If you are about to leave for a relaxing 10 days in Tuscany en famille and are looking to take a book that is funny, yet intellectual, easy to read, and about one of the great themes of our day, then look no further. Buy Michael Lewis's brilliant The future just happened.
For those of you who don't know Lewis, he is the author of the excellent Liar's Poker and The New New Thing, both of which gave us insights into the crazy world of investment banking and the even crazier world of technology.
I should probably declare at this juncture that I am very keen on Lewis' work. As I was reading this book I came to the conclusion that he is, quite simply, the best prose essayist writing in English in the world today.
Lewis combines an ability to make you laugh and think on the same page. He is capable of rendering the most sacred of cows absurd. He dramatizes real people, bounces them off his own intellect, and creates beautiful flowing prose that makes the reader collude with his assessments. And yet he does this in a language that is so simple that he never makes you think him arrogant.
This is a rare skill.
The future just happened is based on a TV show that Lewis made for the BBC. The idea behind the program was to look at the impact of the Internet on real people. The idea soon mushroomed into something very big indeed.
The book breaks up into a series of essays (basically), taking one theme in each. The first three are the best, and respectively deal with the absurdity of high finance, the absurdity of lawyers and lastly how a boy of 14 in Oldham, England is creating a piece of software (in a dank room and with no training) that is capable of destroying the concept of intellectual property.
In fact, the book is largely about children.
The first essay is about Jonathan Lebed, the 15-year old child who made $800,000 trading on the Internet, and was then targetted by the SEC for insider trading. In the end, the SEC fined Lebed in an out-of-court settlement, but only took a quarter of the child's gains. Why? Because it knew it would have found it impossible to win its case in court and merely wanted to be able to send out a press release saying it had won and Lebed had paid his dues to society.
Enter Lewis, who visits Lebed and his parents, and later the SEC boss, Arthur Levitt. At the heart of Lewis's thinking is the fact that Lebed has exposed something very big indeed. Lebed and Lewis both know that the SEC has been rendered absurd by Lebed's behaviour. Thanks to chatrooms and the Internet, the SEC and the 1930s ideology that created the organization, has suddenly found itself fighting rearguard actions with circular (that is, non-) arguments.
This review does not have space to give any more detail than this. Suffice to say, the way in which Lewis demolishes Levitt in their conversation is very amusing indeed.
At root, the whole definition of price manipulation is brought into question.
The second chapter deals with another child, Marcus Arnold and a website called Askme.com. The company behind Askme had designed software that would allow firms to set up intranets where knowledge could flow around the firm. However, companies asked whether the software had the capacity to deal with massive usage. So Askme set up a website to prove it did.
This website started getting millions of hits per day from people asking questions about car mechanics, dieting and among other things, the law. Experts answered these questions (voluntarily) and would get scored by the recipients.
Enter Marcus Arnold, a 15-year old who began answering around 950 legal queries a day after school and soon became the number one ranked lawyer on the site, even beating qualified lawyers. Arnold had never read a book on the law, and had gleaned all of his information from television (Court TV and the like). However, the advice he was giving was correct, and the legal profession obviously wasn't happy about this state of affairs.
Again, buy the book if you want to read more.
Above all, this is a book that will make you smile and think simultaneously. The writing style is effortlessly easy to read and incisive. Lines like this abound: "You can detonate a hydrogen bomb in midtown Manhattan and there will still be some guy at Goldman Sachs worrying about whether he should jump to Morgan Stanley for a signing bonus."
There are no other books around quite like this. It will be the source of many conversations in the months to come.
Reviewed by Steven Irvine
Rating: 4.5 stars