In Review: December 15, 1999
Revealing the dark side of Silicon
In his new book, Michael Lewis '82 follows innovator Jim Clark
In 1994, Glen Mueller, an extremely successful venture capitalist in Sili con Valley, shot himself through the head. His motivation, as far as anyone can tell, is that Jim Clark, founder of a then-unknown company called Netscape, had refused to allow Mueller to invest in his venture.
Michael Lewis '82 had been researching his book on Silicon Valley for several months when he heard the Mueller story. "I thought, now here we've got something interesting," Lewis recalls. The enigmatic Clark soon became the center of Lewis's new book, The New New Thing (W.W. Norton, $25.95), and Lewis readily admits that he was alternately captivated, mystified, and bewildered by Clark, a cofounder of Silicon Graphics in the early '80s who had remade himself in 1994 by creating Netscape, the now-ubiquitous Internet software giant.
Lewis followed Clark while the entrepreneur was in the process of creating Healtheon, an Internet startup designed to transform the health care industry by eliminating the current thicket of paperwork. Lewis seemed stunned to encounter a man who believed that he could change the entire $1.5 billion-dollar health care system with a few dozen computer programmers. "Clark is either a vindication of the American experience or a terrifying example of social mobility," Lewis says.
Following the pair across the pages of the book is often a wearying exercise-they discover a plane upside down in a tree, sail across the Atlantic in a boat (sometimes) controlled by 25 Silicon Graphics workstations in its hull, and witness the improbable growth of tiny Healtheon into Clark's third multibillion-dollar company. By the time the book is done, Clark, whose search for the future is so intense that the past doesn't even register as an afterthought, has come to represent an age that few of us outside Silicon Valley really understand.
Ever since Lewis left Salomon Brothers to write Liar's Poker, an inside look at Wall Street in the '80s, he has conducted his own search to find the most interesting pieces of major segments of American culture.
In Silicon Valley, Lewis encountered an area he characterizes as "superficially optimistic. If you had to summarize it in one word," he says, "you'd use 'yahoo.' You don't hear the term 'nouveau riche' because it wouldn't occur to anybody. But under everything is a lot of tragedy and unhappiness. It's just hard to see through the sunshine."
Lewis was originally led to his subject by some of his old comrades on Wall Street. "My friends at Salomon were like these self-interested wolves I'd tagged and sent into the wild," he says. "I watched as they began to migrate to Silicon Valley." Although Lewis's own Wall Street roots led him to believe that he would find his story by following the venture capitalists, he soon discovered an altogether different dynamic in the Valley. When Clark founded
Netscape and Healtheon, he dictated the terms under which he will allow investors to give him money-an egg eating the chicken kind of relationship in the world of finance.
Lewis found those new relationships exciting. "The type of person who has seized control is the kind of person who historically was kept at a great distance," he says. "They would end their careers as middle managers at GE. So there's something refreshing about them having their day in the sun that's kind of fun."
And by choosing Clark, Lewis found a fascinating-if not entirely typical-example of this Silicon Valley anomaly. Clark, a high school dropout from Plainview, Texas, invented a computer chip called the Geometry Engine in 1979 while working at Stanford. That chip, which transformed computer graphics and design, also launched Silicon Graphics. Although Silicon Graphics swiftly grew into a powerhouse, Clark soon found himself a mere figurehead at the company he'd created, and by the late '80s he was fighting incessantly with CEO Ed McCracken. As Lewis writes: "Ed McCracken was Jim Clark's first intimate encounter with the American professional management class, and its politics. From it was born his conviction that there was a whole layer of people in American business who called themselves managers who were in fact designed to screw up his plans. . . . It took people a while to realize that the new rule in Silicon Valley was that Jim Clark always got his way. It took 10 years, to be exact."
By the end of those 10 years, Clark had turned a program called Mosaic, written by a 22-year old programmer, into Netscape. Just a few years later, Clark founded Healtheon.
The most interesting part of Clark's character-and the part that seems to most unsettle Lewis-is his total lack of interest in the past, a phenomenon Lewis finds mirrored in the rest of Silicon Valley. "I think nostalgia is an interesting and useful emotion in the task of getting through life," Lewis says. "To see a world that completely neglects the past is really disturbing. It seems untrue to the human experience that they can just say screw the past when in fact the past jumps up and bites them all the time."
The New New Thing marks Lewis's maturation from a very funny and sometimes glib writer to a very funny and often insightful social critic smart enough to make his claims by anecdote rather than assertion. Lewis captures the pathos of Silicon Valley that lies beneath the rah-rah business reporting and Fortune 400 list of smug billionaires. "Silicon Valley is like that horrible swamp between Newark and New York," Lewis says. "You think, why should there be such an awful place on this planet? Then one day you're driving through and you find something beautiful and suddenly it's an interesting place. Silicon Valley was all light; the trick was to find something dark."
