t ignore me. You are killing us.”
People stop and look at them.
“Nicole, please, this is not my fault,” Ben tells her calmly as they approach the bar, uncomfortable with the attention she is attracting.
“I want to talk now!” Nicole screams at Ben.
“Now’s not the time, Nicole,” Ben says, still calm, as if he can find a way to thread the needle through Nicole’s fragile emotional state and his need to stay focused on his immediate mission of talking to his VC.
But it’s too late for that.
“Then fuck you!” she screams at the top of her lungs, and stomps away, almost tripping over Carl, who is wandering by with big eyes. “And I’m glad I never masturbated for you!”
The crowd stares.
Then Nicole gets an idea and grabs Carl’s arm.
“You want a date tonight?” she suggestively asks the startled Carl, grabbing his hand and leading him away.
“Do you ever think we’re all living inside the holodeck?” Carl asks Nicole. “That this is all just a big computer game simulation?”
Ben bursts out laughing. Carl is still carrying his backpack and skateboard.
Nicole strides back and can’t contain herself. She stabs her stiletto heel into Ben’s foot. Then stomps away.
“What about our date?” Carl says plaintively.
Into the streets of the city
Which is what’s on the screens of the WIRED party.
I’m thinking that might not be enough right now
Ben limps to the bar and to the gaunt Paul Plymouth, aka The Skeptic, with whom Carl had been debating the Digital Revolution earlier. Jeff is already huddling with the leather-jacketed Plymouth.
Andy Bechtolsheim may have been the first investor to put money into Gnuhere, but Paul Plymouth and his Valley Venture Partners were the first to put up serious money—initially $10 million, now grown to $30 million in a series of subsequent rounds. Ben remembers the feeling of relief when, after suffering literally hundreds of rejections, Plymouth agreed to fund his plan. “I want to invest in your dreams” is how Plymouth told him. The negotiations on the investment contract were arduous, with Plymouth fighting for every advantage. But when they were over, documents signed, and the money in the bank, Plymouth shook Ben’s hand and told him affably, “Now that we’re on the same side of the table, you should be happy that I’m going to fight for you just as hard.”
“We have a timing issue,” Jeff says now. “Amazon had a big contract starting Monday that they’ve unexpectedly postponed until next quarter.”
“Always ‘unexpectedly,’” Plymouth says. He’s grinning at the scene between Ben and Nicole he just witnessed. He looks back at Jeff. “Let me guess. Now you don’t have enough cash to get to the IPO?”
Jeff nods unhappily. “We have six weeks.”
“Didn’t I tell you your spending was out of control? That this IPO was premature?” Plymouth asks. “That you guys weren’t ready?”
Ben watches as Nicole stomps away, seething. She makes a beeline toward the nearest attractive guy who doesn’t appear attached.
“Had enough networking?” she asks the guy, whose name is Seth.
“Depends who you came to connect with,” Seth replies, amused.
She conspicuously slips her arm through his, smiles pointedly back at Ben as if to say, “Take that, asshole,” and heads away.
Ben moves reflexively toward Nicole as she picks up the handsome guy, then halts.
“Focus, Ben,” Plymouth tells him with a facsimile of concern. “You’re at a stage in the game where your focus must be complete.”
Ben tries, but his attention keeps being drawn to Nicole as she moves with Seth through the crowd toward the exit.
“It’s in your interest to give us the bridge,” Jeff says to Plymouth. “Your fund has already put in $30 million.”
“Don’t remind me,” Plymouth laughs.
“What’s another million to get to a $3 billion payday six months from now?”
“You talk as though that ‘payday’ is a sure thing,” Plymouth says.
“Morgan Goldman is the best investment bank in the world,” Jeff says.
“Oh, then it’s a done deal?”
“We have a letter of intent,” Jeff says.
“Jeff, I’m going to let you in on something: IPOs fail. If you even get to an IPO. Who knows what else pops out of your clown car between now and then?”
