Netscape’s IPO & the Trouble with Memory

It struck me today when talking to a colleague: There is an excellent chance that many of the people most excited about MySpace, social networks, etc., have no real memory of the last tech boom.

Consider: We have now passed the eleventh anniversary of the Netscape IPO that started the bubble years, and we are seven years from the peak of the bubble in the summer of 1999. People who are graduating from college today were 12 years old when Netscape went public. They were worried more about first dates and first signs of acne than about the impending upheaval in technology markets. And even when the boom ended they were still merely seventeen or so, trying to have fun while not butchering their grades so badly that they couldn’t get into their first choice of universities.

I’m not sure why, but when this came to me today it felt a little like someone had just pulled a rug out from under my feet. It also sent me back fumbling through the shelves for my copy of Daniel Schacter’s “The Seven Sins of Memory”, which contains a great section on transience and the adaptive role in memory of forgetting. We tend to remember traumatic events, even if we wish we couldn’t, and non-traumatic events stick around past usefulness too, if they are too-frequently recalled:

A system that renders information less accessible over time is therefore highly functional, because when information has not been used for longer and longer periods of time, it becomes less and less likely that it will be needed in the future. On balance, the system would be better off setting aside such information — and [forgetfulness] leads to exactly that outcome.

Schacter goes on to describe various experiments by one researcher demonstrating this phenomenon in the environment, including this one:

They … examined headlines in the New York Times for 730 days in 1986 and 1987, recording each time a particular word appeared. The likelihood that a particular word would appear on a specific day fell off as a function of the time since it was last used.

While it’s good to remember the sins of the past so that we don’t repeat them, isn’t it also possible that many venture investors and “seasoned” entrepreneurs — unlike current college graduates — are so scarred by memory that they will never perform at the same level again, even if the opportunities to do so are out there? Put differently, maybe having no memory of the last tech boom isn’t (always and everywhere) such a bad thing.


  1. Like I say, Markov property is a good thing. :-)

  2. Oh how true your perceptions are…Having lived through several business cycles it is always amazing to me at the selective memories of otherwise savvy professionals. Great insights…