Michael Lewis monitors social shuffling and feather ruffling
In his first book, the widely and deservedly praised Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis tweaked the noses of the powers-that-be at the investment banking firm Salomon Brothers and apparently provoked nary a ripple of recrimination. His sixth book, Next: The Future Just Happened, is not yet in bookstores and it has already infuriated former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt. And Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, is not going to be happy with it, either.
This is not because Michael Lewis has suddenly lost the sense of humor or flair for storytelling we experienced reading Liar's Poker or The New New Thing, his book about Jim Clark and Silicon Valley. Rather, in Lewis' eyes, Levitt and Joy have become so swollen with self-importance that they offer inviting illustrations of the status upheavals spawned by Internet technologies and radically democratized access to information. It will be no comfort to Levitt and Joy to learn that Next comes with its own megaphone -- that old technology called television.
For, Next, the book, is the fraternal twin of Next, the BBC television documentary, which features Lewis as the on-camera guide to the New Internet Order. The documentary will premiere in the U.S. in two two-hour segments on A&E on August 5 and 6 at 9 p.m. ET.
According to Lewis he was "stewing" over the weird ways in which the "transformative technology of the Internet was touching people" and feeling frustrated because pursuing this idea required more work than he could possibly accomplish on his own, when the BBC came calling with promises of a research team and a travel budget.
"I don't think I would have written the book if the BBC hadn't come along," Lewis said during a recent call from Paris, where he and his family have lived during the two years he worked on the book and the documentary.
In Next, Lewis weaves a series of themes into the swift, sharp, often-funny narratives that comprise the bulk of the book. "The Internet creates chaos in any relationship that's premised on an imbalance of access to information," Lewis says, describing one of his themes. "The legal profession, the medical profession and parents in relation to their children have enjoyed superior status because they have had better access to information. I found myself looking for the effects in the world of eliminating these imbalances."
A related idea, which Lewis attributes to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Andy Kessler, is that Internet technologies empower the fringe over the center. "For example, we spent a week in Finland asking the question how did a society that was basically a nonentity in Europe become a society that is now on the leading edge of technology and the communications revolution?"
Lewis' final overarching theme is that "one day thousands of years from now, if people are still alive, they'll look back on this period as the endgame of democracy. I don't mean that democracy is coming to an end but that it's becoming more and more extreme. The democratizing instinct wants to level everything."
Lewis says he struggled to embody these themes in the narrative. "What Next really wanted to be was a series of arguments about how the world is changing and how the Internet plays a part in that. But I've always felt the essay is a cheat. It's harder, more challenging and more interesting if you can turn it into a narrative. So I go looking for scenes. I structure pieces of writing like a novel."
Lucky for us. Particularly in the first two-thirds of the book, where Lewis relates the stories of three teenage boys whose lives are profoundly changed by the Internet, the narratives are compelling. There is the moving story of Daniel Sheldon, a brilliant boy who is basically educating himself on the Internet, because the schools in his working class English town have failed him. There is the weirdly disturbing story of Marcus Arnold, who has become an extraordinarily popular dispenser of legal expertise via the Internet, even though he is only a teenager and has never opened a legal book. And there is the surly Jonathan Lebed, who made a killing in the stock market by trading online, often from the school library in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and ran seriously afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the process.
It's the story of Lebed that leads Lewis to interview Arthur Levitt in what is probably the highpoint -- or lowpoint -- of the book. With a sort of deadpan humor, Lewis exposes Levitt's empty pomposity and self-satisfied platitudes in a scene that might have made Mark Twain proud.
"It was shocking," Lewis says, reflecting on his interview with Levitt. "He'd been all over television talking about this case . . . but while I'm talking to him it becomes clear to me that he doesn't understand not only this case but also the way the markets actually work. The 16-year-old kid's description of the world is much more persuasive than the head of the SEC's. That was something that took me a minute to get my mind around. Here in a microcosm was what I'd been talking about. The head of the SEC's authority was badly undermined because he didn't know what he was supposed to know, and that information was widely available on the Internet."
Lewis delivers a similar comeuppance to Bill Joy near the end of the book. Joy, who was responsible for the technology behind Sun Microsystems, has recently become famous for an essay warning of the dangers of new technologies. This strikes Lewis as ludicrous. "I found his article completely unpersuasive. It read like the work of a charlatan to me. All of its clout as an argument came from the fact that it was written by someone everybody thinks is a genius. . . . The Internet has vaulted computer scientists to a new level, where they can now start meddling in the big questions of social philosophy. They want to be grand old men in a world that's designed not to have grand old men. I thought it was important for that reason to hurl a stink bomb into their world."
Of course Lewis' stink bombs usually come with a strong dose of common sense and a big whiff of laughter. "I've always been somebody who laughed at inappropriate moments," he says. "Humor is a natural predisposition for me. . . . Humor is my spitball."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.