The Book Club

New-Media Neophytes

Dear Nathan,

Your allusion to Austin Powers and his Dr. Evil pinky pose made me laugh out loud. But I do want to defend Andersen a little bit on his depiction of Lizzie as someone who might get excited about the paltry sum of $31 million. This may make her kind of a pissant by the standards of Internet fortunes, but I think she’s fairly persuasively described as a character who’s new enough to this domain–isn’t she described as being just a few years out of foundation work?–that this would strike her as a genuinely astonishing thing. She’s an old-media creature who’s gradually adapting to a new-media world, and she’s still in transition.

This struck me as persuasive because I’m the kind of old-media gal who has had–and all of whose friends have had–those seminal moments in which we’ve learned that the nerdiest boy in our grade school, the one we always tormented for his shyness, lit out for Silicon Valley and is now rich beyond our wildest dreams. And that friendly, slightly vacant prepster who lived across the hall from us freshman year? The one who had LEGACY–DESTINED FOR MODEST FUTURE AS INVESTMENT BANKER–stamped on his forehead? We’re talking nine digits. We’re only just catching on here, Nathan, even if it is almost 2000, so you’ve got to cut us a little slack.

Still, I grant your overall point: Andersen does show his old-media roots in a conviction that a lot of the Internet’s promise is snake oil. (Now why would a little thing like no one’s having figured out yet how to make a profit stand in the way of his seeing the light?) I think he’s at least open in revealing this bias. Consider this passage from Lizzie’s thoughts during her visit to Seattle:

Out here, everyone sincerely does believe his own bullshit, believes it thoroughly …A few years ago, they all gushed about “push” technology transforming the web–but then it didn’t because it was fake, a hysterically overbilled replica of real bandwidth. Before that, they said ordering movies over cable TV was imminent, any movie you wanted. But the technology was a decade away at a price anybody could afford, so a big cable company faked video-on-demand, too. As the innocent Dorothys at home pushed buttons to order Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Bonfire of the Vanities, a kid on roller-skates in a room in Denver cued up each videocassette by hand, grabbing another tape, rolling to the next VCR, grabbing, rolling madly trying to fulfill twenty-first-century dreams (frictionlessly!) in slapstick twentieth-century fashion. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. These people out here are the men behind the curtain … But unlike the Wizard of Oz, they believe their own magic! It isn’t cynical bluster. These wizards have faith. And Lizzie knows she’s an agnostic.

In Andersen’s inverted universe, his (old-media) characters have the virtue of not believing their own con; to the agnostic, cynicism at least has the virtue of honesty. As I’ve said, I think this embrace of knowingness is sort of revolting. On the other hand, where the Internet is concerned, I’m still more on his side of the divide than yours. (And on the side of Slate editor Mike Kinsley, who has argued that most recent Internet IPOs represent something like clinical insanity.) Nonetheless, you made a valid point—that if Andersen is trying to show us how the world looks to the men and women who dominate communications, he’s left out a major continent.

In any case, I’m definitely indebted to you for the knowledge that Andersen is guilty of stereotyping your culture. You mean you don’t all wear Patagonia vests to work every day? And have food caught in your beards? And scribble lines of impulsive code on cocktail napkins with linty pencil stubs? Man, am I disappointed.

As for George: I suspect we agree, though I’m curious to hear more about why you think he’s a putz. Mostly I thought he just didn’t work as a character–I couldn’t really work up enough belief in him even to be mad at his stupid, self-pitying behavior toward his wife. (Andersen is the rare male writer who does much better with his heroine than with his hero. Lizzie struck me as an altogether rounder character–better in both senses of the word–than George.) Even George’s handicap (he lost an arm before the action begins, reporting from Nicaragua) struck me as a completely phony attribute, an especially dismal example of a writer crudely adding and subtracting component parts to try to give his character some verisimilitude.

What’s your take?