-Wes Tooke '98
Finding the new thing
Editor and novelist Star Lawrence '65 helped Lewis tell his story
Starling Lawrence '65 is an atypical character in publishing. In addition to being editor-in-chief at W. W. Norton, where he edited Michael Lewis '82's The New New Thing, he has written two highly regarded books: a collection of short stories, and Montenegro, a novel. "Most editors aren't good editors because they can't write," Lewis says. "Star's a wonderful writer who's willing to edit. It puzzles me, but I'm certainly glad."
As an editor, Lawrence adapts himself to the needs of particular writers. "In terms of what you have to do, it varies widely," he says. "With some writers you may have to do a lot of hand holding or line by line editing. Some books we end up entirely rewriting, which usually means you made a mistake when you bought it."
For his part, Lewis has found working with Lawrence to be extremely productive. "Writers and editors are like dance couples," Lewis says. "Star's well suited to me because he's good at solving the difficulties I encounter. My problems are usually storyteller problems, and he has an eye for how a story works."
Norton is as flooded with manuscripts as most publishing houses, and
Lawrence reads several proposals and manuscripts per day-enough to allow
for the occasional mistake. "I've seen enough books that I rejected
go on to greatness to know that I'm not a barrier to publication,"
he says. Yet despite his long hours-lengthened by the fact he wakes up early
to work on his own fiction-Lawrence still finds his job rewarding. "I
know I have something that a lot of people want," he says. "And
when I stop getting excited about that, I'll leave. But I don't think golf
courses in Florida are in my future."
Consumer Society in American History: A Reader, edited by Lawrence B. Glickman '85 (Cornell University Press, $24.95, paper). Are Americans born to shop? Glickman and the 20-plus writers of this book argue that consumerism is more than compulsion in our society; it is intertwined with our national identity and threads its way into politics and history. In the book's six parts its writers (professors, the poet Wendell Berry, environmentalists Alan Durning and Joel Makower, and others) consider such topics as the immigrant as consumer, music and the growth of mass culture, and environmental consciousness and consumption. Glickman, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina, includes a bibliographic essay.
In Praise of Antiheroes, by Victor Brombert (University of Chicago Press, $29). The traditional hero, exemplar of will, action, and bravery, fell on hard times in modern European literature from 1830 to 1980, according to Brombert, who examines the ways the heroic model has been subverted through works by nine masters such as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Svevo. The Henry Putnam University Professor of Romance, and Comparative Literatures emeritus also attempts to explore the underlying reasons for this trend, and how the antihero reflects the tensions of our time. "In an age of skepticism and dwindling faith," Brombert writes, "an age marked by the pervasive awareness of loss and disarray, the deliberate subversion of the heroic tradition may betray an urge to salvage and reinvent meaning." This book could be of particular interest to the many former students who took Brombert's course on the antihero or his popular freshman lecture course, Literature 141, Modern European Writers.
Bandanna, by Paul Muldoon (Faber and Faber, $13, paper). "To live is to sleep. To die is to awaken," sing the Dispossessed in the opening Prologue of Muldoon's poem/opera libretto. Set in a small town on the Mexican border, its characters include a Latino police chief and his white officers, a labor organizer, the chief's wife, and one officer's fiancée. Although the action involves illegal immigrants, the underlying story is the age-old conflict of jealousy and revenge. This is the second such work Muldoon, the Howard G. B. Clark Professor in the Humanities and director of the Creative Writing Program, has written for American composer Daron Aric Hagen. It was commissioned by the College Bands Directors National Association.
Fool's Errand, a novel by Louis Bayard '85 (Alyson Books, $12.95, paper). The man of Patrick Beaton's dreams literally walks in on a nap he's taking, then vanishes. Bayard's character spends his time in pursuit of his Mr. Right, who he imagines is a Scottish prince, and along the way learns to distinguish between dreams and reality. Unexpected plot twists involving car thieves, an infertile violin teacher, gay vigilantes, and a zany bunch of friends keep the plot of this romantic comedy moving. The scene is Washington, D.C., where Bayard lives, and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
Call Waiting: How to Hear God Speak, by Robert K. Hudnut '56 (InterVarsity Press, $11.99, paper). The good news, writes Hudnut, a writer and former pastor of the Winnetka Presbyterian Church in Winnetka, Illinois, is that there is a spiritual call for each of us when we are ready to hear it. In the meantime, he advises readers to go about their ordinary lives, just as figures in the Bible did. Using the telephone as a metaphor and Biblical examples from the Old and New Testaments, Hudnut shows readers how to view positive and negative states of mind and emotions, such as humility, frustration, hospitableness, and love, from a theological perspective. He outlines how calls come and what obstructs their reaching the recipient. The short chapters can be used as separate devotionals.
The Last Emerging Market: From Asian Tigers to African Lions? The Ghana File, by Nathaniel H. Bowditch *74 (Praeger, $55). Bowditch's book is part travelogue, part business handbook, and part economic development primer. His enthusiasm for Ghana is evident throughout; he concludes the West African country can become an international player in the global economy in the next millennium. Bowditch is a senior fellow at the New England Board of Higher Education in Boston. The reference to Asian Tigers reflects his years of economic and community development work in Malaysia before moving to Ghana in the 1990s to work on an ecotourism project sponsored by the United Nations and the U.S. government.
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