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The Messenger is the Medium

August 6, 2001

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In 1971 the American writer William Gaddis published JR, a comic fable about the excesses of capitalism. Essentially a satire of Horatio Alger tales updated for the postwar United States, the novel chronicles the rise of eleven-year-old JR as a master of modern commerce. The story of a pre-pubescent stock market magnate who manufactures his paper wealth through phones, banks and the US Postal Service was considered implausible. The book was discounted as a farce. Nevertheless, some critics appreciated the JR character as a metaphor for the progress of American market forces—what happens when the march of technology is wedded to an adolescent’s unfettered ego.

Thirty years later, JR was discovered in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

The real article, it turned out, was just such a combination of technophile and arch-capitalist. At the age of 13, Jonathan Lebed discovered a way to apply his hobby of watching CNBC on the Internet. After placing highly in a stock-picking contest sponsored by the financial news channel, he decided that anything short of trading with an online brokerage, and real money, would be a waste of his talents. He was right. Lebed became ever more adept and resourceful, realizing ways in which the market’s behaviour and the world of online trading could be used to his advantage. Over two short years, he managed to parlay an eight thousand dollar savings bond into $750 000 US. That’s when the US Securities & Exchange Commission found him.

The remarkable story of Jonathan Lebed came to the attention of many in a magazine profile written this spring by Michael Lewis. According to the author, whose earlier piece is expanded upon in his new book, Next: The Future Just Happened (Norton; $xx.xx), Lebed is one of many enterprising figures, usually children, at the vanguard of fundamental upheavals in social and economic relations made possible by the Internet.

“By its nature the Internet undermined anyone whose status depended on a privileged access to information,” writes Lewis. The book chronicles the facts emerging to support this case. It amounts to a breathless thesis, as well as a timely riposte to today’s widespread assumption that, because “the profit-making potential of the Internet had been overrated … the social effects of the Internet were [also] presumed to be overrated.” Although the book’s far-ranging observations leave some arguments weak, Next is the most indispensable account of the post-Napster Internet (which will have many more Napsters, indeed). In Next Lewis exhumes William Gaddis’ once outsized personification of capitalism—as the roost of childlike id and new technologies—and lends it a disquieting prescience.

In the current economic climate, any Internet-related claims carry a ring of daring or lunacy. Lewis is no stranger to such heady territory. His penchant for capturing emergent trends in business culture is well qualified. Lewis’ portraits of the personalities and events behind 1980s Wall Street (in Liar’s Poker) and 1990s Silicon Valley (in The New New Thing) have earned him considerable praise as the pre-eminent new economy prognosticator. A book by Lewis is a big deal these days, and Next has no shortage of compelling, perhaps visionary characters who, according to the author, characterize social and economic innovations made possible by the Internet’s evolving place in our lives.

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