New Part Two - September 4:
Part One - August 29:
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.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on technology
Atlantic Unbound | September 4, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Michael Lewis
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: The (next) Age of the Internet - Part Two
The two themes you so politely question—"the rise of the young" and the "end of authority"—I think of as falling someplace between literary conceits and honest arguments. I suppose they are suggestions, made to the reader in a gentle, coaxing spirit with the help of stories that (I hope) will give him some pleasure—even if he finds my suggestions absurd. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to dramatize the way that rapid technical change (of which the Internet is just one example) undermines authority and gives outsiders (of which kids are just an example) new powers. I didn't want to sell too hard the idea that fifteen-year-old boys will be chairing the Federal Reserve anytime soon, because I don't think they will.
On the other hand, I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the notion that fifteen-year-olds will have more and more economic power. In recent years—or since the time when I was a very young person—very young people have enjoyed fantastic economic opportunities, and it's worth asking why this is. (Especially since I think I know the answer.) I recall a conversation I had a few years back with Marc Andreessen, the cofounder of Netscape. He was marveling at the exploits of some teenage Canadian hacker who had turned up in the newspapers. I asked him at what age he would like to be able to hire people to work at Netscape. He said that, were it not for child-labor laws, twelve year olds could be very usefully employed as programmers. He said that for many programming tasks he'd prefer a bright teenager to a grown-up.
Now, I've never written computer code, but I've been told about six thousand times by people who do that the aptitude for it is something like an aptitude for mathematics. Mathematicians famously peak young, so perhaps computer programming, as big and growing a field as it is, should be treated as an exception to some general economic rule. But then I think back to my experience on Wall Street in the 1980s. I arrived on the Salomon Brothers trading floor about the same time as the computer. Thanks to the computer Wall Street—like many sectors of the economy—was becoming highly technically innovative. The computer enabled the creation and analysis of more and more complicated financial products. And, for reasons both obvious and mysterious, young people tended to be the ones who created them.
All of a sudden experience mattered a lot less on Wall Street. It's no accident that the 1980s gave us the twenty-six-year-old Wall Street millionaire. Or that, since then, finance has remained a province of youth, a business in which people come of age in their mid twenties and often retire in their late thirties. From the moment the computer hit the trading floor, perfectly ignorant young people (like me) were able to walk into big Wall Street firms and within six months make themselves expert on aspects of the business that the old guys did not fully understand.
I think this aspect of Wall Street life—rapid technical innovation inside an industry leading to a "youthening" of that industry—is a dramatic illustration of a force at work in any economy that makes a fetish, as ours does, of technical innovation. As you point out, it is now fashionable to pooh-pooh the youth-quake aspects of the Internet Boom. But it's interesting to stand back from the wreckage and ask: Who won? Who walked away with lots more money in his pocket than he had before? The answer is: the people who got in early and got out before the market tanked. And these, in the main, were very young people. (Think of the founders and first employees of Netscape, Yahoo, Excite, etc., etc.) The wise, gray-headed manager types now currently in fashion were also the ones who waited until just before the bubble burst to quit their jobs to work for dot-coms.
I agree with you that "the end of authority" is hardly an original theme. The reason the Internet is such a powerful force for social change is that it pushes society in a direction it was predisposed to travel. But if everything I wrote had to be wholly original I'd never write anything. And I did think it was useful to suggest—gently, coaxingly—the way new technology feeds the perpetual American desire for insurrection.
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