Magazine article The Spectator

When the Silicon Chips Are Down

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Silicon Chips Are Down

Article excerpt

THE NEW NEW THING by Michael Lewis Hodder & Stoughton, 17 99, pp. 288 THE PLOT TO GET BILL GATES by Gary Rivlin Quartet, 1250, pp. 342

When Michael Lewis wrote his Wall Street expos6 Liar's Poker in 1989, his characters were the kind of men who would thrive in any climate. The skills one needed to succeed on the Wall Street trading floor were not, as he told it, radically different to those required of a hunter-gatherer in the primordial jungle. Men of much the same shape and size are apt to make their way to the top of any food-chain. Ten years on, however, as he writes in The New New Thing, we have seen perhaps the first period in history where the 'masters of the universe' have been relegated to a supporting role. The men of Silicon Valley who have taken their place could have done so at no other time. Countless generations of cheerleaders and sports jocks down the ages have mocked these strange individuals as runts and outcasts. We now know that all along they were waiting for the day when thick glasses would correct their feeble vision and arcane programming codes would make their formerly hidden talents indispensable.

Their day came on 9 August 1995, when the Internet browser company Netscape went public. The offering price was $18 a share, the first trades were made at $50 and within 24 hours they had reached a high of $4171. The great Internet land-grab was triggered and a new precedent set. One of the most successful public offerings ever had come from a company that had nothing to show investors but enormous losses. What seemed to matter now was no longer profits, but rapid growth. The most appealing companies became those in a state of pure possibility, he writes, and in that sense they reflected the predilections of one man - Netscape's visionary founder, Jim Clark. When Liar's Poker was published, Clark was a chronically depressed, middle-aged physicist from Texas. Lewis makes a compelling tale of how this misfit became a high-rolling billionaire dreaming up his next way to change the world from the cabin of a $50million computerised yacht and narrates a gripping story while accompanying Clark across the Atlantic in his forever malfunctioning yacht. Though the man's companies lose money and his yacht's computer thinks it is in the middle of the Sahara desert, satirising an industry takes second place to creating a romantic myth of the American outlaw in Clark. …

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