Next: The Future Just Happened
With Author Michael Lewis
Thursday, Aug. 2, 2001; 1:30 p.m. EDT
Join bestselling author Michael Lewis, to talk about his newly released book "Next: The Future Just Happened" and how the Internet is changing society. "The Future Just Happened," a four-part BBC special filmed and narrated by Lewis, and following many of the stories in "Next," will air on A&E in the United States in early August.
What if your status was defined by the Web? What if professionals are no longer the leaders? Instead the leaders are revolutionary youths who seek to undermine all forms of collectivism, from the mass market to family. A 14-year-old manipulates the stock market, a 19-year-old takes down the music industry and wrestlers get elected to public office.
Lewis is the author of several bestsellers, including "The New New Thing," and "Liar's Poker." He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and Slate.
Lewis has served as editor and columnist for the British weekly The Spectator and as senior editor and campaign correspondent for The New Republic. He has filmed and narrated short pieces for ABC-TV's "Nightline" and has hosted a series on presidential politics for "This American Life" on National Public Radio.
Below is the transcript.
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Welcome to a discussion with best-selling author Michael Lewis. Michael, to start off, can you give us some background about your new book "Next: The Future Just Happened" that was just released this week?
Michael Lewis: Hi. "NEXT" began the moment the .com bubble burst. During the bubble, I've become interested in what seemed to me more fundamental and real changes going on in the world that had nothing to do with the bubble. It seemed to me that the Internet had been mistaken as this great engine for corporate profits, when what it really was mainly an instrument for altering people's relationships to each other and to the world around them. To some extent, everyone sees what he or she wants to see when he or she looks at the Internet. But to me, the Internet was this wonderful playing field for status games.
I have read you new book and enjoyed it immensely. Why do you believe the SEC has made such an effort against Jonathan Lebed and yet has done little to warn investors about the sell side analysts with their conflict of interests? Do you feel there is a lack of good research on Wall Street?
Michael Lewis: That's really two questions. The first is a very interesting one. I think the SEC became slightly hysterical when faced with the Internet and they were terrified that if they didn't make examples out of people who are influencing stock prices by posting messages on Internet boards, that all hell would break loose in the market. Plus they had spent a great deal of money to create a big bureaucracy to police the Internet. So, to some extent, I think Jonathan Lebed was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what Jonathan understood and what the SEC didn't was that what he did was exactly what the Wall Street analysts were doing for some years. I think the SEC may have been genuinely ignorant that sell-side analysts owned stock in the companies they promoted. But I also think that during the boom, the SEC was extremely wary of seeming to interfere with prosperity. They could come down heavy on a 15-year-old boy without any affect on the stock market. If they went after Wall Street pros, they might have been fairly or unfairly accused of undermining a bull market.
Who inspires you the most in your writing? Did you start writing your series of books similar to William Gibson's Neuromancer? Also, you dedicate this book to Quinn. Who is Quinn? Thanks!
Michael Lewis: Quinn is my two year-old daughter. I don't think of my books as a series, so I don't quite know how to answer your question. However, I am drawn to the general subject of how our culture changes so there are some common themes to the books. But I've never done anything so grand as to write a series. Odd that you should ask, but Neuromancer is sitting right next to my bed waiting to be read for the first time.
I have a pantheon of writers that I admire. At the top of the pantheon are Mark Twain, George Orwell, my homeboy Walker Percy and a few writers who are living and breathing who I don't want to mention out of fear of swelling their heads. But since we're here on the Post Web site, perhaps I should acknowledge my complete admiration of Post columnist Joel Achenbach.
Why no more "I See France" on Slate? It disappeared without a trace.
Michael Lewis: Many of the things I have written have disappeared without a trace. The difference in this case was that I grew weary of insulting an entire nation. My mother used to say that "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." I obviously don't believe that. But I do think that if you can't think of ANYTHING nice to say, you should probably wonder whether if you are qualified to say anything at all. In addition, I took off on this project writing NEXT and making the television series that goes with it. So I saw mercifully little of Parisians this past year.
