A redefinition of 'middle age'? An interview with Mike Lewis: Part Two

(The idea for "Next: The Future Just Happened" came to Michael Lewis while he was doing research for his book "The New New Thing." Lewis, who also wrote the much-acclaimed "Liar's Poker" about his years on Wall Street, consistently found himself running into people -- particularly young people -- who were using the Internet in ways not always anticipated by experts, or the media. These people became the basis for both this newest book, and TV series, about how the Internet is shaping our society, not always as we hoped it would it. Recently, Lewis talked to us by phone while on the road for his book tour. In part two of that discussion, we started by talking about Knowledge Networks, a company that uses a gives people an Internet-capable machine and an Internet connection, and then askes them to take part in sophisticated online polls:)

Monitor: How will the Internet change political culture in the coming years?

Lewis: I say that it takes it further in the direction of mob rule. More democracy. But probably not in a pure form because people are lazy. So what happens is, that you have a mechanism for virtual referenda, actually subjecting everything to a vote. Which you could do, if everybody is online. And they can vote online. It's a no brainer. Someone is going to press for the idea that we have national referenda on big issues. Why leave it up to middlemen, when everybody can just vote on it, when it can be so simply done.

Representative democracy was partially a philosophical construct, on a philosophical premise about the needs of the elites. But it was also a response to a technical problem, that you couldn't gather a nation of a few million farmers into a room and get them to vote on things. What has happened is that we are getting to a situation where the technical obstacles for mass democracy are being eliminated.

But the thing that interested me so much about Knowledge Networks was that it showed you what the mechanism was for politicians to defend themselves against this. And the mechanism is that they get such good pictures of public opinion that they can mimic it. American politics is so dull, that it is governed by a moderate center, overlapping parties, where everybody knows what the consensus opinion is, and that's what rules the day. And there are micro decisions made within that context. But the big picture is so clear to all, that it makes for very dull times. I do think that an awful lot of politics are deterministic. Politicians figure out what the right answer is, and they get it. For example stem cell research -- 88% of the country thinks that there should be stem cell research. What is President Bush going to do? Once you know what the polls say, you know what's he doing. He's agonizing to do his best to appease the other 12%, but in the end he has to do, it's madness to do anything but permit it.

Monitor: But if polls rule the day in politics, what about the ANWR decision, where polls show most people oppose drilling in Alaska, particularly women, but the president approved it anyway?

Lewis: Presidents often start off thinking that they can lead more than they can, that they can do what they want to do and the country will follow them. What they soon learn is that they're not the dog, they're the tail. And I think this is the process that Bush is going through right now.

But, to get back on track, when you look at Knowledge Networks, it's very clear what they are doing, and what they will be able to do. First, ads. The ability to test political ads is an incredibly powerful thing, on statistically representative samples of the population. It is an exquisite tool, for measuring and manipulating public opinion. And so I do think that what we're going to get is an evermore concentrated politics, where the politicians are every more better informed -- in real time -- of what people think on any given subject, and what to say on any given subject. So there will be less and less room for spontaneity.

Now having said that we can also see when politicians become robots, a market is created for a John McCain-type character. And I can't tell how the world will respond, if the American people actually feel that they are just being given what they want. They may rebel against that. But I suspect they won't. I suspect they'll be happy to be given what they want. They'll grumble, but they won't actually do anything. So you'll get these impotent revolts, like the McCain campaign, but they won't prevent people who understand what they people want from getting elected.

So that was my first respond to Knowledge Networks. But the bigger response to me was what the very existence of Knowledge Networks said about the world we live in. The natural comparison is with the telephone. Look how different we are from the generation that received the telephone for the first time. We are so self-conscious about new tools that enable us to measure ourselves and evaluated ourselves. And we are so much more in tuned with technology and willing to endorse it and encourage it. This massive experiment gets kick started.

It's just an extraordinary thing that these two political scientists from Stanford (who founded Knowledge Networks) got their hands on all this capital. And it's not a dotcom bubble thing, because they are profitable. It's a real thing. It works. It is a viable business. That seemed very revelatory to me, about the world we live in. That a Knowledge Networks could happen. It seems like almost science fiction. It's a fascinating company.

We filmed at several Knowledge Network homes for the TV series -- not the one I describe in the book -- but the one we use is very funny. When we did this it became clear to me that a wonderful documentary could be done just visiting Knowledge Network homes. You can't believe where this stuff goes. It goes into ghettos, it goes everywhere. And all of a sudden you've got this very sophisticated technology in the least likely places. so you've got, for example, totally uneducated, very poor people, with sophisticated Internet access. And it's fun to watch what they do with the Internet.

These are people who wouldn't naturally be online for another ten years, but they've been dragged into the process. They give you a little glimpse of how the lower class will deal with the technology. And they love it. There was a woman who lived in one of the nastiest parts of New Orleans, and this thing had just changed her life. She had a whole fantasy world. In fact, she was starting to write for publication, because she was able to find all this interesting stuff on the Internet and do her research. And she was having success getting things published.

