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Watching the waves

It never fails. The moment I think I've got things all figured out, things change. You'd think I'd learn not to be so naive, dealing with new technology and living in Detroit.

But a recent moment of self-imposed sentimentality caused me to rethink everything.

A friend asked if I thought the technology industry would be unaffected by the downturn in the global economy. I thought out loud, "Well, what would make us think it wouldn't be?"

Looking at the deep, dark circles under his eyes, I realized that most of my friends in the technology business are looking rather haggard these days.

These folks, our own electronic pioneers, have toiled to bring us networks, set up online communities and proselytized for universal access. They've been coming up with great ideas nobody understands, facing "check-out-this-geek" looks from strangers and co-workers, and living through the commercialization of the Net. They've slept on mattresses in the office, lived off cigarettes and coffee, and never asked why. It just seemed right and exciting, that's all. Now they look worn out.

"Are you getting out of computers?" my friend asked after I said I was retiring from my position as online editor at the paper.

"No, I just need some quality REM sleep," I laughed. He reassured me I was doing the right thing. Really, I just need to know what happens when my psyche is withheld from a computer monitor for prolonged periods. Pray for me.

And then I reread the Michigan Information Technology Commission's final report. This group of business leaders formed back in January to create a plan for bringing Michigan into the technological fold. When their report was first released last month, I thought, "too little, too vague, too late." But upon re-examining the 46-page document, ignoring any seemingly inflammatory or offensive parts, I thought they did a pretty good job covering the basics: Providing and supporting the hardware, software, networks and talent; creating economic opportunity; education, health, community-building; universal access.

I even laughed when I got to the part that said the largest city in Michigan (Detroit) doesn't have a Web site (we do, it just isn't very good). But deep down, it made me wistful. I even promised myself that I would only slam it in a constructive way from now on. But I digress.

What really struck me was that now maybe the top will work its way down and those in the trenches will work their way up, and the two shall meet in the middle. I am exalted once again!

Midway through pondering the secrets of the universe, I find out that two of the major players in the multimedia business in the Detroit area are pulling up some or all of their stakes.

Bowne Internet Solutions announced last week that it would be downsizing its staff by 50 percent, and Magnet Communications (which, rumor has it, wooed nearly 20 employees from Bowne earlier this year) recently shuttered its fairly new sales office in Troy. Bowne marketing directory Catharine Fennell said it was "no longer taking a strong focus on the automotive market," and would be going back to doing what it does best -- serving the financial industry.

Whether these initiatives failed because of the economy, internal problems, or a lack of work, who knows. Maybe it's a combination of things. But it made me sad to hear it at the same time I was reading about how we could bring business to Michigan by supporting entrepreneurs and technology projects. Two big national firms are now leaving some holes. I know it happens all the time, but it sparked something sentimental in me all the same.

As I was zigging and zagging about the future of technology in Michigan, a friend threw me another curve and told me that West Coast firms see Detroit as the new glamorous place to be. Partly because of the automotive industry (despite Bowne's backpedaling), more multimedia companies are eyeing Detroit as a new outpost than ever before.

So it's hard to tell if we're truly on the upturn, or if technology businesses are facing, or will face, a downturn due to a combination of unrealized goals and not-quick-enough-results in the fastest-growing industry we've seen in a long time. Not even the automobile industry had 60 million customers (reported Internet users as stated in the MITC report) within the span of a few years. Did we grow too fast, too quick? Did we not grab it fast enough? Or maybe the best is yet to come.

I returned to the MITC report to find another message. Our state's leaders are actually working together to ask some major questions of one another and our industries, businesses and organizations. They created a report full of relevant recommendations that shows they do realize the potential of information technologies.

I am proud of them for trying, though I still reserve the right to be skeptical and suspicious about how it will all unfold.

And while I may be watching this next wave unfold from the sidelines, believe me, I'll be watching.

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