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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1891

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.

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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. Justin did not charge for his software, but requested that users send him a small payment if possible. By the time Justin was nineteen years of age, the software had been downloaded fifteen million times, and he had made millions of dollars and hired his father to oversee his accounts. Two years later, Justin sold his company to America Online (AOL), reportedly for seventy to one hundred million dollars. Although Justin’s status had changed from insider to outsider, in the short run, his behavior continued to be subversive of the system. In March, 2000, Justin posted new software, Gnutella, which enabled peer-to-peer computing, with which users could share anything on each other’s computers over the Internet without going through a central server. Although the program was available on the Internet for less than one day before AOL pressured Justin to remove it, it had been downloaded by more than ten thousand people. Not long after it was withdrawn, one its users had figured out the code and it was up and running again.

After Gnutella, computer titans Intel and Sun Microsystems, along with numerous newly started companies, began actively pursuing peer-to-peer computing. No matter how huge the corporate structure, however, the Internet gave the humblest outsider a chance to subvert it from without. For example, in a working-class suburb of England, Lewis found fourteen-year-old Daniel Sheldon, one of many young people devoted to carrying on what Daniel called “the legend that is Gnutella.” Daniel had no training in using computers, but within six months was an accomplished programmer and capable of hacking. He astonished Lewis with his ability to participate in several chat rooms, read novels he downloads from the Internet, and search sites for music he could download during his weekly visits to a cyber-cafe with a high-speed connection—all at the same time. His story was similar to those of Jonathan and Marcus: His mother purchased his computer and had no idea what he did on it, but she was proud as well as intimidated when his exploits were recognized by the outer world with a summons from Warner Brothers, threatening to sue him for putting up a Harry Potter fan site on the World Wide Web.

Daniel expressed no interest in making money off his compulsion—like many of his peers, he thinks money is evil and those (such as Justin Frankel) who became rich from their programs were sell-outs. Perhaps it is only fourteen-year-old bravado or naïveté that leads Daniel to say, “’. . . if you’re just in it for the money, then you’re not really going to have a sense of achievement. That’s why real advances aren’t made by commercialists. . . .We’re out to make a network that benefits us all and isn’t governed or monitored or censored by anybody else . . . .’” Despite his ideals, he is a realist: “’I’d like to think I was undermining capitalism, but . . . I very much doubt [that].’” Like Marcus and Jonathan, Daniel is aware that the Internet puts him on equal footing with persons who would never take him seriously in person. He was a decade younger than the de facto leaders of the chat rooms devoted to Gnutella, but programmed and participated on an equal level.

The third section of Next, “The Revolt of the Masses,” looks beyond the Internet to the interaction between technology in general and the greater society. Lewis focuses on how television helped to create a mass market of like-minded consumers of both entertainment and products, and how advances in television are dramatically altering that symbiosis. Formerly, U.S. consumers sought and found the melting pot of a shared experience; now the experience, like U.S. society in general, more resembles a frenetic patchwork quilt. One device that will accelerate this process if it is widely accepted is the personal television receiver or “black box” (such as TiVo and ReplayTV), which enables viewers to capture shows of interest at any time and watch them without commercials. Unlike video recorders, which have to be set to tape each show, black boxes capture shows based on expressed preferences and let the viewer skip through commercials almost instantaneously, rather than scrolling through with the fast-forward function. The viewer’s choices are stored in the black box—in essence, while one watches television, the black box watches back—and the maker of the box can sell information about viewers to companies who want to reach them with targeted messages. As television and computer technology blend together, more tracking of consumer’s behavior seems inevitable.

Lewis’s last profile is of an eighty-year-old widow, Marion Frost. Unlike Daniel, Marcus, and Jonathan, Marion is not out to change the world through the Internet; rather, she demonstrates how the Internet enters people’s homes and changes them and their relationship to the outside world. Marion was one of tens of thousands of people solicited by Knowledge Networks to participate in online surveys on products and politics. Although she is so unknowledgeable about the system they installed on her three-decade-old television that her son has to come to her house and enter her answers to surveys, and although she makes no use of the Web TV or free Internet access and e-mail, she feels a sense of accomplishment from participating in the surveys.

Lewis devotes a brief final chapter to two elder statesmen of the techno-elite. A few pages discuss Danny Hillis, designer of the world’s fastest supercomputer in the 1970’s, when he was in his twenties. Hillis had come to believe that the quest for faster computing power had destroyed even short-range future planning. In response, he started the Institute of the Clock of the Long Now, to build a clock that would last for ten thousand years. Second was Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems and one of the developers of the Internet programming language Java. Joy had written “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” published in the April, 2000, issue of Wiredmagazine, positing the destruction of the earth by self-replicating nanobots programmed to do evil. “. . . We are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals,” Joy wrote. Lewis’s response is that Joy has now become one of the conservative old guard, out to stop the kind of progress and principles on which Joy himself built his career.

Next is well written and quick to read, not a scholarly treatise. There are no references, bibliography, or index. Nevertheless, it provides a great deal of interesting information for the reader to ponder.

Sources for Further Study

Book 16 (September, 2001): 79.

Business Week, August 6, 2001, p. 16.

Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2001, p. E3.

Publishers Weekly 248 (July 9, 2001): 60.

The Washington Post Book World, August 12, 2001, p. 5.

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