Michael Lewis: The television series was a joint production of the BBC in London and A & E in the States. It's basically four hours of me wandering around pestering people who are doing weird things on the Internet and making broad generalizations about the world. I've never made a television show before and it shows. But some of the same stories that are in the book are told in a very different fashion in a TV series. And some of the arguments and themes of the book are pursued though perhaps not so vigorously on the TV series.
Will you continue to be an ex-pat forever? Any plans to return to the states?
Michael Lewis: Our family moved back from Paris to the States a week ago. We now live in Berkeley, California and intend to remain there forever.
Thank you for taking my question. I'm curious, what do you think is the biggest threat the Internet poses?
Michael Lewis: One person's threat is the next person's promise. But I think two of the bigger effects that I think some people see as threats are:
1. Its tendency to democratize everything it touches. There are lots of roles in the world that are premised on privileged access to information. All the professions are good examples of such roles. Parenthood is another such role. These roles may not exactly be threatened by the Internet but their power is certainly somewhat undermined by the Internet.
2. The pseudonymity that the Internet affords is either a great force for human liberation or a mass invitation to fraud depending on who you ask. People behave differently in different contexts. You are at one way when you are at your family dinner table and you are at another way when you are at work. The Internet has created a whole new social context in which people can invent new ways of being and identities for themselves. That is a very powerful thing and I'm sure some people will see it as a threat.
Colonized Washington, D.C.:
I read "Next" and enjoyed it very much. I know from reading Slate that you've been living in France. Aside from the IM-happy Finns, how are Euro-attitudes and uses of the Internet different from ours?
Michael Lewis: The big mass technical difference between Europe and America is their taste in gadgets. The gadget of choice for Americans is the PC, for Europeans it's the cell phone. There are all sorts of reasons for this but the upshot is that the Internet is unlikely to weave its way into European life as deeply as it is weaving into American life unless it does so through the cell phone.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada:
Do you think that the Internet will help bring world peace in ways of communicating to different cultures and countries?
Michael Lewis: Well, I think the Internet is the enemy of nationalism so in that sense, yes. I think the Internet will make it less likely that one country will go to war with another country. However, the Internet is also a fantastically powerful tool for organizing groups of people who share common passions. And groups of people who share a passion are potentially a dangerous thing. The violence during the WTO meeting in Seattle would not have happened if the Internet had not been available to organize the protests. So I wouldn't write off entirely the Internet's ability to inspire violence.
The crux of your book (which I haven't ready yet) seems to me to be that Generation Y is using the Internet in ways the rest of us just never thought of or imagined. Do you think that the 14-18 year old you profile are going to be substantially different (read: more conventional) persons when and if you revisit them at age 25 or 30?
Michael Lewis: The teenagers in my book are interesting to me because of the way they have used the Internet to expose weaknesses in the grown-up world. I'm not sure that all teenagers are using the Internet in really interesting ways, though I am sure that there is a general tendency to be more agile with the technology than older people. It's a good question how their interaction with the technology will shape them. But if I had to guess, I'd say that it will make them even more alive to the fragility of their identities. They'll know better than any generation of Americans how easy it is to assume different poses and wear different masks.
Some futurists have forecast an upcoming "Internet Depression." Do you see this as a possibility?
Michael Lewis: Well first of all, I'm not a futurist. All I do is go out and look at what's happening and try to recount what I've seen without offending the reader. I don't know how much worse the economy would get but I'd be surprised if it got a lot worse. Fiscal policy and monetary policy are not exact sciences but we know a lot more about their affects on the economy now than we did during the last depression. And I think that Alan Greenspan can single-handedly prevent a truly cataclysmic economic downturn.
I was wondering if you hang out on slashdot.org or kuro5hin.org? If so, what's your nick? What is your favorite Web site?
Michael Lewis: I don't really hang out on any Web sites. I visited Slashdot's and I'm probably revealing truly embarrassing ignorance, but I've never heard of the other. My favorite Web site changes depending on what I'm up to. But the sad truth is, the only Web sites that I routinely visit are: Slate, the NYTimes.com, the washingtonpost.com, amazon.com, various Gnutella sites and anything with baseball box scores.
