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Michael Lewis: "The Future Just Happened"
I had spent my childhood in New Orleans. I would like now to consider this otherwise uninteresting fact as it is bound up with my interest in what follows. By the mercenary standards of the modern world, New Orleans is a failed place. In my lifetime it has ceased to be the capital of trade and commerce in the American South and become a museum city, like Venice. The new capital of the American South is Atlanta, which has made the shrewd but spiritually vacuous decision not to stand on ceremony or tradition but rather to go whoring after progress. Atlanta has transformed itself. It is no longer even a city; it's an airport, a blur of movement unrelated to anything but the pursuit of money. It is also, not uncoincidentally, one of America's internet business centers.
Not so New Orleans. Decades of economic failure are in many ways unappealing, but in one way they are an advantage. Where there is no economic development there is no big change. There is just a slow, inexorable crumbling. For that reason New Orleans has always been an excellent place to observe progress. (The same might be said for any number of European cities: Manchester, England; Paris, France.)
To know progress you need to know what it has rolled over or left behind, and when progress is moving as fast as it now is, recalling its victims is difficult. New Orleans keeps its anachronisms alive long enough for them to throw the outside world into sharp relief. For instance, until the mid-1990s you could find actual gentlemen lawyers in New Orleans, who thought of themselves mainly as members of an honorable and dignified profession. One of these dinosaurs was my father.
Right up until it collapsed, the old family law firm that my father managed clung to its charming habits. The gentlemen lawyers wrote notes to each other arguing over the correct pronunciation of certain phrases in ancient Greek. They collected strange artifacts from dead cultures.
They treated education as a branch of religion. They wore bow ties. They were terrifyingly at ease with themselves but did not know the meaning of casual Friday. Their lives had been premised on a frankly elitist idea: an attorney was above the fray.
He possessed special knowledge. He observed a strict code of conduct without ever having to say what it was. He viewed all entreaties to change with suspicion. (The lawyer in the office next door to my father not only shunned e-mail when it arrived; he still used a telephone from 1919 that had belonged to his father.)
The most important thing in the world to him was his stature in the community, and yet so far as anyone else could determine he never devoted an ounce of his mental energy to worrying about it. Status wasn't a cause; it was an effect of the way he led his life.
The first hint I had that this was no longer a tenable pose-and would not be a tenable pose for me-came from a man I'd never met called Morris Bart. I was some kind of teenager at the time. My father and I were driving along the Interstate highway that ran through town when we came upon a giant billboard. It said something like are you a victim? have you been injured? no one represents your interests? call morris bart: attorney-at-law. And there was a big picture of Morris Bart. He had the easy smile of a used car dealer.
"Do you do the same thing as Morris Bart?"
"But his billboard says he's a lawyer."
"We have a different kind of law firm."
"We don't have billboards."
"It's just not something a lawyer does."
That was true. It was true right up to the moment Morris Bart stuck up his picture beside the Interstate highway. My father and his colleagues remained unmoved, but the law was succumbing to a general force, the twin American instincts to democratize and to commercialize. (Often they amount to the same thing.)
These are the two forces that power the internet, and in turn are powered by it. Martin Sorrell, the British chairman of the global advertising firm WPP, says there is no such thing as globalization. There is only Americanization. I know a few French chefs and German car manufacturers and even British advertising executives who would dispute that statement. But the man has a point. And I know what it feels like to be on the wrong end of the trend. New Orleans knew how the world outside of America felt about America because New Orleans felt that way too.
Morris Bart was a tiny widget inside the same magnificent American instrument of destruction that the internet has so eloquently upgraded. A few years after he put up his billboard my father's firm began to receive calls from "consultants" who wanted to help them learn how to steal clients and lawyers from other firms-a notion that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier, and remained unthinkable to some.
A few years after that the clients insisted that lawyers bill by the hour-and then questioned the bills! The old game was over. The minute the market intruded too explicitly, the old prestige began to seep out of the law. For the gentlemen lawyers it ended about as well as it could. But still it ended. And for people whose identity was wrapped up in the idea, the end gave their story the shape of tragedy.
The gentlemen lawyers responded to the assault on their world in character, by refusing to give an inch. Their children responded differently. A child still has time to save himself. To a child, being on the wrong end of the trend is not a sign that it's time to dig in and defend the old position; it's a signal to cut and run. Progress depends on these small acts of treason.
I recall the feeling when it first dawned on me that the ground beneath my teenage feet was moving. I did not enjoy the premonition of doom in my father's world. But what troubled me even more was that some part of me wanted my father to have his own billboard beside the highway-which of course he would never do. My response was to leave home and invent another self for myself. Had the internet been available, I might have simply gone on line.