Period Piece, Circa 1994

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Period Piece, Circa 1994

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Period Piece, Circa 1994
New books dissected over email.
May 19 1999 10:32 AM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Marjorie,

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Don't let a little paper clip keep you from a new version! Rest assured, there is a way to turn it off--I'll even let you know how (under separate cover).

One of the things that I found interesting about Turn of the Century is how very dated it seems--most of the technology culture that Andersen describes is really circa 1994 rather than the millennium. Yes, he did a good job of inventing a plausible near future, and he put in some mild sci-fi features--like the 40-story video screen on the Viacom building--but I was struck by the many things that were not in his vision yet already exist. Like, for example, the Internet.

Of course Andersen plays lip service to the Internet by mentioning it a couple of times, and working e-mail into his plot, but the big power players in his book are a TV network and Microsoft. These Big Guys are pitted against the cool little guys--independent TV producers like George's Well Armed Productions, and little game software companies, like Fine Technologies, the company run by Lizzie. Around 1994 that would have been a reasonable description of the landscape, but since then a lot has happened.

Internet companies are the motive force shaping the perceptual landscape. Yes, TV networks and Microsoft still exist, but the center of attention has shifted dramatically. Try to find a magazine in business, entertainment, or popular culture that does not mention powerful Internet companies. If you get a bunch of TV network executives or even a set of software company executives together (yes, including Microsoft), the topic on their lips will be the Internet. It's all anybody is talking about.

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But where is this in Turn of the Century? Andersen name-drops to a fault--both people and companies, but not Internet companies. Where is AOL? I think it gets one mention. Ebay is mentioned twice--both negatively, in that its stock is "collapsing." Most of the important Internet companies are never mentioned at all. It's not as if he doesn't have opportunity to do so. Seattle is described as the land of Microsoft and little companies like the fictional Goat Rodeo. What about Amazon.com? There are probably half a dozen Internet companies in Seattle with valuations larger than what he places on Mose Broadcasting.

Once I noticed this, I saw more and more examples. Lizzie writes a very influential memo telling Mose to shut down his Internet news organization as a wasted effort. Can you think of anybody really doing that these days? Instead of shutting them down, they'd spin them public in an IPO! The ridiculous Featherstone may still relish saying "dot com," but none of the sensible characters in the book do so. No matter how much he tried to hide it with some window dressing, Anderson does not believe in the Internet.

Instead, he seems to subscribe to New Media Theory circa 1994. In his world the players will be Old Media (TV networks foremost among them), New Media (i.e., games), and Old Software (i.e., Microsoft, Intel, and other technology companies). The Internet is not a center of power to him. The notion that new companies could grow larger than his precious Old Media isn't conceivable. The whole phenomenon isn't important enough for his characters to mention.

The funniest example of his 1994-ness for me was Lizzie's reaction when she was offered "thirty one million dollars"--the italics are Andersen's--for her company. I was instantly reminded of the scene from Austin Powers , where Mike Myers, playing Dr. Evil, delivers an ultimatum that he'll destroy the world unless he is paid one million dollars , whereupon he strikes a coquettishly sinister-looking pose sucking his pinky. As I read Lizzie's reaction, I could see Andersen himself striking the Dr. Evil pinky pose. Of course, the world leaders laugh at Dr. Evil because his demand is ridiculously small, and I laughed at Andersen's huge emphasis on such a small deal.

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Sure, it's a lot of money in absolute terms, but it would be a huge yawn, or even a failure scenario, to Internet entrepreneurs. Thirty billion dollar deals inspired by the Internet occur nearly every day--Global Crossing and US West announced one this week. OK, that's not for a company the size of Fine Technologies, but nearly any "dot com" startup company is worth a billion dollars post IPO. If Turn of the Century had been set in the present day (i.e., instead of being a 1994 period piece) the stakes would have to be much higher to catch the interest of the sort of people his characters are supposed to represent.

You ask if Andersen's take on the technology world is as good as it seems. Well, in light of the Internet omission, that is a bit like the famous question "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" Andersen seems to know New York very well, and Hollywood reasonably well. He knows the technology culture about like Margaret Mead knew Samoa.

This sounds overly harsh, but I don't mean it to be. As we have discussed, Andersen can be a great observer and write brilliant passages. I just don't think that he has observed enough in this case. The techno-geek stereotypes he uses for a couple of the characters are as formulaic as the cast in a 1950s army movie, where every platoon has to have the Iowa farm boy, the streetwise kid from Brooklyn ... you know the rest.

I haven't properly answered your questions about Kirkland, and will try to do so in another installment. But let me switch gears and ask you a question, Marjorie. What did you think of the hero, George Mactier? Or, to ask a more leading question, do you think he's as much of a putz as I do?

Until the next episode,
Nathan

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Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Nathan Myhrvold is the chief technology officer of Microsoft. This week they discuss Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century (click "> here to buy the book).