|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:October 15, 1960
Place of Birth:New Orleans, LA
Education:Princeton University, B.A. in Art History, 1982; London School of Economics, 1985
Table of Contents
|Introduction: The Invisible Revolution||13|
|1.||The Financial Revolt||25|
|2.||Pyramids and Pancakes||85|
|3.||The Revolt of the Masses||151|
|4.||The Unabomber Had a Point||211|
Exclusive Author Essay
For more than ten years now, I've made a good living writing books that are, in essence, old-fashioned human dramas that are then dressed up by my publisher and sold to the unsuspecting public as Timely Business Books. Next is another case in point.
The starting point for Next was my hunch -- acquired while working on The New New Thing, yet another book of mine that was successfully advertised as more of a business book than it was -- that the Internet was less a cause than an effect, and less about business than about status. Obviously, the Internet disrupted many business lives. The frenzy in the global stock markets that the Internet helped to create wasn't merely a speculative bubble. It was a sword-swallowing attempt by the financial market to ram down its own throat a lot of new ideas. Some of these ideas may have been preposterous (the fourth Internet pet food store), but most of them were either good ideas that were ahead of their time (online grocers) or good ideas right on time (online auction houses and booksellers and magazines) that were made to seem preposterous by the outrageously high value the stock market temporarily placed on them. Now -- six years after the stock market frenzy was triggered by the pubic share offering of an obscure California Internet browser company called Netscape -- the Internet business world is sobering up. It turns out that some businesspeople will still need to wear coats and ties. But it turns out also that corporate apparatchiks who four years ago were dismissing the Internet as a fad are now hastily redesigning their industries to harness the power of the technology, out of a deep certainty that if they don't, it will destroy them.
But, as I say, it wasn't the business end of things that caught my eye. The commercial upheaval that occurred between the fall of 1994 and the spring of 2000 was a subplot. The plot was cultural change, brought about by people who were unhappy with their assigned status, and who figured out they could use the new technology to improve that status. There was a status war going on out there -- between parents and children, bosses and flunkies, experts and amateurs. It was an old-fashioned human drama, waiting to be disguised as a story about business. (Michael Lewis)
When Internet stocks began their freefall in February 2000, the Internet was finally put in its proper place. Everyone at once forgot that the omniscient chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, had said that the Internet was changing the economy in ways that even he didn't fully understand. Or that Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, the closest thing to a multinational corporate monument, had said that the Internet was the most important force to strike the global economy since the Industrial Revolution. Or that the world's largest software company, Microsoft, was still saying that it needed to reinvent itself as an Internet business. Or that most large companies, even those that had nothing to do with high technology, were still frantically trying to figure out how to respond to the Internet. All of a sudden the Internet was just another technology, less important than the steam engine, the cotton gin, the telegraph, or air-conditioning. It was nothing more than a fast delivery service for information that was what serious people who had either lost a lot of money in the late stages of the Internet boom or, more likely, failed to make money, liked to say now: "All the Internet does is speed up informationthat's all."
Marshall McLuhan famously said that new technologies tend to become less visible as they become more familiar. The Internet was now proving his point. It was as if some crusty old baron who had been blasted out of his castle and was finally having a look at his first cannon had said, "All it does is speed up ballsthat's all." The profit-making potential of the Internet had been overrated, and so the social effects of the Internet were presumed to be overrated. But they weren't. It is wildly disruptive to speed up information, and speeding up information was not the only thing the Internet had done. The Internet had made it possible for people to thwart all sorts of rules and conventions. It wasn't just the commercial order that was in flux. Many forms of authority were secured by locks waiting to be picked.
At any rate, I found the material too rich to ignore. Working on a book about a man at the epicenter of the Internet Boom, I had stumbled upon a lot of disturbing Internet-inspired events: children who had used the new tool to become financial experts; parents who had used it to cede the responsibility for knowing about the world; big businessmen who had used it to transform themselves into enemies of the mass market; antisocial technologists who had been encouraged by it to reinvent themselves as social theorists. The technology of the Internet was far less interesting than the effects people were allowing it to have on their lives, and what these, in turn, said about those lives. What was happening on the Internet buttressed a school of thought in sociology known as role theory. The role theorists argue that we have no "self" as such. Our selves are merely the masks we wear in response to the social situations in which we find ourselves. The Internet had offered up a new set of social situations, to which people had responded by grabbing for a new set of masks. What was true of people was seemingly also true of ideas, as capitalism itself suddenly appeared willing to take new risks with its identity. I had already seen enough of the identity free-for-all to know that it was deeply unsettling. I could only assume that there were many more disturbing Internet-inspired events that I didn't know about.
