New Part Three - September 19:
James Fallows
Michael Lewis

Part Two - September 4:
James Fallows
Michael Lewis

Part One - August 29:
James Fallows
Michael Lewis



Michael Lewis is the author of several books, including the international bestsellers Liar's Poker and The New New Thing. He has been the American editor of the British weekly The Spectator and a senior editor at The New Republic. Currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, he lives in Berkeley with his wife, Tabitha Soren, and their daughter, Quinn.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel, published this month. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.



Previously in Fallows@large:

The Waste Land (June 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Alex Kerr, author of Dogs and Demons.

Working Classes (May 2, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed.

The Work of Words (February 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Christopher Hitchens, author of Unacknowledged Legislation and would-be prosecutor of Henry Kissinger.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on technology




Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.


Atlantic Unbound | August 29, 2001
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
Beyond the Tech Bubble

An exchange with Michael Lewis, the author of Next: The Future Just Happened

.....
 
From: James Fallows
To: Michael Lewis
Subject: The (next) Age of the Internet

Dear Michael:

next

Next: The Future Just Happened
by Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton
236 pages, $23.95

Thanks for joining this exchange, and thanks for writing Next. It is as enjoyable and as insightful as anyone would have hoped. Before asking about some of the tales you have to tell about the Internet, I should give onlookers a word of background.

We first met back in 1988. I had just moved to Yokohama, after a couple-year idyllic stint in Malaysia; you were recovering after writing a book about your adventures as a bond trader during the glory days of the 1980s boom. You were wondering, as I recall, whether you'd stick with the writing life or go back to finance. That book turned out to be Liar's Poker, and the choice was clear.

We met in Japan and in Washington, D.C., after that on friendly terms. And then—trouble in paradise!—we mildly crossed horns over your previous book about the Internet, The New New Thing. I wrote a review saying that the book was just great ... but that another book, Charles Ferguson's High Stakes, No Prisoners, had certain important additional insights into the business world. Thin-skinnedness about book reviews being what it is, I could imagine your holding a grudge and therefore appreciate your willingness to sign on here. I mention all of this to let onlookers know that this is not a wholly arms-length exchange.

Now, your book! I think that Next makes a very useful complement to The New New Thing. Their general topic is similar—the Age of the Internet—but in many other ways they serve as yin-and-yang counterparts to each other. One difference is in the approach to the story. NNT was a top-down tale. It concentrated on Jim Clark, the man who had built a number of Silicon Valley startups and, as you watched, was trying to build some more. Nearly everything in Next is about people on the other end of the system—the Internet users, most of them actual children, who are applying the tools that Clark and others have created in order to do things that seem cool to them. These things, you say, are what will change the world.

Related to this difference in protagonists is a difference in locales. NNT was mainly in and around Silicon Valley, though there were excursions to Europe and the mid-Atlantic aboard Jim Clark's beloved yacht, to India to see the source of engineering talent, to Texas to see Clark's hardscrabble origins. Silicon Valley, the headquarters of the Internet economy, figures in Next hardly at all. (Some tech big-shots do sneak in at the end of the book, but we'll get to them later.)

Instead the book makes a point of taking us to oddball sites—none of them presented very lovingly! You talk about New Orleans, where you grew up, and where technological progress has passed everyone by. You talk about the wastelands of the "inland empire" of Southern California, where I grew up. ("Why anyone would move to Perris from anywhere was not immediately clear." Fortunately I'm from a couple towns over.) You take us to something that sounds like Soprano-land, New Jersey. ("On one of those gray winter mornings that make New Jersey seem even more unfairly like New Jersey....") One of your characters is from the bleakness of industrial England. ("The makers of small films have always understood that despair always seems worse when it is British—on top of everything else it's cold and wet.") Not just about the locales but about many of the people in them you have evolved an appealingly curmudgeon-like stance: "I was becoming an old hand at computer-generated family disputes—both at identifying them and tossing fuel on them, then backing away in the spirit of the arsonist to watch the flames do their work."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Politics & Prose: "The Billionaire's Curse" (September 22, 1999)
A review of Michael Lewis's The New New Thing. By Jack Beatty
But the most obvious difference between your two Internet books involves the worlds into which each of them was born. The New New Thing appeared while the tech bubble was still an object of admiration and envy rather than of ridicule. It was hailed (including by me!) as having captured perfectly the spirit of that time. Years later people will read it to find out what is was like to live in a world when everyone was getting rich, when no one bothered with tedious "revenue models," when plans drawn on the back of a napkin could turn out to be "worth" hundreds of millions of dollars.

Next appears, as you note in the introduction, when sophisticates act as if they, of course, never took the hype about the Internet seriously. So while NNT could best be appreciated as a snapshot of an unusual moment in history, Next comes across as contrarian. This isn't such a joke, you're arguing. All these inventions, all these changes in the way people interact and communicate—they're going to make a big difference in the long run.

I'll wait until the next round to go into some of the (generally hilarious) case studies you use to advance the "Internet still matters" argument. But I'd like to start now by asking you about the change in outside mood and how it affected your writing of the two books.

When you started on New New, did you have any idea that you'd be chronicling "top of the market" behavior? And how about when you began Next? How far into it were you when you realized that by the time it appeared it would be a contrarian book?

In fact, I'd love to know as much else as you can tell us about the background of the book. At some point you escaped to France, right? Was that in any way connected to the quest for the Internet's implications, or just another life adventure that happened to occur at the same time? Here is a specific inside-baseball question, too: much of the material in Next was first published as articles in The New York Times Magazine. Did you know all along that you wanted to do a complete book, and thought you could work out the ideas in real time this way—as Tom Wolfe once did via Rolling Stone? Or did you sense after doing a few of the pieces that in fact they constituted critical mass for a book?

Given that you've now had several years' worth of reflection and reaction to The New New Thing to digest, what parts of that portrayal, if any, do you wish you'd changed at the time? I'm not asking for the unfair advantage of hindsight, but whether there was anything that even at the time you felt you hadn't quite captured. Now you've had a few weeks of reflection and reaction to Next to consider. What has the response, either from official critics or the normal public, revealed to you about this moment in the history of the Internet? Do people seem suspiciously eager to grasp any good news about technology's future? What have you learned by being on the hustings—other than that you wished for a small-jet transport system as an alternative to the airlines?

That's it from my new home of Washington, D.C. Assuming that you've just resumed residence in my previous home of Berkeley, I send envious regards.

Jim Fallows

Next Page: Michael Lewis - August 29

Part Two - September 4:
James Fallows | Michael Lewis

New Part Three - September 19:
James Fallows | Michael Lewis


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More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

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