The Book Club

The Midas Touch

I had a great time with the tremendously entertaining New New Thing, and it has taught me a lot. (You’ve been following Silicon Valley for some time; I’ve mostly been living in the 19th century with J.P. Morgan for the past 15 years, and keeping up only from a distance with what one of Lewis’ characters calls “the greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.”) So, Lewis’ account of the wild and uncannily shrewd Jim Clark is among other things a terrific introduction to the ongoing revolution in information technology, to its transformation of the U.S. economy, and to the gold-rush combination of optimism and insanity in the current marketplace for Internet ideas. Just for the record, Clark founded Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and then Healtheon, which you’ve already mentioned, and this spring he was worth $3.2 billion. I’ve been tempted to characterize him as the Dennis Rodman of Silicon Valley, but his scoring record is closer to Jordan’s.

Like you, I found a number of annoying and frustrating things in the book, but I’ll talk about the good parts first. Lewis has such a fantastic eye for funny, telling moments that he often doesn’t have to “tell” much around them–such as that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas saw the possibilities of three-dimensional computer graphics (Clark’s first Big Idea) long before Lockheed or IBM did. Or the sense of technological magic that drew other brilliant engineers to Clark: “Jim was building the coolest stuff,” says one–“You wanted to be around just to see what was going to happen next.” Also, not everything Clark touched turned to gold, and Lewis enhances the drama by showing the mistakes. At a 1990 conference, Clark predicted that personal computing would link up with personal communications once the PC became fun to use–for instance, through computer games like Nintendo. That was wrong (the games part), but as Lewis observes, “he was groping toward a mass market.” (It is amazing to think of 1990 as ancient history, and to watch these guys groping toward what we know will become the Internet.) Next, Clark thought that the new new thing would be linking the computer to television, and got Time Warner to put up millions to build interactive TV. Other major corporations jumped on the bandwagon, billions of dollars followed, Clark’s best engineers put months of 18-hour days into the project–but Clark lost interest and turned his attention to a piece of software called Mosaic that enabled its users to travel around the Internet. With the help of Mosaic’s young designer, he set up what became Netscape. “The herd,” as Lewis puts it, had followed Clark into ITV, while Clark headed off in a new direction: “It was one of the greatest unintentional head fakes in the history of technology.”

There’s lots more that’s good in here, but we’ve got two more days to talk about it, and I want to answer some of your questions and outline some of my own reservations. Yes, I think it’s possible that Lewis has too much talent for his own good. He’s in fact so deft with the “telling” incident that he doesn’t bother to fill in facts you really want to know. I did notice that he never explains what Healtheon is going to do–which contributes to the hilarity of the scene in which the venture capitalists and Wall Street wizards throw money at Clark because they’re terrified of missing out on the new new thing. Lewis’ attitude here seems to mirror Clark’s–once the deal is done and the IPO billions have been made, it doesn’t matter what the company is or does. Whatever. Well, it would be useful to know how–or if–Healtheon is actually going to “fix the U.S. health-care system” and take control of a $1.5 trillion industry.

About the amount of time Lewis spends on Clark’s 155-foot (though sometimes it’s 157-foot) computerized sailboat, I thought it was fun to read but too much. The boat story nicely emphasizes the idea of Clark’s lust for grandiose risk, and sets up a neat contest between computer engineering and “real world” engineering (in this context, real world wins so far). And there’s a funny moment, halfway across the Atlantic, when the captain gets the news by computer that @Home has just bought Excite, and the crew goes on about stocks and taxes the way the athletes in those Schwab ads currently on TV talk about p/e ratios. But there is too much boat stuff, and though as always with Lewis it’s very well written, it feels like filler. Substantive reflections on history and on Clark’s character might have been a better use for some of these pages–but I’m running out of space here, so I’ll continue with those thoughts tomorrow. Sometime before we end this conversation, I’d love to know what you make of Clark’s latest idea–to create a cartel of “high-net-worth individuals” and engage in billionaire collective bargaining.