May its bad manners RIP

Readers of my column know that I have been, during the Internet frenzy of the last year, an occasional skeptic of the overblown claims of the "You-just-don't-get-it-the-Internet-changes-everything" crowd.

So, with the crash of Internet stocks and the morphing of dot-coms into dot-bombs, I should remind those now gripped by irrational melancholia that, indeed, the Internet is still making our lives different and better than they were before. The changes will continue even if lots of Internet companies go bankrupt.

What the bursting of the dot-com bubble gives us is an opportunity to reassess some of the vile values and gross behaviors that flooded us during New Economy Release 1.0 — namely, treating the world to a mixture of the geek culture's lack of interpersonal skills and teenagers' beliefs that their parents don't know anything. That was laced with the topsy-turvy stock valuations of the "Do you really want to be a billionaire?" moment.

The first little-mourned feature of New Economy Release 1.0 was a lack of manners and respect for others — born of an arrogant belief that, with their supposedly unique accomplishments and economic mega-successes, New Economoids owed no obligation to behave decently toward mere mortals. Business Week reported last summer that many Old Economy firms had stopped recruiting at Stanford Business School because more and more students failed to show for job interviews they themselves had scheduled.

A related feature was an appalling lack of public or community spirit among people whose lives revolved around the conspicuous accumulation of wealth. According to a study by Forrester Research Inc., young dot-com millionaires are considerably more likely to measure a person's success by the clothes they wear or the car they drive — and, according to Forrester, they are a truly appalling "24 times less likely to associate wealth with the opportunity to be charitable."

A colleague of mine told me last spring that he was increasingly distressed by the obsession with money he saw while on trips to Silicon Valley.

Actually, the current environment — if the government can take advantage of it — may provide an opportunity to do something about the much-discussed information technology skills crisis. It's time to dust off appeals to concepts such as public service that six months ago seemed archaic. If you're in security, would you rather defend computers delivering Social Security payments against terrorist attacks or defend the dormant Web site against some hacker?

On a more mundane level, for at least some young people, job security may now seem as nice a perk as stock options. And pending IT salary increases, especially at entry levels, may make government more attractive.

The New Economy? Let's try next time to remember some of the values that appeared before anyone heard that phrase and that will continue to be valid after it has been forgotten.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.


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