I have just two words to say to you. "The Internet." It's going to be huge.
Call me crazy but I'm putting that on the record right here and now, Oct. 25, 1999. You have to have the courage of your convictions and I believe the Internet is a real "comer" among communication technologies. Sure, the naysayers say it's just a fad, that the real future is in U.S. mail, town hall gatherings, and little "calling cards" that you can leave with someone's butler to signal the desire for a subsequent audience. All wrong. The Internet is not only going to take off, it's eventually going to make some people a LOT of money.
Fired up by this vision of the future, I went in search of America Online. Most people are under the impression that America Online is a little triangular icon on their computer screen. That's only partially true. America Online is also a place. Where this place was, exactly, I wasn't sure.
About four years ago AOL was just a couple of miles outside the Beltway, in a building off Route 7. In fact I vaguely recall that I went there one day and chatted with some guy named Steve Case, for a possible story in the Style section. Case had some interesting thoughts, and was certainly a pleasant fellow, but as a trained journalist I could see that AOL wasn't really going anywhere, and so I didn't actually write the article. You have to make the tough call sometimes. Conceivably, this was a case in which I was not exactly clairvoyant.
Glancing at the stock data this morning it appears that AOL has a market capitalization of $130 billion. That's more than two and a half times the market cap for General Motors. If you wanted to find General Motors you could easily see it (on a clear day) in and around Detroit, or at various General Motors factories spread around the world, but these New Media companies are more elusive and ethereal than that. There are companies that are worth billions of dollars but are comprised of a single guy with bad hygiene sitting in his dorm room eating bag after bag of potato chips. In the case of AOL, it now has 18 million subscribers, and so you know there must be some place, some building, where they keep all the computers, plus (and here I'm guessing) the countless employees that have to sit at a microphone waiting for their cue to announce cheerfully, "You've got mail!"
(Speaking of microphones: Pat Buchanan's declaration this morning that he is leaving the Republican Party was delayed for several minutes by a massive microphone breakdown, creating, for a brief moment, the possibility that he would resort to purely nonverbal communication, such as whacking the podium with an axe or waving a pitchfork or, who knows, disabling a live animal with a vicious bite to the neck. Unfortunately the microphone was soon fixed.)
America Online, according to its own description, is now based in "Dulles, Va." The problem is, no map shows such a place. There's an AIRPORT named Dulles, but there is certainly nothing that could be called a town. There are just a bunch of roads, and some scattered stores and gas stations, a few hotels and motels, and a lot of fields and forests being rapidly converted to suburban housing complexes.
You could honestly say that Dulles, Va., is not really "there." Usually when people, quoting Gertrude Stein, say "There's no there there," they mean it metaphorically (she was speaking of Oakland, I believe). But Dulles may very well be the first no-there-there place on the planet that really isn't there.
Dulles, Va., is at the moment merely a Zip code encompassing a bunch of turf around the airport. Increasingly it is also an alluring name. With AOL having moved there (wherever "there" is), "Dulles" is suddenly a hot name, to the point that companies in nearby Zip codes are anxious to claim their location as Dulles.
For example there's now a Dulles Town Center, north from the toll road on Route 28 in what in the past would probably be called Sterling. Wherever the town center truly is, there is no escaping the fact that it is not a town, nor the center of a town. Arguably every word in the name of the place is deceptive. What the Dulles Town Center is, unless my eyes deceive me, is a mall. It is a large structure containing stores, surrounded by an oceanic parking lot, and filled with teenagers who make little secret communication signals with their hands and say things like, "I'm all ABOUT the food court."
A spokesman for AOL, a nice fellow named Andrew Weinstein, told me that I could find the company headquarters by going north from the toll road on Route 28, and taking a "left at the Exxon." It would be mildly amusing if the company adopted this as part of its official description (i.e., "America Online, the world's leader in interactive Internet services, can be located by going left at the Exxon in what is rumored to be Dulles, Va.")
That left turn, for the record, is on Waxpool Road. You then go to the next light, and look to your left. What you see are some buildings. What you don't see is a sign. America Online may have a market cap of $130 billion but it so far hasn't purchased a sign. The not-thereness is palpable.
You drive into the place, talk your way past a guard, and go to Visitor Parking. The Visitor Parking lot, in the middle of the day, had 11 cars.
There are three flags on poles: Virginia, United States, and America Online. "In increasing order of power," was the thought that came to mind.
The main building, I learned from Weinstein, used to be the headquarters of British Aerospace. It has been adapted, the old cargo bays converted to meeting rooms. Another large building under construction next door sprouts a crane. Still another building houses the actual computers -- half a billion dollars in hardware. I was in Creative Center One. Eventually there will be five such Creative Centers. The workspaces are large, open rooms separated by cubicles. There's also a "creative room" where everything is painted in primary colors and an oversized paintbrush dangles from the ceiling.
On a chalkboard someone had written: "There is more to life than increasing its speed -- Gandhi."
I noted that everyone was extremely casual and polite. There is no sign of anyone who could be called "hard-bitten." My tour ended just outside the offices of Steve Case, who, I was told, was on a camping trip. (It's remotely possible that "a camping trip" is an official company line to divert inquiring journalists. Case might have been holed up in there somewhere, watching the stock price rise, going "Ka-ching!" every few minutes.)
I was struck that the AOL headquarters is a fully contained universe. It doesn't really need a town nearby. There's a gym right downstairs. There's also a convenience store, a cafeteria, and a coffee shop serving Starbucks. In fact there's a concierge right in the middle of the place. It's less a factory than a hotel, or perhaps (as someone suggested to me) a cruise ship.
These cruise ships ply the open seas of the suburbs. Right now there's another massive complex going up virtually next door to AOL, the MCI WorldCom headquarters, meaning many more thousands of cars driving along Waxpool Road, more housing pressure, more of the Piedmont converted to tract mansions. Look at today's Washington Post and you'll see that real estate in Northern Virginia is a wild enterprise -- that it's all up for grabs.
It's not just a question of sprawl, its a question of place, of what it is like to be somewhere. For the moment, Dulles is Dullesville.
The scary thought is that in the future we'll all be in some cubicle in some large building, wired up, attached to the Net, cruising through the electronic universe -- and we won't really be anywhere at all.
Rough Draft appears at 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and is produced by a person who has spent his life indoors, typing.