Dirge for a Dot-Com Dinosaur
I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Twain; by way of Tom Swift and G.A. Henty, I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After that, not wanting to leave the Mississippi, I downloaded Life on the Mississippi, and discovered the chapters on Twain’s apprenticeship as a Mississippi riverboat pilot:
“If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.”
Over the course of thirty years, the steamboat trade mushroomed into a giant, thriving industry, and the men who could store the technical knowledge about the location of every rock, shoal, branch, channel, and current — both by day and by night, in high water and low — were the kings of the steamboat economy, commanding princely salaries, loafing in pool halls under salary while in port, and sneering at mere captains, underwriters, engineers, and passengers. Riverboat pilots formed a powerful and union, demanded astronomical wages, and strictly controlled the influx of new apprentices.
The Civil War brought the steamboat trade to a sudden halt; when the war was over, the railroads had sprung up to take the place of the river boats. A skilled profession had vanished, almost overnight. Twenty years after leaving his job as a river pilot, Twain returned to find the industry all but vanished.
Like Twain, I stumbled into a booming industry at the right time — my home-grown HTML skills were good enough to get me on the first rung of the ladder. It’s been a fast climb, too — and, for a while now, it seems like every time I reach a new rung, the last rung is burned away under me. Not so long ago, I had a fairly sizeable team: my people had people of their own, and I would make jokes about my role as a petty tyrant. These days, it’s just me and my technical specification decks. And the laptop I’m writing this on; I’m using a 128Kbps Ricochet modem, which is one of the coolest manifestations of wireless technology out there. My laptop acts like it’s plugged into an Ethernet jack – my Internet connection is that fast – but it’s plugged into a gray radio modem velcroed to the back. The company that operates the service went out of business this month, and they’ll be turning all the transmitters off on August 8th. Like Kozmo and UrbanFetch, I’ll really miss Metricom.