Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The New, New Thing by Michael Lewis

I am a fan of Michael Lewis the writer, from Liar's Poker and Moneyball and the occasional essay. I am a fan because stylistically, he is a simple, direct writer, observant and funny. But I am more a fan because thematically, Lewis engages topics like work, business culture, and sports, the substance of both life and dreams for so many people, myself included, and renders them with clarity, honesty, intelligence, and humor. Writing about work and business culture, Lewis treats it not just as a diminishing, soul-crushing exercise foisted upon us, but as occupation, something we do, and some of us, some times, with tenacity, zeal, and inspiration. He conveys jobs and entire industries truly as livelihoods, pulsing, consuming, informed by both biography and history. But with perspective throughout, chronicling his subject's mania with an offset balance of dry humor and an eye for the absurd.

That said, The New New Thing was an entertaining read, brisk, but not particularly insightful. Ostensibly chronicling the culture of entrepreneurship that drove the growth of Silicon Valley from the late 1970s through to the end of the 1990s, The New New Thing is basically a character study of Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape adorned with some half-drawn conclusions about character of entrepreneurship that was the spirit of the times. Jim Clark, as portrayed by Lewis, is an immensely interesting personality, and as much as business in the Valley is driven by cults of personality, I suppose it makes sense to latch on to that as anything else. It is disappointing, however that Lewis is not able to draw much by way of insight into what makes Silicon valley tick as a hot-bed of innovation, beyond a few obvious sentiments like technology is a young man's game, timing is everything, and California is a place where you can re-invent yourself.

I will transcribe one passage that I find modestly interesting:
[B]ack in 1921 [Thorstein] Veblen had predicted that engineers would one day rule in the U.S. economy. He argued that since the economy was premised on technology and the engineers were the only ones who actually understood how the technology worked, they would inevitably use their superior knowledge to seize power from the financiers and captains of industry who wound up on top at the end of the first round of the Industrial Revolution. After all, the engineers only needed to refuse to fix anything, and modern industry would grind to a halt. Veblen rejoiced at this prospect. He didn’t much care for financiers and captains. He thought they were parasites.
When I told Clark about Veblen, he did a good imitation of a man who was bored out of his skull. When he didn’t ant to seem too interested, he pretended he wasn’t paying attention. Now, his head splitting, he was particularly keen on the idea of the engineer grabbing power from the financier. “That’s happening right now,” he said. “Right here. In the Valley. The power is shifting to the engineers, who create the companies.”
That, Clark thought, was only as it should be.
Certainly a nice sentiment. Truer than before. yes. True, absolutely? Not yet. Thoughts?

1 comment:

karsten said...

I am waiting for the day when philosophers wrest power from the engineers. After all, we would just have to refuse to understand anything, and your little world would grind to a halt.