Behind them, in a room visible through the glass wall, SRL’s huge battle-robots are swinging at each other. They stagger … then recover to swing again.
“Why so negative on Gnuhere?” Jeff asks.
“I’m not negative. But I have been saying all along that you guys are out of control. Six weeks’ cash is the very definition of out of control.”
Ben turns back from Nicole to focus on Plymouth. “I think it was Mario Andretti who said that if things seem under control, you’re just not moving fast enough.” He grins. “It’s our job to take risks. And it’s your job to finance that risk.”
“No, Ben, that’s not accurate. It’s my job to manage risk. As Jeff accurately points out, I have $30 million at stake in Gnuhere.”
“All we need is a small bridge loan to reach the IPO,” Jeff says.
“And what do I get out of it?” Plymouth asks.
“Your payday when the IPO closes,” Ben says. “Gnuhere options at the pre-IPO valuation.”
“I’m thinking that may not be enough right now.” Plymouth smiles. The purple light from the Intellabeams may be playing tricks with his perception, but to Ben that grin appeared less than friendly, even menacing.
But then Ben’s attention is taken again by Nicole leaving the warehouse. She looks back at Ben, as if expecting him to come after her. When he doesn’t, a profound sadness crosses her face before giving way to fierce resolution as she exits with Seth.
One of the robots in the large window behind Plymouth and Ben lands a terrific blow. The other robot staggers and falls heavily.
One word: day trading
As Maria and Steve leave the party through the same door, they almost collide as they did earlier in the day at the Gnuhere offices. And do a double take when they recognize each other.
Behind them, Nicole is leaving arm in arm with Seth.
Maria and Steve find themselves heading in the same direction. Maria has a happy buzz on from the alcohol, the award statue in her hand, and the prospect of stupid wealth coming her way from being on the sell side at the bank during this second San Francisco gold rush. Steve is high from the party energy of his VJ gig.
“Big swinging dick,” Steve says.
She looks at him, puzzled.
He nods at the award, falling into step beside her.
She smiles, happy with her statue, pleased with herself.
“Give the VJ a lift?” he asks, holding up his laptop.
Maria is feeling adventurous. He’s cute in a dangerous kind of way. Why not?
“Top-of-the-line Bimmer,” Steve continues as they walk toward her sleek black car.
They fail to notice two guys in long black coats and fancy boots 10 paces behind them.
Steve continues his inventory: “Armani dress—it would look even better crumpled in a corner of my room.”
Did I just hear that? Maria laughs at him.
“What laptop you carry?” he asks.
“New York address?”
“Spring Street, Soho.”
“Hotel de Russie in Rome for the amazing food, and it’s right off the Piazza del Popolo. And the Tokyo Park Hyatt for the glass-roofed swimming pool on the 47th floor.”
“Boyfriend? Some buff young master-of-the-universe lawyer just made partner at Wilson Sonsini?”
“How do you know it’s not a girlfriend?”
“Because I know you like boys. So you don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Don’t have the time.” She remote-unlocks the doors of her black BMW 740, beep beep.
“Got any contacts at Disney in your Rolodex?” he asks.
“Michael Eisner?” she says.
“Wrong level,” he replies. “An even more intimate question: personal dealer?” he asks as they get in and close the doors.
She looks over at him at she starts the car. “What kind of question is that?”
“Dealer to the Digerati, at your service.”
Suddenly, both back doors open. The two long black coats slip in from either side and shut the doors.
“Dealer, huh?” one of the guys smirks.
Maria is startled by the intrusion. This isn’t the danger she was looking for tonight.
Steve swivels his head to look at them. Huh, these were the guys trailing him around South Park earlier this afternoon.
“Ever thought about the consequences?” the other asks.
“What are you, my mama?” Steve asks them.
“And he has an attitude too, Moses,” the first says.
“A bad attitude, Clyde,” Moses says.
“No, we ain’t your mother, bitch.” Clyde suddenly gets angry and whips out a knife.
