Hong Kong and Philadelphia had little in common save for the fact that both cities were deeply conscious of having passed their prime and were vulnerable to cheap highs. In any case, the way Philly took to smack, Hong Kong was falling prey to a particularly deranged case of the global Internet-stock addiction. The fact that Hong Kong had no Internet companies—or software companies, hardware companies, engineers, etc.—was a technicality. Opportunistic moneymen easily sidestepped this obstacle thanks to the rich supply of toy companies and trading firms listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. A wealthy investor would simply buy out the small business owner, “inject” some “Internet assets” into the company—some URLs, maybe a server or two—pay himself a fee, and watch the stock explode. The fault lines of irrational exuberance were running through most of the mature economies of the world; Hong Kong’s Internet craze just seemed a few orders of magnitude more parodic than anything Silicon Valley ever came up with. Small-time shopkeepers who still did their bookkeeping with abacuses lined up by the thousands outside brokerage houses for shares in the latest new “Internet” offerings, even as most residents had never used the Internet in 1999 (though many learned how when they realized it could be used to trade Internet stocks). A local newspaper, the Hong Kong Standard, rebranded itself the Hong Kong iMail.
I worked at the Asia headquarters of Time magazine, where I wrote a daily Internet column chronicling the lunacy of the Asian markets—a subject about which I had no expertise, but that clearly was not stopping anyone. I should state here that my own company, Time Warner, which owned some of the world’s biggest magazines and HBO and one of America’s most venerable movie studios, was during this time acquired by AOL, a dial-up chat-room business that the market had, in its wisdom, decided was worth $163 billion, in large part because it had so few clunky “old economy” assets weighing down its stratospheric prospects for growth. That transaction seemed the platonic ideal of the rational market at work next to the epically shameless charlatanism I had to write about.
Within a year I had developed enough of a “following” to warrant being offered a gig at double my salary with an Internet startup, and a two-page profile in the aforementioned iMail followed soon. My friend Stephen, a British film writer, was quoted marveling over the “minor celebrity-cult status” I had built up in such a short time.
I left Hong Kong shortly after the story ran, for no particular reason other than a psychic nausea over how easy it had been to achieve as much as I had wanted there. It took a few months, but by the spring of 2001, I found a reporting spot in the Los Angeles bureau of The Wall Street Journal.
By this point, I had begun to develop a theory, partly by virtue of having experienced that one meaningful failure and one meaningless success, about generally what was wrong with the world and increasingly with the industry—journalism—that was attempting to convey it. I just didn’t know yet what I knew, and so this story stretches on for another nine years.
What I sensed was that while the laws of supply and demand governed everything on earth, the easy money was in demand—manufacturing it, manipulating it, sending it forth to multiply, etc. As a rule of thumb (and with some notable exceptions), the profit margins you could achieve selling a good or service were directly correlated to the total idiocy and/or moral bankruptcy of the demand you drummed up for it.
This was easier to grasp if you were in the business of peddling heroin, Internet stocks, or celebrity gossip; journalists, on the other hand, were at a conspicuous disadvantage when it came to understanding their role in this equation. In the past, newspapers had made respectable margins selling a non-inane product largely because people had little choice but to herald their sublets and white sales alongside the journalists’ tales of human suffering/corporate corruption/government ineptitude. The times were prosperous enough that much of the print media even chose to abstain from taking a share of the demand-creation campaigns of liquor and tobacco brands in the seventies and eighties. Indeed, journalism, it went without saying, was about delivering important information about the world—information people (and democracy!) needed, whether they knew it or not. That journalism’s ability to deliver that information—to fill that need—ultimately depended, to an unsettling degree, on the ability to create artificial demand for a lot of stuff that people didn’t actually need—luxury condos, ergonomically correct airplane seats, the latest celebrity-endorsed scent—was an afterthought at best, at least in the newsroom.