Dot-com heaven's darker side

February 29, 2000|By Froma Harrop

THEY HAVE YOUTH, high salaries and don't have to wear neckties or nylons to the office. These are the hip Internet kids who've become the envy of us all. Now, if they only had a life.

Those of us who slog through the land of stagnant pay, laboring with dusty old technologies, sometimes think aloud: "If only we worked for one of those dot-coms!" Think of the stock options, the bonuses, the ability to wear jeans or Banana Republic black to the workplace. Cool. See that $200 bread-making machine at Williams Sonoma? Just take it home! Want to install a $15,000 media room at home? Go right ahead. Make the phone call.

Well, whoever said nothing in this world is free happens to be still right. High Tech Heaven has a flip side. Let us call it High Tech Hell.

Check out the daily existence in Silicon Valley, the Californian capital of the computer age. It attracts lots of people with lots of money. As a result, the median house price in Santa Clara County is now $420,000. The

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cf01 recently carried a story about a couple who bid for a house against 27 other potential buyers. They won by paying $90,000 more than the asking price of $460,000.

The couple described the place as "just an average regular ordinary house."

One hesitates to specify what kind of house $550,000 will buy around these parts for fear of setting off a stampede from the West. Let it be said that an ordinary wage earner can buy a very decent house just for what the couple in Silicon Valley paid over the asking price. (Not coincidentally, the part of New England where housing prices are climbing into the stratosphere happens to be the high-tech orbit around Boston.)

One might eventually ask the subversive question: What is the point of making $100,000 more a year in one of the groovy Internet corridors if a house there is going to cost $400,000 more than a similar model in the economic backwaters?

Of course, one solution to astronomical housing prices in boom areas has been to move far away and commute a long distance. That has been tried, which is why traffic jams in Silicon Valley are now reaching biblical proportions. This has created a bizarre allocation of time. The computer commuters, young people who can't wait 15 seconds for a Web page to load, find themselves spending four hours a day in a contraption powered by a combustible engine that Henry Ford would have recognized.

Some people around Austin, Texas, fear that the flames of High-Tech Hell may be licking at their heels. Austin has become another powerful information-age center, stamping out a bunch of fresh-faced millionaires with regularity. Lots of money. Nice. Some 32,000 new jobs created last year. Also nice. But housing prices up 71 percent since 1990 and new adventures in traffic gridlock. Not nice at all. Some high-tech executives are now trying to work with Austin's broader community to ease the various tensions that new economic wealth can bring.

Connecting with the human masses is something of a novelty for our fastest movers. Many regard themselves as residents of the global community and pay little attention to the bricks-and-mortar village in which they live. What master of the Internet has time to serve on a school committee? Indeed, neighbors often complain that the newcomers seem to view local government as a kind of room service to call up when they need something.

This is why longtime residents of New Hampshire may look with wary eye upon the southern 10-mile strip of the state, which has become an outpost of Boston's high-tech corridor. Many of the recent arrivals were attracted northward by the Granite State's aversion to taxes. Some did not quite understand that taxes are low in part because no one is going to pick up their garbage. And, of course, the influx of monied people to the southern sector has led to the paving over of small, formerly lovely villages. Now a good slice of New Hampshire resembles California, and not the pretty parts.

There are jokes about the guy who spends three decades working 60-hour weeks so that he can retire to a village and fish for the rest of his life. At age 65, he leaves the rat race, then joins the peasants who've been fishing their entire existence. Everything has a price, and the new economy, alas, is no exception.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

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