Michael Lewis’s book Next explores the types and depth of changes that the spread of computer technology—especially the Internet—has brought to society. Mainly drawing on interviews of teenage boys who were deeply involved in the computer culture, Lewis comes to conclusions that have wide implications for society’s future.
In Lewis’s view, society and its paid seers were looking at the Internet in the wrong way, concentrating on its seemingly endless ability to create wealth while ignoring its social effects. Although the dot-com-fueled explosion of wealth imploded, the societal changes remain and are unlikely to subside—the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Lewis subscribes to the school of sociologists who espouse “role theory,” which argues that people have no actual self, but only masks they wear in response to varied social situations. The Internet, which has created a new set of social interactions and expectations, affords everyone the opportunity to wear new masks, and thus create new selves—in fact, as many new selves as one has the creativity, time, and energy to invent and maintain.
Lewis asserts it is “wildly disruptive to speed up information,” and that the Internet has changed society profoundly and irrevocably, inverting the power between adolescents and adults and altering the balance between insiders and outsiders. As the Internet creates a childcentric economic model, the accompanying technological changes have subtly moved more authority to the hands of children, as any middle-aged parent who has had to ask an eleven-year-old for help resetting a video recorder or troubleshooting a computer knows. Lewis thinks that adults generally are oblivious to how much authority has been ceded to the next generation. Three of his four case studies involve teenage boys who not only wield immense power in their families, but also, he argues, give evidence of a shift in the balance of power in society as a whole. In discussing Jonathan Lebed and his family, he points out that “technology had turned them into a family of immigrants,” with the child forced to “translate” for confused and uncomprehending parents.
Lewis’s first two cases, Jonathan Lebed and Marcus Arnold, share several similarities: Each was in his mid teens when he came to prominence for his Internet activities; each had created a persona on the Internet that led people to believe he was a subject-matter expert, not a self-taught adolescent; and each received his first computer from computer-illiterate parents who neither understood, nor could control, what their sons were doing on their computers.
Jonathan came into the public eye for manipulating the stock market so expertly that he was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), finally settling for a fine of $800,000—only part of the money he had made on stocks by the age of fourteen. After researching little-known companies, both through the Internet and from in-person visits, Jonathan bought stock in those he felt would rise in price. Then, using four screen names, Jonathan posted numerous glowing, enthusiastic messages about his stocks on various financial message boards. After a stock went up, Jonathan sold at a profit, then moved on to the next stock, again buying, hyping, and selling. He managed his parent’s investments, and many teachers at his high school sought his advice on their stock market accounts.
Lewis does not believe that Jonathan did anything illegal, or anything that is not done regularly by paid stock advisers; his only crime, in Lewis’s opinion, was being an unlicensed adolescent. His intelligence, dedication, and tireless researching contributed to his success, but without the Internet he could not have reached the thousands of potential buyers whose financial investments in his chosen stocks enabled him to accumulate such profits. The Internet put Jonathan on a level playing field with persons older and more experienced than he—his readers had no idea he was a teenage boy, and he made sure that they did not find out.
Marcus Arnold’s story is similar: A teenager with an interest in law, he posed as a twenty-five-year-old legal expert on AskMe.com. Although most of his legal information came from watching television shows, he soon was rated number three among the legal advisers on AskMe.com, in one two-week stretch answering more than nine hundred questions.
Adolescents also were the driving force for spreading music free through the Internet. Justin Frankel was a teenage student when he wrote software called Winamp that enabled computers to play digital music files....
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