Monitor: Let me tell you a story. I grew up in Nova Scotia. A few years ago, the phone company invented a system where you could vote by phone. The provincial Liberal Party decided to elect its leader using this technology. The first time they tried it, it bombed. But the second time, a week later, it worked very well. The party elected a well-known doctor named John Savage. Next election he won a majority government. But he didn't last one term. When he tried to change the patronage system, the party insiders turned on him. Once the technology went away, he didn't have any support in the party. He had never licked stamps and knocked on doors and worked his way up through the party. So the public wanted him as leader, but not the party. And he was forced to resign.

Lewis: So within democracy there were still anti-democratic forces that had to be respected?

Monitor: Yes.

Lewis: I think that is still true. All you have to do is wander around the US Senate. That's home to this sort of thing. You can be the most popular man in America, but if Trent Lott hates you, it's pretty hard to get anything done. It's a funny way to think of the world, and the Internet's role in the world, is that there is a questing for more and more democracy. And basically, the Internet is an engine for that. It's one of those tools that will enable people to get more and more democracy. But ask yourself the question, where are there impediments to democracy? And there are lots of answers to that. One is the internecine struggles within Congress. If you believe, as I do, that the democracy will overrun the impediments to democracy then you can sort of play out scenarios about how this will happen. About relationships between senators and representatives change because they come to the understanding that they will of the people will have to be obeyed.

That's just in politics. I like playing it out in ordinary life. Our society is based on two simply fascist structures. One is the corporation, where the CEO gets to be dictator. And the other is the family, where the parents get to be dictator. I exaggerate of course, because people can leave, and they do leave in the family when they are 18. But there is a mile-wide undemocratic streak in both of those organizations. And one of the points I was trying to make is how that force, the Internet combats that force in the household.

Monitor: Well, you made that point with Jonathon Lebed, who turned that whole structure on its head.

Lewis: so there is that effect, that leveling effect in the family, which is very unsettling. Which results in father screaming at the fish tank.

Monitor: The dad didn't like that his son knew more than he did and was making more than he did.

Lewis: Well, neither would I.

Monitor: One last question. Two last quotes in your book. "They realized that they had grown up, and they know what that means", and "the lack of mercy shown towards the aged flushed out into the open on the Internet."

Lewis: They are obviously related. One thing that is obvious is that young people adapt better to change and to novelty than older people do. You say this and you get a lot of protest from people, because there are exceptions. Of course there are exceptions. But is' a good general rule. And the only two demographic trends the Internet is associated with is education and age. The more education you have the more likely you are to be online, and the older you are, the less likely you are to be online. But it's not even a question of being online,it's a question of what you can do once you're there. And this is part of larger and much bigger issue. And it is that we have moved to an economy that is evermore explicitly based on rapid innovation. And we understand it. You can see it in the structure of government. It just perceived wisdom among policy makers, that you have to do whatever you can to encourage innovation.

If you have to raise the number of visas from tech workers overseas, you do that. If you have not to tax, the Internet, you don't do that. There is a long list of things that have happened because of people's stake in innovation as an engine of growth. It is a relatively new thing. If you premise an economy on ever more rapid change, then you are premising it on ever more novelty. And you are skewing it to the advantage of people who handle novelty well, and who adapt quickly. Who are going to be, as a rule, younger, I think that Bill Joy and Danny Hillis, deep in their guts, both completely understand that what they did -- it's a bit like a pro Athlete who is hitting late 30s, he knows he is no longer at the cutting edge, and more to the point, worse, because he is still sitting on top of the game, he knows he won't be sitting on top of the game fairly soon.

And that is a disturbing feeling. And what struck me about those two characters -- I didn't come out and say that they were wrong -- what struck me about both of they was these people have gotten where they've gotten, because the world has encouraged really rapid technical change. And these people were on the side of it. They helped create the universe we live in. But the minute they get to the point where they are grown up, and they no longer have the adaptability of youth, they realize it bothers them.

And rightly it bothers them, for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is that it's not good for them. And that's an important neglected point and it amazes me that neither one of them had the self-awareness to see that. To see that there were possible other motives for wanting to slow things down, Once you're getting on in years as a technologist.

The other sort of question in my mind --is this a good society. The rapidly changing society, is a good society. One test of is it a good society is do people want to live in it. Do technologists themselves want to live in it. That there is some concern being expressed by the people who benefit the most from it, or should, should enjoy it the most is interesting to me. Because I have my own doubts. I think that at the very least it is wildly, wildly disruptive to mental health and stability to give people the sense that they are approaching obsolesce when they are approaching the age of 40 when their expected lifespan is getting longer all the time. There's going to be a lot of golf played. Invest in golf courses. It's a really big issue. It's not an issue you address with public policy. It's an issue you address in culture. There will be some redefinition of 'the middle years.'

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