And that was the problem. By the spring of 2000 hundreds of millions of people were on line. They had created billions and billions of web pages. The best Internet search engines didn't reach more than about a fifth of these. The best Internet search engine did not even know how many web pages existed. There was no way I was going to be able to investigate this vast new social world by myself. I needed help looking around. Into the picture strolled the British Broadcasting Corporation. It turned out that the BBC had already set aside a pile of money to make a television series about the social consequences of the Internet. This enabled them to hire a team of pro web surfers to help me scour the Internet for telling examples of human perversion. When they found something worth seeing, they would tell me about it. Then we would all go out together and knock on the front doors of the people behind the events and see what they were like in the flesh.
The British people had generously offered to fund an investigation. But of what? Certainly not the definitive catalogue of "the social consequences of the Internet." It's far too early for that. In the long run the Internet will become invisible and ubiquitous, and no one will spend a minute thinking about its social effects any more than they now think about the social effects of electricity. What I was after was more like the Internet consequences of society. People take on the new tools they are ready for, and only make use of what they need, how they need it. If they were using the Internet to experiment with their identities, it was probably because they found their old identities were inadequate. If the Internet was giving the world a shove in a certain direction, it was probably because the world already felt inclined to move in that direction. When I realized this I stopped worrying over the social consequences of the Internet and began simply to watch what was actually happening on the Internet. Inadvertently, it was telling us what we wanted to become.
It had an odd way of doing this, however. After a few months on the road I realized that I was spending a lot of my time chasing after children. This was new. I was accustomed to being younger than my subjects. All of a sudden I was the weird old guy who hangs around outside the school gate and waits for the bell to ring. I was uneasy in this new role. It seemed a truly perverse way to waste a lot of time. It wasn't until I traveled to Finland that I realized that there was a deeply serious commercial precedent for an unseemly interest in children. Oddly enough, a Finnish company, Nokia, had come to dominate the mobile phone business to the point where pretty much everyone now agreed that the Finns would be the first to connect mobile phones to the Internet in a way that the rest of us would find necessary. If one day we all wound up walking around physically attached to the Internetand it seemed likely that at least some of us wouldNokia would be the immediate reason for it. Overnight the Finns had gone from being celebrated mainly for their tendency to drink too much and then kill themselves to being heralded as the geniuses who built the most advanced communications industry on the planet. They had done this in spite of being personally uncommunicative, the only people I have ever met who, as they became drunk, grew even more silent.
The Finns were successful because they were especially good at guessing what others would want from their mobile phones. One big reason for thisor so the people at Nokia believedwas that they spent a lot of time studying children. The kids came to each new technology fresh, without preconceptions, and they picked it up more quickly. They dreamed up uses for their phones that, for reasons no one fully understood, never occurred to grown-ups. The instant text message, for instance. The instant message was fast becoming a staple of European corporate communication. To create an instant message, you punched it by hand into your telephone, using the keypad as a typewriter. On the face of it this is not an obvious use of a telephone keypad. The difference between the number of letters in the alphabet and the number of keys on the pad meant you wound up having to type a kind of Morse code. The technique had been invented by Finnish schoolboys who were nervous about asking girls out on dates to their face, and Finnish schoolgirls who wanted to tell each other what had happened on those dates, as soon as it happened. They'd proved that if the need to communicate indirectly is sufficiently urgent, Words can be typed into a telephone keypad with amazing speed. Five and a half million Finns had sent each other more than a billion instant messages in the year 2000. The technique had spread from Finnish children to businessmen because the kids had taught their parents how to use their phones. Nokia employed anthropologists to tell them this.
Finland had become the first nation on earth to acknowledge formally the child-centric model of economic development: if you wanted a fast-growing economy, you needed to promote rapid technical change, and if you intended to promote rapid technical change, you needed to cede to children a strange measure of authority. The average twelve-year-old Finn now owned a mobile phone, and it was widely assumed inside Nokia that one day every seven-year-old Finn would own a mobile phone. The twelve-year-olds disapproved of thisthey'd crinkle their foreheads and say that, really, seven was too young. They didn't understand that their futures depended on seven-year-olds having phones. If the twelve-year-olds were able to transform business communication, who knew what the seven-year-olds might achieve?
I don't want to dwell here on why childrenand, more generally, childishnessplays such an important part in the story that follows. I'll dwell on that enough later. But it does seem to me that when capitalism encourages ever more rapid change, children enjoy one big advantage over adults: they haven't decided who they are. They haven't sunk a lot of psychological capital into a particular self. When a technology comes along that rewards people who are willing to chuck overboard their old selves for new onesand it isn't just the Internet that does this; biotechnology offers many promising self-altering possibilitiesthe people who aren't much invested in their old selves have an edge. The things that get tossed overboard with a twelve-year-old self don't seem like much to give up at the time. Some part of the following story required me to remember this cruel fact. When you find that you are now the weird old guy hanging around outside the school gates, it becomes a necessary act of will to recall what it feels like to be a child, in the process of ordering up a self from the menu. It is necessary to recall, in particular, how ruthless the process can be.
