The Opinion: Electricity and the gold rush

4 Feb 2010

Forgive me, but as we have reached the end of another decade, I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic. And whilst nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, please indulge me as I make some comments about the future based on reflections from the first 15 years of the web.

The early days of the internet, and in particular the booms of the late Nineties and mid-Noughties, had lots of strong parallels with the Californian Gold Rush of the 1850s. Three hundred thousand men and women from all walks of life arrived by land and sea, and in less than 10 years they shipped US$600m of gold out of California.

The phrase ‘abandon ship’ originated in a Californian harbour, as the 150,000 prospectors who arrived by boat simply wouldn’t wait for the ships to tie up in harbour, and so just jumped overboard.

These forty-niners were wild speculators, giving up not just manual labour and low-paying jobs, but leaving professions in medicine, law, finance and commerce to go in search of huge personal wealth.

The problem with a gold rush is that when it’s over, it’s over. When the last nugget of gold is mined from the ground there can be no Gold Rush II. All that is left is the hangover, and the regret that can only come when you’ve gambled high on black and the ball has landed on red.

The early days of the internet

Unfortunately, the early days of the internet resembled the Gold Rush more than many in the internet industry would like to admit. Many speculated high, leaving well-paid professional jobs in search of over-hyped positions and massive personal wealth.

When the busts arrived, they were left with nothing.

Thankfully, the internet industry learned some lessons along the way and realised they were going to have to build and run successful businesses the way that successful businesses had always been built and ran, with sound planning for growth, a focus on profit, and well-serviced customers. And so, for the last decade, the gold rush speculators int he internet world have been gradually replaced by the electricity innovators.

Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb, but more accurately he should be credited with mass-producing the first commercially viable light bulb in 1880. Such was the impact of the invention (allied with its efficient mass production) that a frenzy similar to the Gold Rush ensued.

As a result the US government sanctioned massive infrastructure investments to bring light to homes all over America.

Roads were dug up, cables were laid, and many new homes were built with light already wired.

America had discovered not electricity, but the electrically powered light bulb. And so it was light that drove this infrastructure investment, not electricity, and this went on to spawn an energetic era of innovation and invention, some of which were wildly successful (the Hoover) and some of which failed miserably (the electric tie press).

The leap in thinking between the Gold Rush era and the onset of consumer electronics could not be bigger; one typified by the search for excessive personal wealth at all costs, and the other driven by a desire to exceed, excel, improve, innovate and make life better. There was no such thing as the last nugget of electricity, as the only barrier to the future was creativity.

As we look on the dawn of a new decade we have nothing holding us back but our imagination.

In the midst of the worst recession in recent decades the challenge is clear for a new generation of internet entrepreneurs, to dream and to create the future, driven not by the desire for massive personal wealth, but rather because they know that good is never good enough.

We haven’t even reached the stage of the internet where the generic electric socket has reached the wall. We’re not even at the end of the beginning yet.

Gareth Dunlop is managing director of digital strategy and marketing company Ion. He is also a board member of the Irish Internet Association, and chairman of He writes and lectures extensively on internet-related matters.

Photo: Gareth Dunlop

Read more by Gareth Dunlop:

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Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.