Jim Clark Can See the Future

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis

For several months, Michael Lewis went where Silicon Valley’s No 1 idea man, Jim Clark, went. Lewis followed “The Disorganization Man” on helicopters, computerized yachts, stunt planes, rare sports cars and motorcycles. Knowing this helps explain how Lewis is able to move his story along with a pace almost as fast as Clark’s thought process. Here’s what Lewis and Clark discovered.

If you are Jim Clark, this is what you do:

It’s 1978, you are 38, your second wife has left you. You’ve been fired for insubordination from your job as a professor.

You pull yourself out of a black hole of depression, create the Geometry Engine, a computer chip that can simulate the real world on a computer screen, go Stanford, gather the best of that university’s computer programmers around you and found Silicon Graphics (SGI) to build the most powerful computers the world has ever seen.

By the late 1980s, and the guys you hired are pushing you out of SGI.

You get married again, you buy a motorcycle which you ride too fast, you renovate your house, you build giant toy helicopters you fly from a landing pad in your driveway until one day the controls malfunction and one of these whirlybirds does $2,000 worth of damage to your contractor’s car and nearly takes your head off. Then, a little bored, you take up computer programming.

You wipe out rounding a bend in Atherton, California, on your motorcycle in 1991, shattering your leg against a tree.

Bedridden for six months, you write a paper elaborating the old idea of turning the television into an all-in-one interactive entertainment hub. You get SGI’s top engineers on the case and they build the telecomputer in 23 months. Time Warner buys the the technology for $30 million. You move on.

In 1994, you finally leave SGI and the assholes who refuse to listen to you.

You hire Marc Andreessen, the 23-year-old wunderkind who built Mosaic at the University of Illinois and proposes developing better software for browsing the net. You begin Netscape, and with it a new series of rules for how investment will support ideas, not profits. You do this by taking the rapidly growing though not yet profitable company public just 18 months later, August 1995. Netscape shares climb from $12 to $140 in three months. You earn $3.2 billion and give the engineers a very nice cut as well. Now that you’re rich and you’ve made the world a fairer place, do you live happily ever after as the world’s newest billionaire? Nope.

You look into the future and see Microsoft Explorer.

You want to make at least another billion, so you focus on your next moves before Microsoft figures it out. Diagnosed with a rare blood disease in 1995, you spend a lot of time in hospitals. So you target the $1.5 trillion industry as the next one that needs revolutionizing. You scrawl a few words on a napkin and call your new company Healtheon. Jim Clark’s friends start calling and faxing him, hoping for a peek at the napkin. Very smart engineers wait for the chance to work with Jim. Everyone who knows him turns out rich. But Clark is wary: after the SGI mess, he wants total control. No CEO or Venture Capitalist has got him in the corner since.

The tremendous power and influence Jim Clark wields, juxtaposed with his gnat-sized attention span, reveals him as an adolescent genius who refuses to take his Ritalin. It’s fascinating because Jim Clark has both the quintessential brain and personality to change the world. It is frightening too, because he is leading the charge without knowing where it will lead him. Clark invents earth-shaking ideas merely to avert the ever-present spectre of boredom that haunts him.

Filled with a cast of well-drawn characters all vying for money, power, or the chance to ride on Clark’s yacht, this new new book is as fun to read as it is enlightening.

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis (Simon & Schuster ISBN: 0393048136)

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