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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Sex and the Social Critic (August 1999)
Jack Beatty on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- and what the film's detractors failed to see.

Most Valuable Player (July 1999)
Jack Beatty on Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, a new book examining the economic impact of his Airness.

All the Presidents' Man (June 1999)
Jack Beatty reviews Name-Dropping, the new book by John Kenneth Galbraith, and recalls the days when liberals were cool. Seriously.

Slaves' Wages (May 1999)
What price can be put on the exorbitant theft of labor that was American slavery? Jack Beatty looks at a new work of history that suggests an answer.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

The Billionaire's Curse

Why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress"

by Jack Beatty

September 22, 1999

A piece of jargon gaining currency in management writing is "change agent." Usually it refers to a new CEO, or another key person within an organization. It suggests the comforting idea that change is human-generated. Events are not in the saddle; change agents are. Of course, next to the all-pervading force of globalization -- unplanned, uncontrolled, unstoppable -- "change agent" looks like a metaphysical conceit. Technology, the second big force shaping the times, allows for more human agency, though innovations quickly take on lives of their own -- even if people invent technology, they cannot control its effects. Next to technology, politics and government are hardly change agents at all. That is regrettable since it is only through politics and government that we the people can hope to change change. The New New Thing by Michael Lewis tells the story of Internet billionaire Jim Clark -- one of the major change agents in technology, a man who has more influence on more people and at a more significant level than even the sum of world "leaders." Who voted for Jim Clark?

* * *

The New New ThingFor most of Lewis's brilliant report from Silicon Valley, the locus of "the greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet," I wanted Jim Clark to fail, to lose acres of his money on one of his whim-begotten business plunges. Lewis's depiction of Clark is more than fair, but it is difficult to like a man who has everything but is content with nothing. Clark has the attention span of a newt. ("If everyone was patient," he says, "there'd be no new companies.") He is one of the great businessmen of our age, but is scornful of business -- indeed, of most any human endeavor beyond his narrow ken. He fronts life with a kind of cosmic restlessness: few things please, nothing pleases long. He is the founder of two multibillion-dollar companies. I wanted this malcontent to fail on his third, Healtheon, an Internet medical information service that is now trading on the stock market at forty-five. Yet I ended the book feeling sorry for him. Michael Lewis, I suspect, wanted the reader's feelings to arc from instinctive distaste to qualified sympathy. That at any rate is the effect of his choice to end The New New Thing in Plainview, Texas, with a visit to Clark's mother, Hazel.

Jim Clark had it bitter hard as a child. His father, Charles, was an alcoholic who "apparently drank all day and beat Hazel up all night." Her family of four lived on what Hazel made, which was $225 a month, as a doctor's assistant. Hazel divorced Charles when Jim was fourteen, but Charles hung around, causing trouble. This culminated in his sabotaging Hazel's car, which spurred Jim to confront him. "Jim got up and left the house," said Hazel, "and went to find his father. When he came back he was crying." Jim's intervention put an end to Charles's harassment.

One sees why Clark dismisses questions about his past with "That's boring. I really don't give a shit about the past." No amount of money can recompense his loss, though Clark, as his net worth passes Portugal's, is giving it a try.

Clark quit his high school (which was about to expel him for pranks like smuggling a skunk into class) to join the Navy at seventeen. The Navy gave him a multiple-choice test at boot camp. He had never taken one before. All the answers looked partially right to him, so he circled every one. The Navy thought he was trying to fool the computer that graded the test. "Thus the first time Jim Clark ever heard of computers," Lewis writes, "was when he was accused of trying to fool one into thinking he was smarter than he was." Which was plenty smart: post-Navy, he got a master's degree in physics at the University of New Orleans, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Utah. You can't take the Plainview out of the boy, however. Clark got fired from his first serious job for insubordination. His second wife left him. At thirty-eight he had nothing to show for his life. Suddenly, Clark told Lewis, "I developed this maniacal passion for wanting to achieve something."

Clark hates paying taxes, but he has the government to thank for the turn his career took. The Pentagon started computer science as a discipline in the late 1960s by funding four university departments in the subject. Stanford, in Silicon Valley, was the best of them. Clark wound up teaching there. "Clark set to work turning his new interest in being alive into new technology. With his graduate students he created a chip that could do things no computer chip could do." He labelled this chip "Geometry Engine." It could show three-dimensional images on a computer screen. This is the technology behind virtual games, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and the computer-modelled design of planes and automobiles. "After the appearance of Clark's chip," an historian of Silicon Valley writes, "the art and science of computer graphics would never be the same." Quickly Clark built a company around his chip -- Silicon Graphics. Launched on an $800,000 loan from a venture-capital fund, Silicon Graphics earned $400 million on that investment when it became the "new thing."

Silicon Graphics was a business, not just a projection of Jim Clark's dreams, and a "Serious American Executive" was hired to run it. Clark began a long-running battle with that species. Think of an artist-director fighting with the suits, who are blind to the purity of his vision yet are running the studios. Clark is most content when his start-ups are "pure possibility," Lewis writes. Once Silicon Graphics got going, Clark grew bored and began to think up the next new thing.

That would be Netscape, the company that made the Internet work. After Netscape, Clark sank millions into interactive television. No market exists for it now, but one will someday, and Clark, having worked through the technology, will capture it. Next, after spending about an hour in a hospital -- all those forms to fill out! -- Clark decided to reinvent the $1.5 trillion health-care industry. Healtheon, which surpassed all expectations in its Initial Public Offering, is his vehicle for that modest undertaking. Lewis makes the stories of these start-ups as suspenseful as Pearl White strapped to the railroad tracks.

If there is a cliché in this book, I didn't find it. "He resembled a man who has swallowed an earthquake whole," Lewis writes of a computer programmer on a modest salary who has just hit a $32 million Internet-stock-option jackpot, "and was now trying to contain the aftershocks within his frame." Okay, a California cliché. But read this: "His voice had the dull rolling groan of thunder from a bolt of lightning that has struck nothing, far away." Only the best writers would extend that description past "lightning." (I'd have considered myself Flaubert to reach "thunder.") Lewis gets off one of these gems every few pages. Marx likens money to a "pimp" that draws young women to an old man and disguises mediocrity in the robes of merit. But not even all Jim Clark's money can buy him Michael Lewis's talent.

Jim Clark incarnates creative destruction, capitalism's hurricane of progress. "His life was dedicated to the fine art of tearing down and building anew," Lewis observes. Clark is at best indifferent to the consequences of his genius. Henry Ford never shed a tear for the buggy-whip business, either. Technology is remorseless toward inefficiency, as we saw in the early 1990s, when thousands of middle managers were revealed by computers as "information relays," to use Peter Drucker's language, and lost their jobs. Any corner of the economy harboring inefficiency is on borrowed time, it seems. If Clark has his way, millions of people employed in health care or in the next industry he targets to lance his boredom will experience economic insecurity of some sort -- lose a job or live in fear of losing one -- and thus feel something of what he felt as a child. "Mama, I'm going to show Plainview," he said when he got out of the Navy. He will show us all. Welcome to Plainview.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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