Some reviewers have criticized Michael Lewis for focusing his biography of Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Netscape, on Clark’s building of the world’s largest schooner, theHyperion, and on its transatlantic crossing virtually without human intervention. Lewis, toward the middle of this exciting and informative book, justifies his focus by quoting Clark, who said, “There is nothing more satisfying to me than to create a complete self-contained world when a computer is controlling it.” Doing this has been the focus of much of Clark’s work.
The conception and construction of the Hyperion in the Amsterdam shipyard of Wolter Huisman have had far-reaching implications for the direction Clark’s creative life has taken. His conception of Healtheon, his most recent major project, views the entire health delivery industry as a self-contained world that can be computer controlled. He also conceives of constructing houses—smaller, self-contained worlds— that will be computer controlled, houses in which routine functions are programmed and executed by smart machines.
Clark’s career provides the kind of heterodox adventure story that makes for exciting reading. Because Clark lives barely in the present, always reaching impatiently toward a future that darts about furtively in his highly charged imagination, Lewis’s job in writing about him was both challenging and complicated. Lewis says of his subject, “As a practical matter, Clark had no past, only a future.” When Lewis tried to talk with him about his past, Clark’s attention wandered. When he got him into a conversation about the future, about what was to happen next, however, Clark surged with vitality, sprang to life with ideas.
Clark’s most salient personal characteristic is impatience. A visionary who dreams up huge schemes, he has little interest in the details of carrying them out. He is resolutely uninterested in looking back upon the past and is totally bored with talking about it. His chief motive in life is to create, but once he has formulated the idea of something, the logistics of keeping it going bore him to the point that he begins to withdraw from it.
In the case of SGI, he believed sincerely that the corporation, to remain healthy, had to cannibalize itself. He argued that for a technology company to remain successful, it had continually to destroy itself, thereby making room for new ideas and applications, much as a forest that is leveled by a huge fire is reborn stronger in the years that follow the conflagration. He is convinced that if a corporation does not find the means of destroying itself and emerging from its ashes, its competitors will do the job for it.
In this context, Clark points out the need for technology to become increasingly democratized. This means providing cheaper and less intimidating technological implements that the public at large will be drawn to purchase and use on a daily basis. The early computers of the 1960’s were not conceived of as implements that people would use in their homes, and at that time, few people could envision any practical advantages to having a personal computer. Lewis’s book is particularly strong in chronicling the dizzying growth of the computer industry, especially the personal computer segment, during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s.
Clark, while he was striving to make computers simple and more accessible to ordinary people, was also creating incredibly complicated computer programs involved with SGI’s entry into the interactive television (ITV) experiment on which it was collaborating with Time Warner Cable, which sought to bring ITV into thousands of homes in Orlando, Florida. The lines of computer code required to complete this experiment exceeded the lines of computer code that it took to put a human on the moon at the end of the 1960’s.
Lewis’s decision to make the Hyperion a major focus of this biography is significant because theHyperion, with its main sail of 5,600 square feet, is like a schooner of old, but it is the largest schooner built up to the time of its launching. It sails resolutely into a new world in which computers prove themselves capable of conveying such a ship across the Atlantic without human intervention. People reading about this voyage might think that they are reading a work of science fiction. Lewis, however, is not speculating on something that exists only in some Orwellian imagination but is reporting, rather, on an actual voyage during which he was a passenger and participant.
In essence, Lewis suggests the progression of the United States economy from...
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