Jim Clark, Ubergeek

The New New Thing

Jim Clark, Ubergeek

The New New Thing

Jim Clark, Ubergeek
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 26 1999 1:37 PM

The New New Thing

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Nice work with the Rodman-Jordan analogy: Thanks. I think you're right that the central problem with The New New Thing is the exaggerated claims it makes for Jim Clark as The Man Who Single-handedly Changed Silicon Valley--and therefore modern economic life. Clearly, as we've both been saying, Clark played an astonishing and fascinating (and probably not-yet-finished) role in what has happened. But my guess, too, would be that the cyber-revolution would have happened sooner or later anyway, maybe in somewhat different form, with other players. Your suggestion that the venture capitalist John Doerr may have done even more to change the Valley than Clark would probably enrage the latter, since he seems--at least as Lewis tells it--to regard the money guys as lower forms of life ("the sucker fish of economic growth").

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To make his case, Lewis offers up some big pronouncements. For instance, summarizing the New Growth Theory devised by Paul Romer in the 1980s, Lewis says that now "wealth came from the human imagination," and concludes that "the new theory conferred a stunning new status upon innovation." Am I missing something? Is this news? What about the old-fangled Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Andrew Carnegie? Lewis goes on:

The Prime Mover of Wealth was no longer a great industrialist who rode herd on thousands of corporate slaves, or the great politician who rode herd on the nation's finances, or the great Wall Street tycoon who bankrolled a new enterprise. He was the geek holed up in his basement all weekend discovering new things to do with his computer. He was Jim Clark.

There is of course a huge difference between a physical light bulb and an abstract computer idea, and the revolution in information technology really has, as Alan Greenspan puts it, "altered the structure of the way the American economy works." Clark, representing the technogeeks, is now able to dictate terms to venture capitalists, but as you pointed out this morning, the biggest change in the way Silicon Valley works seems to have come with the Netscape IPO, which proved that you don't have to earn profits before taking take a company public. Later, regarding the Healtheon IPO, Lewis writes, "In this new world skepticism was not a sign of intelligence. It was a sin." Actually, it probably just meant missing out on all the money.

I think there's another big problem here as well, connected to the question you asked about the motive Lewis ascribes to Clark for the Netscape IPO--that Clark did it only because he wanted money for his new boat. I don't buy that either. Lewis says about Clark at the outset that "you didn't interact with him so much as hitch a ride on the back of his life"--and that "the only way to spend time with Jim Clark was to leap onto one of his machines." He gets a great ride, and so do we, but it's impossible not to want to know more about what is going on under the surface--about why some of these things happen--and on the subject of "character," this book is odd. Lewis says that the only creatures Clark really trusts are machines. It would have been interesting to hear from or about his three wives (one of them current: Her name comes up just a couple of times, and she never enters the story). Maybe wives were declared off limits; if so, that would have been useful to know. After the second wife left him, Clark went through a severe-sounding depression. Trying to explain how he made the leap from (in Lewis' words) "thirty-eight-year-old unsuccessful college professor with a warning label on his forehead to a founder of a multibillion-dollar corporation," Clark says he developed "this maniacal passion for wanting to achieve something. I guess it was a little bit of self-imposed psychology." That, like the "reason" for the Netscape IPO, is it.

Still, to revert to our basketball analogy, it would be hard to get inside Dennis Rodman's head. Three times Lewis tries to tell us something quite surprising about Clark, but we never actually see it: Faced with a new situation, Clark "wanted badly to do what was expected of him. It was only after he determined that this was somehow impossible that he went ahead and did whatever he wanted." "Very deep inside him Clark harbored the desire to be a good boy." "He really did feel some strong impulse to meet other people's expectations of him." I'm not sure what we're supposed to make of this. Near the end, having brought out in a scene you've described that no amount of money will ever be enough for Clark, Lewis concludes with a poignant but still opaque image that "the best and most lasting motive for wanting to change the way things are is to be unhappy with the way things are. ... No matter how well Jim Clark did for himself, it was always two in the morning in his heart, and he was lying awake."

Maybe more tomorrow on the good guys and the bad guys in this story?

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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).