DOT.CON: THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD
by John Cassidy (HarperCollins, $25.95) Borders Books, 16549 N.E. 74th St., Redmond, 425-869-1907, 7 p.m. Mon., Feb. 4; Barnes & Noble, Pacific Place, 264-0156, 6 p.m. Tues., Feb. 5
THE NEW IMPERIALISTS
by Mark Leibovich (Prentice Hall, $25) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 5 p.m. Tues., Feb. 5
WE'VE HARDLY had time to savor the end of Internet mania when along comes New Yorker writer John Cassidy with his detailed examination of the whole gaseous bubble. Truly the last thing in the world I wanted to relive were those too-familiar days of smug entrepreneurs, mindless journalists, and deluded investors, all of them convinced that selling postage stamps and Ex-Lax online was not only an unprecedented business opportunity but a paradigmatic shift in world culture.
However, Cassidy proves this tragicomedy worth revisiting. As he draws parallels with bubbles of the past—South Sea Company, the radio industry, and, of course, tulips—he offers new insights into the way this country was peculiarly primed for Net madness, and exposes some of the underlying, orchestrated mechanics that were not readily grasped while everyone was caught up in that day's CNBC broadcast.
Cassidy is nothing if not sweeping in his narrative ambitions. He can hardly introduce a character without backing all the way up: "[Netscape founder] Jim Clark was born into a poor family in Plainview, Texas, in 1942. . . . " He begins with the invention of the first mechanical computer in 1931 and works his way forward, offering layman explanations for things like "packet switching" and "HTML" that are as lucid as any I've ever read.
Arriving at the Web as we knew it in the '90s, he dwells mercifully little on all the absurd dot-coms and their Super Bowl ads and instead puts his focus on the more obscure but critical ways in which the Federal Reserve and Wall Street helped stoke Internet mania. "Instead of using the stock market to build companies," he writes, "VC's and entrepreneurs were now using companies to create stocks."
Cassidy concentrates most on the critical role of Alan Greenspan, who, as this account shows, repeatedly opted against taking actions that might have tempered the nation's "irrational exuberance." But though Cassidy seems to cast Greenspan as one of the heavies, this reader came away more impressed than ever at how the sage chairman guided us through the go-go years. If ordinary Americans felt like turning the stock market from an investment vehicle into a national jackpot lottery, who was he to say no? Real values would eventually reassert themselves, as they always do, as they eventually did.
HIGH TECH'S GLORY days also rise again in The New Imperialists, which expands upon five CEO profiles that reporter Mark Leibovich published in The Washington Post in late 2000 and early 2001. Where Cassidy offers patient, elegant analysis, Leibovich operates on a breezier, People magazine plane. And for those readers eager to know about high-school girlfriends, personal hygiene, and other colorful aspects of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and three other digital titans, there's plenty here to enjoy. "He wore a dark green dress shirt (monogrammed 'WHG')," writes Leibovich of Gates, "with large sweat spots under his arms that spread during our meeting."
We see Bezos—"a rare extrovert among high-tech pioneers" —"eagerly flash his badge at security checkpoints" within Amazon's headquarters, "as if showing his normal guy credentials," and consistently opting for the stairs to his fifth-floor office by the terms of a self- imposed vow. ("Now it's like a winning streak," Bezos tells the reporter. " . . . It's like, if you have perfect attendance in high school, you don't want to blow it after a while.")
Fortunately for his book's relevance, Leibovich avoided overblown celebrities like Priceline's Jay Walker or Naveen Jain of InfoSpace, but instead selected some more solid executives who remain important today (Cisco's John Chambers, AOL's Steve Case, Oracle's Larry Ellison). But while he does a fine job of fleshing out these five characters, his labor (seventy interviews on Bezos?) doesn't generally add a lot to the picture we have from countless other magazine and/or book-length profiles. As in Dot.con, several of the chapters are also padded out with quick-and-dirty summations of very familiar recent history (Amazon's unhappy customer-service workers; the analyst who said Amazon would be broke in six months, etc.), which most readers of the business press could probably recite by heart and in greater depth. Not that I would want to.