The Internet is no place for unsupervised adults

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These days, if you believe what you read in the media, the Internet is a bit passe.

The bubble on Wall Street burst, and millions of investors lost billions of dollars on tech stocks. After the flowering of a million websites that promised to do everything, only a few hardy survivors linger. And the number of people going online is stagnating.

Well, Michael Lewis wouldn't have you believe a word of it. The Internet is changing the world, he says, in ways that most of us - especially those of us considered adults - can barely understand or follow.

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The Internet has become this generation's rock 'n' roll, he writes in his new book, "Next." Just as young people shaped and changed the world around them in response to that music, this generation is shaping and changing the world in response to the Internet.

Take, for example, the story of Knowledge Networks, an Internet polling firm that we profiled in the Monitor last year. Lewis details how the company gives people free access to the Internet (along with a free WebTV box) in exchange for taking part in regular polls, delivered to them via e-mail or the Web. The Knowledge Network idea, Lewis writes, is on the verge of

turning polling upside down to such an extent that it challenges the notion of the need for representative democracy.

Lewis wrote the fascinating book "Liar's Poker" (1989) about his experience as an investment banker for Salomon Brothers. "Next" came about as a result of some of the things Lewis saw when he was writing "The New New Thing" (1999), which was essentially the story of Jim Clark, the multimillionaire responsible for Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon, and other Web projects.

Lewis wasn't sure how he would track down all the fascinating stories he found along the way, until the BBC asked him to film and narrate a four-part series called "The Future Just Happened." Many of the stories in "Next" were developed as a part of that show. (It airs this August on A&E in the US.)

Regardless of its genesis, this is a very good book. More than that, it's an important book. But it's not an easy book. There are things in here that parents, privacy advocates, and members of long-entrenched professions - like law, medicine, and journalism - will not want to read. But they absolutely should.

Few people writing about technology and culture have their finger on how the two interact as solidly as Lewis does. In "Next," he draws back the curtains on what he calls "the invisible revolution" to reveal what the new world shaped by the Internet will look like.

Lewis's writing is clear, crisp, and a bit edgy, and he tells a great story. He finds this new world in the stories of the young people he meets and interviews: a 15-year-old who parlayed $8,000 into $800,000 and wandered into the firing line of the SEC; or another 15-year-old who became the most sought after "legal expert" in a online community full of legal experts.

What is most fascinating about the stories Lewis tells is how the grown-ups don't seem to get what's happening. The message of this book is, "Something very big is happening, and the kids are the ones who get it." On one hand, "Next" is a testament to the Internet's role as a vibrant tool of capitalism. On the other, it's a bracing reminder of the Internet's inherent democratic nature, tinged with anarchy. That still makes the Internet the coolest place to hang out these days. Read this book and you'll know why.

Tom Regan is associate editor of the Monitor's website, csmonitor.com.

Next: The Future Just Happened By Michael Lewis W.W. Norton 236 pp. $23.95

Excerpt:

"Technology had put afterburners on the egalitarian notion that anyone-can-do-anything, by enabling pretty much anyone to try anything - especially in fields in which 'expertise' had always been a dubious proposition.... A general collapse in the importance of formal training was a symptom of post-Internet life; knowledge, like the clothing that went with it, was being informalized.... By its nature, the Internet undermined anyone whose status depended on a privileged access to Information." - From "Next: The Future Just Happened"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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