TechnoGenerationalism, the Latest Escape

Review of Michael Lewis - The Future Just Happened

The Future Just Happened is Michael Lewis’ next publication after his model hype story on Jim Clark and the Netscape IPO, The New New Thing. Lewis wisely keeps his mouth about the whereabouts of his New Thing heroes and the tragic marginalization of the web browser company Netscape after its sellout to AOL. For Lewis Dotcommania has not been a process shaped by technologists, but a scheme, ran by financial professionals. In an opportunistic manner Lewis states: “In pursuit of banking fees the idea that there was such a thing as the truth had been lost.” The active role that his own, immensely popular, dotcom book might have played in talking up stocks remains undiscussed. Suffering from short memory, Lewis sets out to map the social impacts of the Internet. The Future Just Happened is the book accompanying a television series with the same title Lewis wrote for the BBC. For this occasion Lewis develops a wildly uncritical crackpot sociology. In order not to have to talk about the flaws of dotcom business models, the Microsoft monopoly, the corporate and state crackdown on privacy and other urgent issues, the “amateur social theorist” Michael Lewis discovers the teenagers, innocent pioneers not corrupted by Wall St. money and corporate greed.

For Lewis technology has no agenda. It has only got heroes who are driving a wild and unspecified process. “The only thing capitalism cannot survive is stability. Stability—true stability—is an absence of progress, and a dearth of new wealth.” Instead of looking into marketing, the production of new consumer groups and the role of early adopters, Lewis reverses the process. He mistakenly presumes that the first users of technology are actually driving the process. Sadly enough for the early adaptors, this is not the case. If any identifiable agency is driving technology it would arguably be the military, followed by university research centers, in conjunction with large corporations and an occasional start-up.

In The Future Just Happened Lewis’ heroes are no longer dotcom CEOs but ordinary people, in particular adolescents. Finland is used here an example. The Fins were successful because they were especially good at guessing what others would want from their mobile phone. Lewis follows the corporate rhetoric of Nokia who presumably spent a lot of time studying children. However, the assumption made here is a wrong one. Finnish school kidz did not invent instant messaging. What they did was using existing features in a perhaps unexpected way. An interesting detail is that SMS is a relative low-tech feature. The Nokia anthropologists then picked up on this informal mobile phone use in their marketing strategy. In short, the Finnish youth neither invented nor further developed the SMS standard. It found new social uses, in a close feedback with the corporate (research) sector. Loops between marketers and the ‘cool’ rebels are short. Such dynamics are perhaps too complex for Lewis. He sets out to portray them, celebrating his heroes in an uncritical fashion, as he had done before with Wall Street financial analysts and   Netscape entrepreneur Jim Clark.

The Future Just Happened tells the story of the fifteen-year-old Jonathan Lebed, “the first child to manipulate the stock market.” In September 2000 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) settled its case of stock market fraud against this computer wiz kid who had used the Internet to promote stocks from his bedroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. “Armed only with accounts at AOL and E-trade, the kid had bought stock, then, using “multiple fictious names,” posted hundreds of messages on Yahoo Finance message boards recommending that stock to others.” Lebed agreed to hand over his gains of $285.000. Lewis’ inability to frame events becomes clear here. He completely fails to mention that these same young fellow day traders only a few months after the Lebed case lost billions and billions of dollars. Of course Lewis is not visiting losers. This obvious fact, known to Lewis, doesn’t fit in his success story about the “democratization of capital.” Instead, the impression of the reader has to be: clever kids can make a lot of money on the Net and the establishment doesn’t let them. How unfair.

