Zeitgeist tracker Michael Lewis is on the prowl again, this time in the bedrooms and school yards of America, where he’s ferreted out the true renegades at the bleeding edge of the Internet revolution: adolescent boys. They may be zit-ridden, socially inept fledglings as they slouch through the halls at their local middle school, but online they transmogrify into Wall Street traders, legal eagles, and music-industry tormentors. And in the process, they are redefining what it means to have power in America.
Lewis, who brought us the Big Swinging Dicks of Wall Street in Liar’s Poker, and who stalked Netscape founder Jim Clark for a portrait of Silicon Valley during the boom in The New New Thing, journeyed through the desolate backwaters of strip-mall America and the grungier towns of the UK to chronicle the looking-glass world of the Internet in Next: The Future Just Happened (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).
What he found is sure to make industry moguls reach for their blood-pressure medication. Individuals at the fringes of the social structure — Jonathan Lebed, the 14-year-old who ran up an $800,000 profit in his E*Trade account before the SEC shut him down; Marcus Arnold, the 15-year-old who became one of the top five legal experts on AskMe.com after watching Court TV; Justin Frankel, the rogue coder behind Gnutella who was the scourge of the music industry before he got co-opted by AOL — are outsiders who managed to disrupt whole industry sectors from the privacy of their bedrooms. And they were not alone.
The children of the Internet, Lewis discovered, have embraced the technology in a way their parents cannot grasp and have used it to do things their elders can’t even envision. In the process, they are spurring change and innovation at an evermore rapid clip and are wreaking havoc on social systems as they go.
Fast Company caught up with Lewis at a hotel in New York, in the midst of a frenzied book tour, and managed to squeeze in a few questions before he was off to promote again.
Are kids today really different than their predecessors?
They’re the same kids but with a new tool. I knew kids who would have been just like them when I was growing up, but they didn’t have the Internet available to them — so they went to the racetrack. But it gets complicated. Once kids have the tool, it starts to change them. One thing all the kids I wrote about have in common is that they’ve defined themselves as people on the Internet, and then they imported the persona they developed online back into the real world. Jonathan Lebed became the Warren Buffett of Cedar Grove, New Jersey; Marcus Arnold is still the Perry Mason of Perris, California. The Internet shapes their lives so they become different than other kids have been.
What do you make of the fact that these are all 14-year-old boys?
There’s something male about this impulse. Maybe 10% of females have it, but 90% of males have it. It’s a way of addressing the questions “How do I figure out who I am?” and “How do I satisfy my psychic needs?” A male solution is to go on the Internet.
Why do all these boys seem to be 14 or 15?
No one’s explained why, but human beings are more receptive to novelty at that age than at any other age. I spent some time with Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist at the Stanford University Medical Center, who’s done some studies to try and determine when people lose their taste for new things. Sapolsky’s found no novelty center that degenerates with age and no neurological reason for people’s becoming less comfortable with new things.
But he’s discovered that in our species, if you haven’t tried a new food by age 25, you probably won’t try it for the rest of your life. The same is true for new fashions, new music, and new technology. What’s really interesting is that he’s observed exactly the same pattern in rats. An infant rat is very conservative and sticks close to its mother, but an adolescent rat is crazy for novelty. It will try anything. But as they reach about the age equivalent of 25, rats become increasingly conservative creatures. Sapolsky thinks there’s some biological basis to a taste for the new that hasn’t been discovered.
Let’s talk geography. Why are these kids always from such dismal places — not San Francisco or Manhattan or Miami?
Kids who aren’t stimulated by their environment are prime suspects for finding stimulation on the Internet. America specializes in developing these sensory-deprivation tanks of places. All there is, is a strip mall and some kids with hair flopped in their eyes and pimples.
It seems that some corporations understand that the future is in the hands of high-school sophomores. Should big companies be employing 15-year-olds?
One of the things that got me going on this whole subject was a conversation I had with Marc Andreessen several years ago when he was at Netscape. He was talking about some 13-year-old wizard who had hacked into Netscape from Canada, and I asked him, “Would you like to hire that kid?” Andreessen said that he couldn’t because of labor laws. So I asked him at what age he would like to hire people. And he said 12 would be extremely useful. That is a tremendous statement. It’s like the industrial revolution all over again. But there’s a twist: This time, the kids make out like bandits. They aren’t abused in factories. They make six-figure salaries.
The adults in this book were so clueless. Is the gap between kids and parents even larger than it used to be?
Parents have always been clueless about what their kids were up to, but the consequences of their being lost has never been so dramatic. It occurred to me at some point that if Jonathan’s father, Greg Lebed, had walked into his son’s room and discovered his son surfing porn sites, he’d be relieved. That would be so normal. It would be a relief to him to find the kinds of things our congressmen are terrified of. One of the great ironies of all of this is that public policy is geared toward protecting children on the Internet, and what we really need is public policy to protect us from children.
A recurrent theme in the book is that the young are savvier than the old folks. You mention Stanford University economist Paul Romer, who has said that in the future, we’ll move from a patriarchal to a pro-athlete model of earning power. Is that inevitable given the pace of change? Will we all be washed up at 40?
I’m very compelled by Romer’s view of the world because the pro-athlete career model has happened already on Wall Street. The computer hit finance and turned it into a business based on constant technical innovation. It meant you could walk in at 24 knowing nothing, and if you were in on the ground floor, in six months, you would know something the boss didn’t know. And from that came the 24-year-old Wall Street millionaire.
The consequences to the age structure on Wall Street have been quite dramatic. Old guys used to run Wall Street, but there are no old guys on the Street anymore. It’s quite common to retire in your mid-30s. If you’re 45, you’re old.
The same thing is probably true of the tech sector. The Internet has opened a number of occupations where rapid innovation is critical. I suspect the dynamic will kick in for other parts of the economy, and that will be a problem.
One of America’s great social problems is what to do with old people. We already don’t value them. We worship youth. Now we’re talking about sidelining youthful middle-aged people. Since I know a lot of Wall Street people, I know a lot of guys who are kind of adrift at that age — who feel used up and don’t know quite what to do.
At age 40, it’s now considered normal for people to completely reevaluate their life and find something new to do. It’s the new paradigm of the three-career life. We’re already adapting to it. But it will create a lot of unhappiness.
But life spans are increasing. What are these people supposed to do for the next 40 years?
It’s a potentially huge structural problem. We have an economy predicated on evermore rapid technical change, and at the same time, people are living longer. It’s a cultural problem. New attitudes need to be shaped. People need instructions for life.
Linda Tischler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media.