Beyond the Valley of the IPOs

The New New Thing

Beyond the Valley of the IPOs

The New New Thing

Beyond the Valley of the IPOs
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 27 1999 12:07 PM

The New New Thing

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Good guys and bad guys? I hadn't thought about The New New Thing in those terms, since it seemed to me that even though Clark had spats with various people--and even though he looked at money people, in particular, as vermin--all of them, even the vermin, were his co-conspirators. Everybody involved in this story was in this thing together, thinking and acting in this new way, trying to reinvent the business world and perhaps even trying to redefine the nature of capitalism itself. (Can you really generate a net worth of $2.3 billion without ever doing any work? Certainly that has to rank as one of Jim Clark's more audacious experiments in capitalism!)

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Ultimately, every character in the book is going to turn out to be a good guy--or they're all going to turn out to be bad guys. Let's remember, again, why we both thought so highly of The New New Thing: It offers an astonishingly vivid description of what Silicon Valley is like at this moment in history. From my vantage point on the East Coast, it seems crazy out there--and Lewis has that craziness nailed. So let's suppose for a second that this ... this ... anarchy, as Lewis calls it, turns out to be the future of American business--which of course is what most people in the Valley firmly believe. If that turns out to be the case, we're going to look back on this book 20 years from now and say, "Jim Clark and those guys in The New New Thing, they showed us the way. They are true heroes." But now let's suppose that Silicon Valley at the millennium turns out to be what the 1960s were when we were in college: an intoxicating flash-in-the-pan. That is, all that Jim Clark-style anarchy ultimately falls by the wayside, much of the wealth evaporates, and one day people wake up and wonder, "What were we thinking?" In that case, we'll look back at The New New Thing and say, "What a bunch of idiots those guys were! Couldn't they see that it was all about to collapse?" Weirdly--and this is The New New Thing's real mark of greatness--the book will hold up no matter how this story plays out.

There is no dissenter in The New New Thing, no East Coast sage shaking his head sadly and warning that it is all going to turn out badly. And that is perfectly appropriate for this book, because there really is no dissent in the Valley. But reading the book provoked in me, at least, the lingering thought that it can't last. There is too much venture capital money chasing increasingly marginal business ideas--as exemplified by Clark's going in to see John Doerr, uttering one sentence, and getting funding for MyCFO, an idea that may or may not have merit. (As usual, it's impossible to know from the scenes in The New New Thing.) There is an increasing lack of rigor in Internet startups. Catch phrases such as "business models"--which Lewis knowingly mocks--have replaced actual business plans. Nobody seems to even care about profits anymore. All of these things can be found in The New New Thing. You just have to come to the book predisposed to look for them.

Which, I admit, is my general bias. Yes, I believe the Internet will be huge and potentially transformative--and might even make some companies profitable some day in the distant future. But no, I don't think what's going on in the Valley right now is sustainable. What was that line you quoted? "In this new world skepticism was not a sign of intelligence. It was a sin."

That's me, a sinner. Care to join me in hell?

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This week, Joe Nocera and Jean Strouse discuss Michael Lewis' The New New Thing (click here to buy it). Nocera is editor at large for Fortune magazine and lives in Northampton, Mass. Strouse is the author of Morgan: American Financier (click here to buy it).