The robber barons, version 2.0
The billionaires who changed the world (wide web)
Numerous culprits have been faulted for the technology industry's recent woes, from profligate executives to Pollyannaish stock pickers. But wide-eyed journalists deserve a fair share of the blame, too. During the go-go '90s, Silicon Valley press coverage often seemed more like hagiography than reportage, as high-tech magnates were treated with an awe previously reserved for rock stars and astronauts.
In "The New Imperialists: How Five Restless Kids Grew Up to Virtually Rule Your World," Mark Leibovich offers an antidote to that brand of lightweight cheerleading. The book promises warts-and-all portraits of five of the Digital Era's savviest tycoons - Oracle's Larry Ellison, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, Cisco's John Chambers, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and AOL's Steve Case.
A veteran Washington Post reporter, Leibovich digs into the youthful traumas and psychic wounds that shaped this techno-elite. What he unearths, however, though sporadically compelling, is not quite meaty enough to keep "The New Imperialists" from reading like a New Economy version of VH1's Behind the Music TV series - a bit too long on platitudes, a bit too short on illumination.
That's not a knock on Leibovich's reporting, which is first-rate. To his great credit, he never buys into corporate hyperbole or self-serving fibs. His doggedness is especially evident in the portrait of Ellison, an infamous truth bender. Leibovich tracked down Ellison's first wife, for example, who complains that her ex "told me that he graduated from an obscure college in Sheffield, England"; Ellison is actually a University of Illinois dropout. The software mogul also forged an acceptance letter from medical school ("It was very short and had typos," recalls one ex-girlfriend) and has long exaggerated the roughness of his upbringing (Ellison's Chicago neighborhood, which he calls a "ghetto," was comfortably middle-class).
Leibovich is also adept at peppering "The New Imperialists" with telling images, like the scene in which the anxiety-ridden Bill Gates weaves his way out of a charity function "without touching a single person, even by accident." Or the stroll through Ellison's $100 million, 23-acre estate, modeled after a 16th-century Japanese village, complete with a cherry-tree forest and "high-speed streams."
But such moments, tantalizing clues to the insecurities that shape these boyish billionaires, are lost amid a mass of more humdrum details. The narratives bog down in laborious blow-by-blow details of each company's struggles, like Cisco's tumbling earnings or the yo-yo-ing of Amazon.com's stock price. The tale of AOL's mid-1990s growth will sound achingly simplistic to anyone who has read "AOL.com," by Kara Swisher, which Leibovich cites.
The tedious summaries, which read like assignments from a Business 101 lecture, divert Leibovich's energies from his favorite pastime - analyzing his subjects' characters. Case's competitive streak, he argues, grew out of a fierce rivalry with his older brother, Dan; Chambers's polished demeanor is a reaction to his childhood struggle with dyslexia; Bezos's ambition was stoked by an overbearing mother.
But "The New Imperialists" seldom connects the dots between those psychological scars and business genius, aside from the cliché that geeky kids exact their vengeance through financial success. While that assessment may be accurate, it hardly qualifies as a revelation; as Richard Nixon once noted, most power trips have their roots in childhood slights.
Juicy details are sprinkled throughout to humanize the power-mongers, with mixed success. While it's touching to hear that Gates is still distraught over the death of a high-school chum, Leibovich never quite explains how the tragedy played into Microsoft's development. And though Ellison agonizes over his three failed marriages, how this sets him apart from millions of other frustrated romantics is unclear.
Perhaps Leibovich's psychoanalysis fails to crackle because, at their core, these new imperialists - with the possible exception of Gates - are driven by ambition, not vision. That's particularly true with Chambers, who admits to being "agnostic" on technology, more interested in satisfying customers' demands than in changing the networked world. Case, the man who turned the Internet into Happy Meals, is summed up by a college classmate as "that guy from Hawaii who was always trying to sell stuff - a classic huckster."
Even Ellison, an ace programmer who wrote databases for the CIA, didn't build an empire until Oracle adopted its trademark high-pressure - some might say shady - sales tactics.
There's nothing wrong with salesmen, of course - where would America be without them? But a billion-dollar fortune is no guarantee of an elaborate inner life. Leibovich's pop psychology comes off as a tad shallow, perhaps, because the techno-elite is far less fascinating than the complex revolution they've come to symbolize.
Brendan I. Koerner is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation in New York.