The new Rockefellers are masters @ timing

By , Special To The Christian Science Monitor

THE NEW NEW THING By Michael Lewis W.W. Norton 268 pp., $25.95

The best way to give you an idea about "The New New Thing" is to tell you about Webvan, a Silicon Valley start-up.

Webvan is an online grocer. Webvan wants you to buy groceries online, and it will deliver them to your door within 30 minutes. The company recently signed a contract for $1 billion to build 26 massive distribution hubs around the US. Although the company has only one location in the San Francisco area, and had less than $400,000 in sales for the six months that ended June 30, Wall Street valued it at roughly $4 billion before the company was forced to delay its initial public offering (IPO).

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Yes, $4 billion. So how can a company with mediocre sales, few tangible assets, that is years away from generating anything close to a profit be worth more than most small countries? Simple: It falls in the category of the "new new" thing.

More than any other book you could read right now, Michael Lewis's "The New New Thing" will help you understand how Silicon Valley has turned Wall Street - and the American economy - on its head.

On the surface, it's the story of Jim Clark, a volatile, erratic, but brilliant entrepreneur who created Silicon Graphics and Netscape. But it's also a story of how greed, technological innovation, and the ability to articulate an idea at just the right time has made individuals like Mr. Clark the Rockefellers of our time.

As portrayed by Michael Lewis, Clark is not necessarily someone to invite over for supper. Moody, impatient, quick-to-anger, and constantly restless, Clark often seems little more than a technological Peter Pan. He starts billion-dollar empires so that he can make enough money to build the world's first completely computerized sailing ship (which, in the end, bores him because it takes too long to sail the Atlantic).

But that would be dismissing Clark too easily, something his opponents often did in the beginning. Lewis sees Clark as a technological Christopher Columbus - an agent of change destined to reshape the old view of the world. And Clark's brave new world is Silicon Valley, which Lewis says means to America what America means to the rest of the world - "the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy."

As annoying as Clark is, Lewis gracefully leads readers to the real kernel of truth in this story: Clark saw the big wave coming when others were too busy looking at their portfolios and then helped turn it into the biggest financial tsunami ever seen. He changed the rules of the game by making the people who actually create the software and the ideas more important than the investment bankers and Wall Street brokers who had always called the shots before.

To top it off, Lewis is a master storyteller. It's hard to conceive of a book about IPOs and start-ups being a page turner, but his skill as a writer makes this a book you'll stay up late to finish.

Still, in the end, Lewis's story is a troubling one. The creation of massive wealth with little more than a good idea and the right contacts - often by people who don't really care what the product becomes as long as their IPO soars - is a disturbing vision. Not that this vision hasn't always been a part of the American dream in the past.

The very technology that makes this "new new" thing possible in such a dazzlingly short time frame leaves little time for reflection. And it's hard to escape the feeling that one day, maybe soon, we'll get too greedy and want too much too fast, and the "new new" thing will turn around and bite us.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Monitor's Electronic Edition. Send e-mail to csmbandwidth@aol.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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