I had spent my childhood in New Orleans. I would like now to consider this otherwise uninteresting fact as it is bound up with my interest in what follows. By the mercenary standards of the modern world, New Orleans is a failed place. In my lifetime it has ceased to be the capital of trade and commerce in the American South and become a museum city, like Venice. The new capital of the American South is Atlanta, which has made the shrewd but spiritually vacuous decision not to stand on ceremony or tradition but rather to go whoring after progress. Atlanta has transformed itself. It is no longer even a city; it's an airport, a blur of movement unrelated to anything but the pursuit of money. It is also, not uncoincidentally, one of America's Internet business centers.
Not so New Orleans. Decades of economic failure are in many ways unappealing, but in one way they are an advantage. Where there is no economic development there is no big change. There is just a slow, inexorable crumbling. For that reason New Orleans has always been an excellent place to observe progress. (The same might be said for any number of European cities: Manchester, England; Paris, France.) To know progress you need to know what it has rolled over or left behind, and when progress is moving as fast as it now is, recalling its victims is difficult. New Orleans keeps its anachronisms alive long enough for them to throw the outside world into sharp relief. For instance, until the mid-1990s you could find actual gentlemen lawyers in New Orleans, who thought of themselves mainly as members of an honorable and dignified profession. One of these dinosaurs was my father.
Right up until it collapsed, the old family law firm that my father managed clung to its charming habits. The gentlemen lawyers wrote notes to each other arguing over the correct pronunciation of certain phrases in ancient Greek. They collected strange artifacts from dead cultures. They treated education as a branch of religion. They wore bow ties. They were terrifyingly at ease with themselves but did not know the meaning of casual Friday. Their lives had been premised on a frankly elitist idea: an attorney was above the fray. He possessed special knowledge. He observed a strict code of conduct without ever having to say what it was. He viewed all entreaties to change with suspicion. (The lawyer in the office next door to my father not only shunned e-mail when it arrived; he still used a telephone from 1919 that had belonged to his father.) The most important thing in the world to him was his stature in the community, and yet so far as anyone else could determine he never devoted an ounce of his mental energy to worrying about it. Status wasn't a cause; it was an effect of the way he led his life.
The first hint I had that this was no longer a tenable poseand would not be a tenable pose for mecame from a man I'd never met called Morris Bart. I was some kind of teenager at the time. My father and I were driving along the Interstate highway that ran through town when we came upon a giant billboard. It said something like are you a victim? have you been injured? no one represents your interests? call morris bart: attorney-at-law. And there was a big picture of Morris Bart. He had the easy smile of a used car dealer.
"Do you do the same thing as Morris Bart?"
"But his billboard says he's a lawyer."
"We have a different kind of law firm."
"We don't have billboards."
"It's just not something a lawyer does."
That was true. It was true right up to the moment Morris Bart stuck up his picture beside the Interstate highway. My father and his colleagues remained unmoved, but the law was succumbing to a general force, the twin American instincts to democratize and to commercialize. (Often they amount to the same thing.) These are the two forces that power the Internet, and in turn are powered by it. Martin Sorrell, the British chairman of the global advertising firm WPP, says there is no such thing as globalization. There is only Americanization. I know a few French chefs and German car manufacturers and even British advertising executives who would dispute that statement. But the man has a point. And I know what it feels like to be on the wrong end of the trend. New Orleans knew how the world outside of America felt about America because New Orleans felt that way too.
Morris Bart was a tiny widget inside the same magnificent American instrument of destruction that the Internet has so eloquently upgraded. A few years after he put up his billboard my father's firm began to receive calls from "consultants" who wanted to help them learn how to steal clients and lawyers from other firmsa notion that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier, and remained unthinkable to some. A few years after that the clients insisted that lawyers bill by the hourand then questioned the bills! The old game was over. The minute the market intruded too explicitly, the old prestige began to seep out of the law. For the gentlemen lawyers it ended about as well as it could. But still it ended. And for people whose identity was wrapped up in the idea, the end gave their story the shape of tragedy.
The gentlemen lawyers responded to the assault on their world in character, by refusing to give an inch. Their children responded differently. A child still has time to save himself. To a child, being on the wrong end of the trend is not a sign that it's time to dig in and defend the old position; it's a signal to cut and run. Progress depends on these small acts of treason.
I recall the feeling when it first dawned on me that the ground beneath my teenage feet was moving. I did not enjoy the premonition of doom in my father's world. But what troubled me even more was that some part of me wanted my father to have his own billboard beside the highwaywhich of course he would never do. My response was to leave home and invent another self for myself. Had the Internet been available, I might have simply gone on line.
From Next: The Future Just Happened, by Michael Lewis.
Published by W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Copyright © 2001 Michael Lewis. All rights reserved.