In The Future Just Happened Michael Lewis features the Gnutella, peer-to-peer (P2P) software, launched in March 2000 by the twenty-year-old AOL employee Justin Frankel. The Gnutella case is a real challenge for the capitalist Lewis’ belief system. He interprets the post-Napster free exchange movement in an interesting way. For Lewis P2P stands for the post-1989 ‘capitalism without alternatives’, which ‘allows’ peer-to-peer networks to experiment. “Now that the system is no longer opposed [by communism, GL] it could afford to take risks. Actually these risks were no luxury. Just as people needed other people to tell them who they were, ideas needed other ideas to tell them what they meant.” Read: corporate technology needs its own internal antagonists such as Linux, PGP and Gnutella. All the virus does is test the system. “That’s perhaps one reason that people so explicitly hostile to capitalism were given a longer leash than usual: they posed no fundamental risk.” In Lewis’ one-way street model the rebel has no option but to integrate. Duped by a fatal cocktail of historical necessity and the greedy human nature, the Internet rebel will ultimately change sides. Sooner or later “some big company swoops in and buys them, or they give birth to the big company themselves. Inside every alienated hacker there is a tycoon struggling to get out. It’s not the system he hates. His gripe is with the price the system initially offers him to collaborate.” Hear deep throat of the capitalist doctrine talking here, speaking on behalf of the ‘speechless’ hackers.

In order to explain real struggles between inside and outside, Lewis has to recourse to the good-evil distinction. Capitalism in essence is pure and good and cares for the Internet. However, it is the lawyers, CEOs and financiers who are the evil elements. They are imperfect, greedy human beings trying to frustrate “change” as practiced by the youngsters. Lewis does not ask himself the obvious question why the Internet has not been able to disassociate itself from the dotcoms in an early stage. Good capitalists go to Sillicon Valley, bad ones to Wall Street. This simple ‘Westcoast good, Eastcoast bad’ scheme is making waves these days, with cyber visionaries having to explain what went so wrong.

Lewis then sets out to reinterpret ‘socialist’ intentions of youngsters as “rebel ideas of outsiders” whose only wish, and legitimate right it seems to be, to get incorporated. Here Lewis really shows his cynical nature, overruling legitimate concerns of hackers in favor of his own conservative political agenda. Lewis advises us not to take notice of anti-capitalist sentiments. “Socialistic impulses will always linger in the air, because they grow directly out of the human experience of capitalism,” Lewis reassures us. “The market has found a way not only to permit the people who are most threatening to it their rebellious notions but to capitalize on them.” Daniel, a fourteen-year-old English Gnutella developer “didn’t see things this way, of course. He was still in the larval state of outsider rebellion.”

In reference to the debate sparked by SUN’s senior technologist Bill Joy on the ethical borders of the technological knowledge (published in Wired Magazine, April 2000), Lewis states that such questioning is dangerous because it could stop “change”. In his puritian techno-libertarian worldview progress is a blind process without direction of values, which cannot and should not be given a direction. Obviously Lewis can’t speak of class, race and gender issues. What remains is friction between the generations. Lewis calls for the Old to make way for the New. “The middle-aged technologist knows that somewhere out there some kid in his bedroom is dreaming up something that will make him obsolete. And when the dream comes true he’ll be dead wood. One of those people who need to be told to get out of the way. Part of the process.” But power doesn’t exactly follow the logic as Lewis describes it. Those in power, worldwide, are perhaps not interested in “change”. But they are perfectly aware how to own “change” once it has reached the point of profitability. Giving up power is not “part of the process.” The babyboom elites are in no danger of being overruled because the youngsters lack basic understanding how power is operating (and Lewis would be the last one to tell them). It’s pathetic to suggest the elderly will voluntarily make way for the next generations in the disruptive affair, often caused by (cultural) revolutions, (civil) wars and recessions.

Lewis avoids the looming conflicts over intellectual property rights, censorship and ownership over the means of distribution. The a priori here is one of technology, marching on, blindly. This is perhaps the most outdated idea, that technologists are the only ones who shape the future. If we follow the argument of the democratization of knowledge, everyone will shape technology, in one way or another. This makes the premise of Lewis’ book, young hackers shaping history, abundant. Ageism is a bad escape route if you prefer, like Lewis,   not to talk about real power issues in information technology.

Michael Lewis, The Future Just Happened, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001.