What is your opinion on the recent class action suits against Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and the star analysts? Isn't it amusing that investors are claiming 'being mislead' when they willingly played along with the game?
Michael Lewis: My view on this will please no one. I think the analysts were deeply dishonest and corrupt. But I don't think they should be subjected to lawsuits and I don't think they owe investors anything. I think they should be publicly humiliated, as they have been, and investors should be made to know that they are ultimately responsible for what they do with their money and shouldn't go around looking for people to blame when they lose money.
Given that "Next" seems to be something of a "companion book to the television series you've just been watching", do you see documentary filmmaking as opposed to written journalism as your future now, sort of YOUR "new new thing"?
Michael Lewis: Oddly enough, the book and the TV series, though they began as companion projects, wound up very different things. I've found that television material was completely different from literary material and television cameras polluted any environment they entered. I can't say that I won't make another television show, but television is certainly not my calling. This is very clear to the able professionals who help me make the TV show. One week into the filming, the cameraman turned to me and said, "You're very lucky that you don't have to make a living doing this" and I am.
A bit of an irreverent (and personal) question, but is Tabitha a full-time mother these days or are we likely going to be seeing more of her on the small screen in the near future?
Michael Lewis: My wife Tabitha Soren who was MTV's news anchor has been off the air since she became a mother but she get offers from time to time and I'm sure that one day in the not too distant future, one of these offers will tempt her.
What do you mean by status games?
Michael Lewis: What I mean by status games is people using the Internet to improve their place in the pecking order or to undermine other people's place in the pecking order. The pecking order is a chicken metaphor.
Sorry this question isn't about your newest book. It's about "Trail Fever," which ROCKED! Everyone should read it.
What I'm wondering is, why didn't I see any reference during the Bush-McCain primary battle last year to that passage in your book, in which McCain mentions he'll never be the Republican nominee because he has too many skeletons in his closet, or words to that effect? You actually quote him saying something along those lines.
Given the rush toward him last year, do you think he's changed his mind? If he runs again, will his past come back to haunt him? Thanks!
Michael Lewis: You remember my book better than I do. By the way, I made them change the title on the paperback to what it was originally meant to be called, "Losers." I think a part of McCain's brain realizes that there's no place at the very top of American politics for his candor and his unpredictability. I think Clinton may have persuaded him that no skeleton was too large that it couldn't be overlooked. But I don't think McCain has plans to run for President ever again. Unless of course, he changes his mind.
Falls Church, Va.:
Since I haven't read 'Next' yet I'll ask some career questions. You've had a pretty interesting life, and most of it seems to have been unplanned: you didn't EXPECT to go into bond trading, you didn't EXPECT to follow a campaign, you didn't EXPECT to have a wife with a perfect butt that you would write an essay about. Have you approached life with plans that have ended up changing beyond comprehension, or have you just chucked the very ideas of planning and chased whatever interests you at the time, and realized that it would result in 5-6 sequential careers?
Michael Lewis: All true. I've never been very good at building systems and career plans are just an elaborate system. I've also always thought, trite as it sounds that there's no point in getting out of bed in the morning if you don't have some passionate interest in doing so. So my plan such as it is, is to find things to be passionate about and then chase those as far as I can.
What is your opinion on more Government control of the Internet -- taxing goods sold, monitoring sites, etc.
Michael Lewis: There are so many different issues, it's hard to generalize and even harder to be interesting on the subject. But I will say this, some part of the Internet public policy debate is concerned on how to protect children from grown-ups on the Internet. My only cursory investigation suggests that it is not the children who need protecting.
What reaction do you get from people who are the subject of your pieces -- John Gutfreund, Jim Clark, the Lebed family, the French, etc. Are they ever angry how they are portrayed?
Michael Lewis: Sometimes they are, sometimes they like them, sometimes we remain friends. I'm very friendly with Jonathan Lebed and with Jim Clark, I'm not very friendly with John Gutfreund or the French people.
That was our last question today. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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