BOOKS: Internet insanity - Greed, ignorance, stupidity ... John Naughton enjoys a ringside analysis of the dot.com fiasco

BOOKS: Internet insanity - Greed, ignorance, stupidity ... John Naughton enjoys a ringside analysis of the dot.com fiasco - Dot.bomb: The rise and fall of dot.com Britain; by Rory Cellan-Jones; Aurum Press; pounds 9.99

by JOHN NAUGHTON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Dot.bomb: The rise and fall of dot.com Britain; by Rory Cellan-Jones; Aurum Press; pounds 9.99

Hindsight is the only exact science, which is why we are all now much wiser about the internet stock-market bubble that swept Britain from September 1999 to May 2000. Or are we? Rory Cellan-Jones's painstaking exhumation of the stock market's latest bout of irrational exuberance suggests that we have been blaming the wrong people for the madness.

Cellan-Jones reports on business and economics for the BBC and had a ringside seat. He watched as the internet frenzy that had transfixed Wall Street since 1995 reached British shores and found its first expression in the flotation of Freeserve. He recounts how a combination of greed, ignorance and stupidity eroded investors' common sense and produced a climate in which people would believe anything about a company's prospects so long as it had a web site that could take credit cards.

It's easy now to ridicule the delusions of young entrepreneurs who imagined that the internet had suspended the laws of economic gravity, to laugh at the hubris of business plans that always predicted world domination by 2004, or to sneer at the notion that an 18-month-old lossmaking company employing 200 people could be more valuable than a high street bank earning pounds 1 billion in profits every year. What we forget is that these lunatic propositions would have remained unfunded delusions had not analysts working for investment banks and stockbrokers solemnly assured us that they constituted the new realities of the 'new' economy. They were the ones who convinced small investors and pension funds alike that it was prudent to invest in dot.coms. And it is they - and their colleagues who pocketed huge fees in preparing dot.com lossmakers for flotation - who are the real villains of Cellan-Jones's absorbing but ultimately depressing tale.

Now, irrational exuberance has been replaced by a pessimism that is equally irrational - because the internet continues to grow at an astonishing rate, and will transform economic life no matter what happens to dot.coms.

It's the old story - about how stock markets always overestimate the short-term impact of technological developments while overlooking their long-term implications. The thing to remember about bulls and bears is that neither is very bright.

John Naughton is the Observer's internet columnist and the author of the book A Brief History of the Future (Phoenix).

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