The Internet post-mortems are coming fast and furious nowadays, from John Cassidy’s trifling Dot.con to James Ledbetter’s forthcoming Starving to Death on $200 Million a Year, a tell-all about The Industry Standard’s fleeting heyday. So far, this literature of failure has portrayed the technology boom as a madcap adventure, and the subsequent bust as little more than a sitcom comeuppance for a handful of arrogant louts. Sure, a couple billion dollars got lost in the shuffle, and some twenty-somethings had to move back in with mom and dad for a spell. But no real harm done.

Nathan Newman, a union lawyer and author of Net Loss: Internet Prophets, Private Profits, and the Costs to Community, isn’t so dismissive of the New Economy’s toll. His victims are not the dot-com employees whose options evaporated, nor the mom-and-pop investors who let Junior’s college fund ride on the NASDAQ 100. Newman’s big losers are the low-wage workers who spent the last decade falling further and further behind a techno-elite indifferent to local communities. The Internet, Newman argues, has made it easier for corporations to deal with global actors one-on-one, and thus to bypass unions, public-interest groups, and other pesky members of the left. The lack of an effective online tax scheme has robbed municipal governments of billions, leading to slashed services for poor urban residents. And the chasm between knowledge workers (i.e., geeks) and blue-collar stiffs has grown to the point where mobility between the two classes is almost nonexistent.

Newman’s depiction of the Internet as an engine of inequality is Net Loss’ most intriguing thread. If only he’d stopped there, instead of stuffing the book’s 300-plus pages with half-baked takes on globalization, privacy, and “the marketization of fixed capital.” Newman’s sharp lefty treatment of the Internet’s labor-unfriendly effects often gets lost amidst the jumble of ideas. Though Net Loss makes for a nice counterweight to the vast body of post-bubble fluff, it’s far too ambitious for its own good.

The book’s barest stretch is its first third, a blow-by-blow retelling of the government’s role in creating the Internet. There are few surprises here, as this ground’s been covered countless times before. Only the greenest of newbies will be surprised to learn of the Pentagon’s involvement in funding ARPANET, the Internet’s precursor. Newman is an academic, not a journalist; Net Loss is actually a slightly tweaked version of his doctoral dissertation, so there’s little original reporting to speak of. He borrows liberally (albeit with detailed footnotes) from more impressive histories, like Steven Levy’s Hackers: HNet Loss is at its best when Newman trains his eye on Silicon Valley, where he worked as a labor organizer throughout the 1990s. The experience gave him a keen understanding of how the majority of that region’s residents were kept off the digital gravy train. Newman gripes that high-tech companies have been poor corporate citizens, reluctant to pay equitable taxes, and eager to outsource jobs to bargain-rate foreign workers. “The public policy promoted by the industry in the region increasingly serves only the upper core of professionals,” he writes. “The rest are left behind as even the physical geography of the region is reshaped in a new politics of abandonment.” Clearly influenced by Lawrence Lessig’s 1999 dissection of the “cyberlibertarian myth” in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Newman points out that the industry’s wealth is dependent on a government invention, the Internet. Doesn’t that extraordinary gift oblige the private sector to act less selfishly?

The tech sector is not the only culprit singled out in Newman’s polemic. Banks get a lashing for rejiggering their business models for the Internet Age. They’d rather sell money-market funds to clients thousands of miles away, Newman contends, than offer low-margin home loans to local families. Deregulated phone companies are itching to peddle DSL to wealthy households, but their commitment to affordable universal service has wavered.

Yet Newman scores points too sporadically. Promising themes are overwhelmed by long, incongruous meditations on the electricity market or computing standards, which he unconvincingly links to the central thesis. Perhaps unavoidably, several sections are already laughably outmoded, such as the gloom-and-doom forecast about a WorldCom empire or the naysaying over DVDs. Then there are the crusty sentiments lifted straight from The Nation circa 1985, like Newman’s horror that (gasp!) chain stores are squeezing out local merchants.

The book’s other major glitch is Newman’s graceless prose, which is riddled with annoying grad-speak. Not every academic is such a shambling writer, City of Quartz author Mike Davis–an obvious Newman idol–being the prime example. But people who’ve spent years locked away in musty stacks usually lose some wit in the process. At times, Net Loss reads like a recent Onion parody of a Harvard Ph.D. candidate deconstructing a Mexican take-out menu (“Menu reflects the problematic reliance on systemized binary opposition”). When the word “hierarchies” make three appearances in a single paragraph, you know you’re nowhere near the realm of a good beach read.

There’s certainly a fine labor-oriented critique of Internet mania somewhere in Newman’s head. Snippets of it made their way into Net Loss, but not enough to save this debut from a messy fate. Somebody get this man an editor.

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