“We’re your motherfuckers!” Moses yells, also pulling out a knife.
Maria is paralyzed. The risk-reward algorithm is crashing her mind.
“We’re here to tell you, Mr. Digerati Dealer –”
But he stops midsentence as Steve calmly reaches toward the omnipresent daypack he carries his laptop and drugs in and lifts the daypack toward the guys while pivoting in his seat.
“I think it’s time for you to leave,” he says, a big grin on his face.
They look at his hand in the daypack pointed at them, then at his maniacal grin.
“You don’ wanna mess up dis lady’s fine car.” Moses smiles nervously, fumbling for the door.
“Yeah, Clyde,” the other says. “Sucka’s got the message, time to go.”
They hop out, slam the car doors, start running.
Maria stares at Steve, then reflexively embraces him in relief. She’s excited by the ultimate high—surviving near death—and his cool.
“What was that about?” she asks.
“They just wanted to boost you; you rich.”
“No, it was about you. You in trouble?”
“I hope I‘m about to get into trouble,” he says, holding her closer.
“You’re in trouble,” she says, now serious. “You’re a dealer? Maybe you need to change your life.”
“We need to change the subject.”
“If guys like this are coming around …”
“Because change is good?” He laughs.
“In my business, they say: Every day you’re not selling a stock you own, you’re buying it. Every day you’re not changing your life, you’re choosing to keep living it.”
“Were you really going to shoot them?” she asks.
“Sister, I don’t even have a gun. My laptop is my weapon. Art is my game.”
Maria pulls away from him, disbelief on her face. “You could have gotten us killed.”
“Bluff is life,” Steve says. “Sometimes you gotta bluff just to keep the other side guessing.”
“Get that in a fortune cookie?”
“Should have known.”
She starts driving. She’s attracted to and scared of Steve at the same time.
“Have a problem with gaming?”
“I prefer to win real stuff, not virtual.”
Steve laughs. “Gaming isn’t about winning or losing,” he says. “It’s about improving. Every time you die, you learn.”
“In the real world you only have one life.”
“Maybe you need a mentor to explore gaming.”
“Are you offering yourself?”
“Careful. Betrayal by mentors is a theme in games.”
“Where do I drop you off?” she asks, smiling.
“How’s your bedroom sound?” Steve asks.
She laughs. “Think I don’t know you?” she tells him. “The entitlement queen who thinks he earned his good luck?”
“You should talk, you white Hispanic banker whore. You know why sharks don’t attack bankers? Professional courtesy.”
Maria thinks: He plays the cool cat, but it’s an act. Too bad. She says: “Aren’t you starting to wonder if you’re getting too old for this shock artist pose?”
“Pose on my face, mama,” he says.
She abruptly pulls over. “I have one word of advice for you before you get yourself killed: day trading. OK, that’s two words. Open a Charles Schwab account. People are making a lot of money on the internet. Try earning an honest living for a change—or as honest as you can in this business.”
Steve steps out of the car. Then he leans back in. “You’re a tough ass who likes to think she’s really an idealist, aren’t you? Or is that an idealist who thinks she’s a tough ass? Hopefully the correct one will win, before you get yourself killed.”
Where are you sleeping tonight?
Danny and the now really messed-up Carl find themselves at the door of the warehouse, leaving at the same time.
“I’ve been looking for you.” He grins at Danny.
She allows herself a rueful smile.
“Do you believe in love at first kiss?” Carl asks dreamily, drunkenly.
Danny shakes her head, surveying his erratic swaying, the backpack, the skateboard. “Who can I call to come and get you?”
He grins at her numbly.
“Where are you sleeping tonight?” she tries again, getting annoyed.
“In your bed?” He peers at her with melting eyes.
“In your dreams,” she says dismissively—just as Carl slow-motion slumps into her arms, unconscious in the dark night.
Inside the Mansion — and Mind — of Kim Dotcom
Inside the Mansion — and Mind — of Kim Dotcom