Fast Company

They Don't Make Moguls Like They Used To

Three new books bring us the mythic heroes of digital commerce. So why do they feel like virtual tycoons?

First there were Robber Barons, then Conglomerateurs. Later came Masters of the Universe. Every era generates its own macho power icons. The Information Age is no exception. Three new books bring us the latest mythic heroes of commerce: Highwaymen, Ironmen, and Hero Architects -- they're the bad-asses of the digital frontier. But when you take the real measure of these men, their badness falls a little short of the bone.

Moguls Will Be Men

In "The Highwaymen: Tycoons, Technology and the Coming World of Electronic Communications" (1997, Random House), Ken Auletta assembles a loose brotherhood of tycoons, players, and visionaries from the information and entertainment industries. These are the "highwaymen" of the title (the highway is, of course, now electronic -- get it?), and we've seen them all before. In fact we've seen most of this book before in the last five years of Auletta's "New Yorker" profiles, which depict such A-list moguls as John Malone, Bill Gates, Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Ovitz, Frank Biondi, and Ted Turner in flagrante delicto, closing and blocking deals.

As much as he'd love for us to think of these CEOs as swashbuckling rogues, Auletta basically gives us businessmen making business decisions. Some are sound, some not. And, as often as not, they reveal themselves to be querulous eccentrics fraught with human frailties. Otherwise, Auletta just basks in his role as a fly on the wall in the corridors of power.

Recommendation: Best to rummage through that pile of old "New Yorkers" for Auletta's columns.

Glass Houses

Robert Reid's "Architects of the Web: 1000 Days that Built the Future of Business"(1997, John Wiley & Sons) promises the story of the dawn of an era. It delivers a parade of warmed-over puff pieces on the freshest faces in the Internet business. Reid casts this group -- including Netscape's Marc Andreessen, C|Net's Halsey Minor, I/PRO's Ariel Poler, and honorary female Kim Polese of Marimba -- as hero architects in the tradition of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark.

They pull all-nighters! They find backers! They come up with catchy names! Otherwise, there's not much more to Reid's story than plodding, overtechnical accounts of the birth and commercialization of a series of Internet building blocks.

Recommendation: If you've slept through the IPO frenzy of the last two years, skim it. Otherwise, skip it.

Pulp Fiction

Po Bronson professes that his Silicon Valley novel, "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" (1997, Random House, http://users.aol.com/pobronson/hardest.htm), is not a roman a clef about high-tech heavy hitters ("I considered titling this 'Not Gates'"), but a tribute to all the aspiring entrepreneurs "cheated by the gatekeepers of power." Yet, the specter of the Ur-gatekeeper haunts this potboiler about a lowly code tester who ultimately outsmarts a Machiavellian executive and invents the killer app for fast, cheap, ubiquitous network computing along the way.

No matter, Bronson's shadow moguls are preferable to the business press's myth-draped real ones. "The First $20 Million" is fun. It's got dueling technologies, late-night coding marathons, a startup, and an overhyped IPO all wrapped up in a hammy plot with a cast of aspiring "Ironmen" (read "next Gates").

Still, the book reads like a breezy film treatment. If only Bronson could write dialogue the way his characters write code.

Recommendation: Fiction fit for business book readers; real fiction fans should wait for the movie.

Nick Paumgarten (paumgar@aol.com) is a reporter for the "New York Observer."

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