Fast Company

Dotzombies

A Spy in the House of Work

It was 2 AM, and I couldn't sleep again. It had started right after I laid myself off from e-conjob.com so that our genuinely profitable dotcom (go figure!) could win some street cred by throwing at least one employee out through the garage door even if it was me throwing myself out. But then, every morning, right at 2 AM, I found myself stark-staring awake, listening intently to . . . to what?

It was just, well, weird. I wasn't worried about my lack of a job. Or my lack of a clue about a job. Or my lack of a notion as to how I would ever again have a job. All I knew was that every morning, right at 2 AM that hour when more babies are born and more people died was wide-awake, the hairs on the back of my neck bristling, my ears straining for some distant sound. And then, just as weirdly, I found myself dressed and walking along the sidewalk. Walking where? Walking why?

Walking here! This is strangely familiar, I thought, as I pushed through the unlocked glass doors of an anonymous-looking office building. I walked slowly through the darkened lobby and found the stairs, illuminated only by the eerie, green haze of the emergency-stairwell lighting. On the second floor, I stepped into a bombed-out dotcoma vacuous, empty office space.

Empty and yet not empty. Yes, the furniture was gone every stick. But the space glowed with an otherworldly aura. And then I heard them: the sounds that my ears had been straining to hear in my bedroom at 2 AM. My blood froze when I heard . . . the sounds. The scrape of cardboard pizza-box lids being opened, the fizzy pop! of a beer can's tab being pulled.

I walked stiffly toward those sounds and at the exact moment when I saw everything, I realized everything: I was in the empty offices of my first defunct dotcom startup, back at PotatoWare, the once high-flying, now ill-fated, productless software company started by Spud. And they were all there, gathered around a half-dozen or so glowing monitors that they'd set up in the middle of the room like some digital campfire: all of PotatoWare's former employees, eating pizza, drinking beer . . . and shivering.

Shivering because inside this deserted office, the thermostat was set at the temperature of the coldest meat locker in Silicon Valley. I grabbed a slice and a Bud and made my way over to Bela, a massively incompetent programmer whom Spud had hired sight-unseen to write code for the product that PotatoWare never launched, prior to the IPO that happened shortly before the company was delisted.

"There's no going back, you know," Bela said in a monotone. "You can't put the toothpaste back into the tube, send the Web back into cyberspace, or jam me back into a gray-flannel suit."

"Whatever, dude," I said, cramming a slice of pepperoni into my mouth. "Um, kinda cool, isn't it?"

"Cool?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at me. "You call this cool? Not working, but still in the info flow? Not employed, but still on the edge of the new economy? There's nothing cool about it."

"Um, no," I said, taking a swig from my beer. "The temperature. It's kinda cool in here. Like a meat locker."

"That's the point," he said. "This used to be an incubator. Now it's the new economy's first refrigerator. It's the only way we can keep our intellectual capital from spoiling. Who said, 'Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come'? Well, nothing is sadder than all these ideas that died before their time ever came."

And then, right on cue, just as the words escaped his lips, I thought I heard a cock crowing but in the heart of the city? Or maybe it was a digital sound chip embedded in one of the monitors' speakers. Everyone started to shuffle toward the door, taking the empty pizza boxes and beer cans with them.

"Got to get home before the sun comes up," Bela said.

"Tomorrow, dude 2 AM," I said. "And next time, go heavy on the tomato sauce."

This is the latest episode in The Spy's continuing saga, "Working Behind Enemy Lines." You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (www.askthespy.com).

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