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The man behind ''The New New Thing''

The man behind ”The New New Thing”–In his latest best-seller, Michael Lewis makes dollars and sense of Silicon Valley

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Michael Lewis has followed the money to New York City this winter Friday — not on a story, just as a sideline. Institutions — investment banks, consulting firms, and the like — pay him roughly 400 bucks a minute to lecture on a book their gray-flannel-suited men and women have likely already read, The New New Thing. After initially getting lost in the holiday crush, Lewis’ adrenalized profile of technology billionaire Jim Clark has been selling like hotcakes.com now that it’s regarded as the sharpie’s guide to the Internet. It’s gone to press again after a first print run of 250,000 copies and is getting snapped up fast by the power brokers in high finance and federal politics.

The institutions consider cyberspace a half-savage country and are scrambling for a map. And since 1989’s Liar’s Poker, Lewis’ memoir of his days as a bond trader, was right on the money culture of the Reagan era, the suits suppose that he’s their man for the Bezos era, too. ”They’re very curious about what I think is going to happen next,” Lewis, 39, says in a Southern gentleman’s drawl, settling into a stark white chair at Manhattan’s Royalton hotel. ”I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I do tell ’em what I think that people in Silicon Valley think: that they’re creating new financial institutions that’s gonna try to put a large part of Wall Street out of business.”

Lewis seems nonplussed by all the hoopla. ”You know, my job is really to make people laugh…. I’m supposed to be more entertaining than informative.”

Hollywood’s sold on the entertainment bit: Lewis is now writing a screenplay inspired by the 1994 death of Glenn Mueller, a venture capitalist who shot himself in the head sometime after Clark refused to let him invest in Netscape. ”It’s a mystery,” says Fox Searchlight exec Peter Rice, ”about a young man who goes to Silicon Valley to become a venture capitalist and arrives on the day of his hero’s suicide.” Meanwhile, the Beltway crowd just wants information; Lewis declined a recent request to lecture (unpaid) to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. ”To understand Jim Clark,” says Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, ”is to understand the new economy.” Joking, we assume, the senator adds: ”Besides, I just want to get on Jim Clark’s boat.”

When we meet him in The New New Thing, Clark — the tycoon behind Silicon Graphics and Netscape — is launching an Internet business (Healtheon) designed to reshape an industry (the U.S. health-care system) about which he knows next to nothing. He’s also launching the Hyperion — a 157-foot, $37 million, computer-controlled luxury yacht that constitutes the world’s largest single-masted vessel. Clark serves as a symbol for the dominant mood of our digital culture, Lewis says, with its ”preference for change over stability, superficial lust for money, disrespect for tradition, absurd valuation placed on the future versus the past, and willingness to thrive in anarchy.” Of course, it’s not that heavy in the book, where the author lays it out like a literary thriller, keeps the geek-speak plain, and comes on with Tom Wolfe’s whole electric arsenal of italics, exclamation points, and…ellipses!!!

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