Reliving the idealist origins of the Internet in Valley Of The Boom

Still from Valley Of The Boom featuring Steve Zahn playing the head of a startup that epitomised some of the excesses of the early dotcom days.
Still from Valley Of The Boom featuring Steve Zahn playing the head of a startup that epitomised some of the excesses of the early dotcom days.PHOTO: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

LOS ANGELES - Remember Netscape, that early contender in the first Internet browser wars?

Ms Arianna Huffington does. Founder of the pioneering news and blog site The Huffington Post, she knew many of the key players in the boom and bust of 1990s Silicon Valley.

This is why the media maven is an executive producer on a new television show, Valley Of The Boom, about the gold-rush fervour of the time.

A six-part limited series airing on Sundays at 10pm on National Geographic (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411, and streaming on FOX+), it combines a scripted drama starring American actor Bradley Whitford and documentary-style interviews with figures from the early days of the dotcom revolution.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles last year (2018), Ms Huffington, 68, says what the show "captures so brilliantly at this moment of the birth of the Internet is how dramatically different it was than it is now, when we've all become much more sceptical, much more conscious of all the unintended consequences of addiction to social media and the constant interruptions and notifications.

"The mood you're going to see here is a mood of idealism, triumphalism. It was expected to basically change the world and everybody wanted to be on the Internet train even if they had no clue where that train was going," says the entrepreneur, who left The Huffington Post in 2016 to launch another startup, the health and wellness information company Thrive Global.

Central to the story is Mr James Barksdale, who was chief executive officer of the company that developed Netscape - the browser that dominated the market until Microsoft's Internet Explorer and others edged it out.

His experience encapsulates the highs and lows of that period and Whitford, star of the political drama series The West Wing (1999 to 2006), does an amazing job playing him, Ms Huffington says.

"He captures someone that I have known for many years - you see his dry wit, his brilliance and how central he was to Netscape."

Whitford, 59, describes the series as kind of an origin story of the Internet, which "was supposed to bring us together and help us communicate", but which the viewer now knows, with hindsight, may be a double-edged sword.

And the present day is an interesting time for this story because there is an adjustment to how people are viewing the online world, the actor notes. "Is the Internet going to own us? Are we going to be at the mercy of it? Is it leading to more life or more Internet?"

The way Microsoft fought to destroy Netscape also foreshadows other major developments, Ms Huffington says.

"We see some of the issues that are at the forefront of the conversation now, like monopolies versus more open source or the importance of market share. And the way that technology moves so fast today that the law cannot keep up with it."

This is why the show will prove instructive even though it deals with long-forgotten chapters from the early days of the Internet.

"Because I'm so interested in the Internet 3.0 era that we're in now and all the unintended consequences, I felt that by understanding the origin we will find better ways to deal with the damage that's being done right now - like the rise in depression and anxiety among girls addicted to the social media, and how much harder it is to distinguish between facts and fiction," she adds.

"All that stuff that we are dealing with now was begun in another era that never really saw or foretold what was coming."

Valley Of The Boom airs Sundays at 10pm on National Geographic (Singtel TV Channel 201, StarHub TV Channel 411), also streams on FOX+