Here is how the conference call begins, after the particular-to-our-age hellos, a familiar computer's voice intones, "now attending," a new voice speaks an introduction, sometimes four or five in a row, and some don't say their name but come on and brusquely ask, "who's on the call?" and I want to shake my head, we all are, this was obviously something terrible, coming so quickly and on the heels of vague dreadful rumors about many layoffs: a quavery voice I recognize as usually cheery, "This is my last day at WalletPop."
I know: coming hard on the heels of a tsunami killing hundreds and setting off a nuclear accident, this could be a bucket's plink-plink. It's gallons dumped suddenly, from behind and icy, too, for me, and as the editor of the site goes on we learn that everyone has been laid off. We on the phone, freelancers, are left to run the site; no one knows even if we'll be paid for work done past the weekend.
From all the CEO's statements of late, this was both surprise and knell of doom. I had not trusted him; I had read of him in the Wall Street Journal, in the New Yorker; I had worried, shaken my head, bit my lip. He's of the old sort, the CEO sort who comes in full of sound (the clang of his boyishly exuberant bark) and fury (the conspicuous whim of his pet projects), signifying nothing hopeful for those who subscribe to the way-of-who-came-before-him. Nor for quality and consistency and creating something good for good's sake. He is not new, this one; he is from the very dawn of the new capitalism. The wider your smile, the more curious your hair, the brighter the flash of your teeth as you flout convention and stir with your barbarian's stick, mixing things up, as they say: the harder the fall of your company's fate. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!
Forgive me if I quote Bible verses. Isn't this how it should be? "AOL will invest more heavily in our in-house editorial team and transition away from a reliance on freelance journalists," said he. "The changes for me today are very personal." Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless! Armstrong fired hundreds of journalists, many who had won prestigious awards and worked for AOL and leading magazines and newspapers, in whom he had invested quite heavily. Neither he nor the new masters and mistresses talked to a single laid-off worker: "personal"?
And this new regime, under Ms. Huffington and her team of work-all-night mind-the-company-line "journalists"? They praise the excellence of our work and thank us for our commitment, our passion and caring, and ask us to apply for full-time jobs and believe, perhaps, that we do not realize how cheap an employee is. Here one day, moving to New York perhaps, available at 10 p.m. to cover some breaking news; gone tomorrow. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? A month or two of severance? The right to gather their things?
I have seen nothing new under the sun; I have seen these hubristic empires rise and fall; I have seen it become wearisome, more than one can say. In 1999, in 2002, in 2004 and 2006 and 2008, the sales teams were not told what to sell; they were reorganized and not clear on the differences between four identical style brands and never informed when one folded into another. They churned through accounts and account executives, who would head off after two years or two months with glowing tales of new opportunities and past fast friends. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
At AOL, it was here already, long ago, this leader full of his own innovative spirit and revolutionary approach, his cost-cutting, his ruthless personal 10% across-the-board cuts. It was here before our time. For the dozens or hundreds of promising acquired companies, there was never anything really of which one could say, "Look! This is something new!" The brash new soul swept in and threw conniption fits in meetings or coldly rejected the advances of Big Corporate or imagined the way people would speak about her when she was gone. No one remembers the former generations.
And no one but those here, now, will remember this one. There will be no sensitive Hollywood blockbuster in which Arianna and Tim are played by better actors than they. There will be no bracing turnaround story, no Wall Street acclaim, no record quarters all in a row. And I? I have applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.