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Say Hello To Tomorrow Essay, Research Paper

Say hello to tomorrowReading Michael Lewis it’s hard to decide who he most wants to be: Tom Wolfe or P.J. O’Rourke. In person, however, there are no such doubts – it has to be O’Rourke. There’s the same preppy casual wear – pink button-down shirt and roomy chinos – the same schoolboy fringe haircut, the same mixture of professional gravitas and dissenting irreverence, the same bright sheen of someone who can’t quite believe his luck. If you had to date the sartorial image, you’d place it circa 1986, when new conservatism was the height of fashion. What it resolutely does not speak of is the future. But Lewis himself does, and with an urgency that is dizzying. His new book, and four-part television series, is called The Future Just Happened. As the title suggests, the future is no longer at a safe distance some years hence. Instead it’s here and you’d better get used to it. The rate of technological change, argues Lewis, is accelerating so rapidly that the choice is either to adapt or become a relic. As perspectives go, it’s not exactly fresh. For the better part of the past decade, futurology has been feeding off the hype surrounding advances in computer technology. We’ve heard all about the promise of virtual worlds, the information superhighways, the fourth dimension of cyberspace. The future has been so eagerly anticipated and aggressively promoted that often it can seem like it really has already happened. Then you remember that virtual reality hasn’t got much further than the amusement arcade, we’re still travelling (more than ever) in cars and cyberspace remains a meeting place for those with limited social skills. On top of that, with email use reportedly dipping, silicon chip companies announcing big falls in profits, and the dotcom market showing no sign of recovery, this particular moment in history does not seem the most propitious to be exploring the profound impact of the internet. But Lewis says he is not bothered. ‘I’m interested in what the longer-term consequences are because the short-term consequences are obscuring them. I think people right now think the internet is the Nasdaq.’ Lewis is well placed to know the difference between the web and Wall Street. He launched his hugely successful writing career with Liar’s Poker, a scabrous exposé of bond-dealing which focused on his experiences working for Salomon Brothers in New York and London in the 1980s. The book was a bestseller in the States and made Lewis a millionaire in his twenties, and a kind of journalist celebrity, as well as the object of no little envy among colleagues. Four years ago, when Lewis was still only 36, Vanity Fair ran a catty profile as he was about to marry his third wife, the MTV journalist Tabitha Soren. He was referred to as ‘the Elizabeth Taylor of journalism’ and compared to a character out of Scott Fitzgerald. From Princeton to publishing sensation, Lewis’s life was portrayed as an unbroken series of gilded moments. The son of a prominent Wasp family in New Orleans, he liked to wear a white suit (very Tom Wolfe) and seemed to treat his success with an indecent lack of neurosis. The whole effect was sullied only by an apparent inability to maintain a relationship for longer than it took the initial romance to fade.What was rather overlooked was Lewis’s appetite for hard work. This is his sixth book. His fifth, and second bestselling, was The New New Thing, in which he hung out with the billionaire brains of Silicon Valley. The combined result of his experience is a full awareness that the movement of stock prices does not determine the direction of the world. ‘The profit-making potential of the internet had been overrated,’ he writes in The Future Just Happened , ‘and the social effects of the internet were presumed to be overrated. But they weren’t.’ What Lewis sets out to prove is that the speeding-up of information is radically transforming social relations and undermining, or even destroying, many forms of traditional authority. To make his point he finds a number of teenagers who have used the net to thwart the adult professions. Actually, he only really finds one telling teenager, 14-year-old Jonathan Lebed from New Jersey who became briefly famous when he made $800,000 by promoting stocks he traded on the internet. The story is a good one – although not new to American audiences – and Lewis tells it well, but in spite of his best efforts he cannot shape it into the footprint of the future he clearly wants it to be. Part of the problem is that the picture he draws of a youthful vanguard reinventing the world is blurred by less credible examples of subversive teenagers. It’s as if Lewis wasn’t quite sure what to do with all the research resources that the BBC placed at his disposal and ended up including material that did little to support his central thesis, just because it was there. The strength and charm of his narratives have in the past relied to a considerable extent on the first-person presence of Lewis himself. But with all the ideas and characters and locations attempting to make themselves known, both in the book and TV series, Lewis’s standard persona – the down-to-earth outsider who cuts through the jargon – becomes increasingly irritating. ‘I’m not very good at systemising thought,’ he concedes. ‘I had a taste for certain kinds of material. The book has certain things that run through it, as choppy as it is. One of them is this obsession I’ve developed with this whole question of experience, how a world that is so future-oriented is different from a world that had more interest in the past. How a world economy that is premised on really rapid change requires different things from people, values different aspects of people. Those were the broad interests. What got layered on that were a couple of general truths about what the internet was actually doing. And the big one was breaking down information asymmetries: you don’t appreciate how many roles in our world depend on privileged access information.’ Lewis points out that the one privileged world that seems set to survive the democratising effects of the internet is that of the computer technologists themselves. ‘That’s the great irony of the internet,’ he says. ‘It’s very corrosive to traditional professions. It is enthused with egalitarian spirit. Anyone can do anything. The one exception to that is the technologists. The technologists are behind this movement and the technologists are the great exception to it. They are the new priests. The technologists,’ he repeats for solemn effect, ‘are the priests.’ On this form, Lewis can seem filled with righteous indignation. He talks of the propaganda war waged by competing software companies, each of them presenting a vision of the future as a kind of marketing tool for their product. Yet it’s impossible to know whether Lewis’s take on innovation is a warning or a celebration. Indeed, he seems to want it both ways. One moment he paints a bleak picture of middle-aged obsolescence; the next he eulogises the youthful iconoclasm of the hacker generation. ‘I don’t see how you can’t be ambivalent,’ he answers. ‘One can’t help but see the benefits of progress. But you also can’t help but see it’s a horribly destructive process.’ So firmly does Lewis place himself on the fence that the only thing he risks is impalement. True, it’s not his job to moralise, but he is not above taking a stand when something gets his goat. He rips into a couple of middle-aged computer scientists, Danny Hillis and Bill Joy, who have begun to wonder if the full-speed-ahead approach to technical innovation might not carry some serious long-term consequences. Hillis is concerned that we are losing an appreciation of the future as it becomes more and more absorbed by the present. For Joy, who is co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the danger is the old sci-fi story, that of developing machines that will supplant and destroy us. Lewis is merciless in his attacks on both men. ‘You know,’ he explains, ‘even though I probably agreed with their emotional response to what they saw, I couldn’t get beyond my own hostility to their hypocrisy. It’s the weakest part of the book. I couldn’t believe that these people, who had given us this world, were now trying to stop it while they were on top of it.’ In some ways, it’s the strongest part of the book because, whatever its faults, it has a point of view. Elsewhere there is an overwhelming sense of someone getting very excited about something that is happening or about to happen, without ever telling you why he is excited. This is particularly the case in the TV programmes. Lewis pops up in places around the world, saying things like: ‘Technology is the weapon that children use in their war against the grown-up world.’ Technology, of course, is the weapon that is used in all wars. It’s a pity that he resorts to such empty rhetoric, because Lewis has an exceptional gift for pinning down abstract ideas with pithy phrases. He is one of the few people who has ever been able to explain bond-trading in comprehensible and entertaining terms. And he does the same here in detailing the incredible growth of venture capital. Alas he also goes in for TV gags that are plain silly. At one point he walks around London in a pinstripe suit and bowler to see if he is recognised as a member of a privileged group. Giving Lewis the benefit of the doubt, I assume the producer had whispered in his ear. ‘I’m responsible,’ he says, rather gallantly. ‘They didn’t push me into anything. But this is what I found. When I sat down and watched the rough cuts I realised there was a guiding intelligence to the whole thing that was not mine and which I had been completely oblivious to. I thought I was controlling the whole thing but I wasn’t. I thought I was the jockey but it turned out I was the racehorse.’ Perhaps the most surprising difference between the book and the TV show is their differing conclusions. In the book, Lewis ends on a rather disturbing note (disturbing, that is, if you’re an adult) and quotes Jonathan Lebed, who has decided to dispense with being a teenager ‘to focus on the future’. The last words of the TV show are far more reassuring, and tend to make you ask why all the fuss. Standing by Stonehenge, Lewis informs us that, in fact, the future hasn’t yet happened. So what’s it all about? Lewis’s response is touchingly plaintive: ‘Please don’t hold me accountable for I what say on television. I had people shouting “we got to get this shot, we’ve got to get that shot”. And I remember thinking, we’ve got to have some way to end this thing that sounds conclusive and quirky. And when you think about it, we have all these people who tell us about the future, but they have this disadvantage: we’re still waiting, anything can happen. The future is uncertain. And to turn a contradiction into a paradox, the premise of these anecdotes that make up the narrative of the book is not exactly that they are the future – I don’t think the future is a lot of kids in New Jersey speculating on the stock market – but that they give you a glimpse of the forces that are carrying us along.’ Is that clear? The future has not just happened. But it could do and probably very soon. And when it does, it may look a lot like the present. Only different. • The TV series starts on 29 July on BBC2. Michael Lewis on the net


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