Exactly what is "the new new thing"? This moment's answer may be wrong by the time you finish reading this sentence. Really? Yes. Especially in the Silicon Valley, the next "new new thing" is the 21st century's equivalent of the Holy Grail. The problem is, as Lewis carefully explains, it is often an illusion..and even when manifest, it can so quickly become obsolete. "Silicon Valley to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world." What is that? Briefly, "the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy, of certain kinds of freedom, and of transience." As I soon discovered when reading the first few chapters, Lewis has written a literary hybrid: it combines the dominant features of the picaresque novel (featuring a central character who seeks and experiences a series of adventures) with the sequential essay (separate but interdependent discussions of a common subject). Lewis introduces his concept of "the searcher" who seeks the "new new thing" and "conforms to no well-established idea of what people should do for a living. He gropes. Finding the new new thing is as much a matter of timing as of technical or financial aptitude, though both of those qualities help." Lewis employs the searcher inorder to examine -- and understand -- a process which creates "fantastic wealth" in the Silicon Valley. The searcher is a "disruptive force" as he gropes his way along, constantly on the move...his mind moving much more quickly than his feet, preferring to live perpetually "with that sweet tingling discomfort of not quite knowing what what it is he wants to say. It is one of the little ironies of economic progress that, while it often results in greater levels of comfort, it depends on people who prefer not to get too comfortable." The searcher, for example.
Are we to believe that people who grope their way through life, wandering through the Silicon Valley, are playing a major role (a wholly new role) in wealth creation? Exactly. (This is a mentality and a behavior which Guy Claxton discusses so well in Hair Brain Tortoise Mind.) The main character of this story "had a structure to his life. He might not care to acknowledge it, but it was there all the same. It was the structure of an old-fashioned adventure story. His mere presence on a scene inspired the question that propels every adventure story forward: What will happen next? I had no idea. And neither, really, did he."
Throughout this book, as Lewis casually but precisely tells his "story", we are introduced to some of one of the most successful residents of the Silicon Valley, Jim Clark, who proves to be the "story's" central character. For Lewis, Clark embodies "a vast paradigm shift in American culture" from conventional models and visions of success toward an entirely new way of thinking about the world and control of it. Central to Lewis' discussion of Clark is Clark's sailboat Hyperion, the world's tallest single-mast vessel. There seems to be a progressive pattern of symbiotic relationships: United States < > Silicon Valley < > the searcher < > Jim Clark < > Netscape < > Healtheon < > Hyperion < > ? Revealingly, in Lewis' Epilogue, we are told that Clark has already begun work on the design of a new sailboat. "Hyperion was nice, but this...this was the perfect boat." At least for now.
What Lewis reveals is a restless mentality in constant search of the next "new new thing." His focal point may be Clark but, in my opinion, he is really examining the global economy in the 21st century which will continue to be driven by that mentality. There will always be a newer, better browser...a newer, better sailboat...a newer, better whatever. Men and women unknown to us now are "groping" to find them. And eventually they will...but will not then be satisfied. "Searchers" never are.
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Much of The New New Thing, to be fair, is devoted to the Healtheon story. It's just that Jim Clark doesn't do startups the way most people do. "He had ceased to be a businessman," as Lewis puts it, "and become a conceptual artist." After coming up with the basic idea for Healtheon, securing the initial seed money, and hiring the people to make it happen, Clark concentrated on the building of Hyperion, a sailboat with a 197-foot mast, whose functions are controlled by 25 SGI workstations (a boat that, if he wanted to, Clark could log onto and steer--from anywhere in the world). Keeping up with Clark proves a monumental challenge--"you didn't interact with him," Lewis notes, "so much as hitch a ride on the back of his life"--but one that the author rises to meet with the same frenetic energy and humor of his previous books, Liar's Poker and Trail Fever.
Like those two books, The New New Thing shows how the pursuit of power at its highest levels can lead to the very edges of the surreal, as when Clark tries to fill out an investment profile for a Swiss bank, ...