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Central to Lewis's observations is the idea that the Internet hasn't really caused anything; rather it fills a type of social hole, the most obvious of which is a need to alter relations between "insiders" and "outsiders." In Next, Lewis shows how the Internet is the ideal model for sociologists who believe that our "selves are merely the masks we wear in response to the social situations in which we find ourselves." It is the place where a New Jersey boy barely into his teens flouts the investment system, making big enough bucks to get the SEC breathing down his neck for stock market fraud. Where Markus, a bored adolescent stuck in a dusty desert town and too young to even drive, becomes the most-requested legal expert on Askme.com, doling out advice on everything from how to plead to murder charges to how much an Illinois resident can profit from illegal gains before being charged with fraud ($5,001 was the figure Markus supplied to this particular cost-benefit query). Where a left-leaning kid of 14 in a depressed town outside Manchester is too poor to take up a partial scholarship to a school for gifted children, but who spends all hours (all cheap call-time hours, at least) engaged in "digital socialism," trying to develop a successor to Gnutella, the notorious file-sharing program that had spawned the new field of peer-to-peer computing. Lewis burrows deeply into each of these stories and others, examining social phenomena that the Internet has contributed to: the redistribution of prestige and authority and the reversal of the social order; the erosive effect on the money culture (both in the democratization of capital and in the effect of gambling losing its "status as a sin"); the decreased value we place on formal training (or as he puts it "casual thought went well with casual dress"); and the increased need for knowledge exchange.
Lewis's observations are piercingly sharp. He can be very funny in portraying ordinary people's behavior, but remains thorough and insightful in his examination of the social consequences. He notes that Jonathan Lebed, the teenage online investor, had "glimpsed the essential truth of the market--that even people who called themselves professionals were often incapable of independent thought and that most people, though obsessed with money, had little ability to make decisions about it." While Lewis's commentary gets a little more dense and theoretical toward the end, Next is an entertaining, thought-provoking look at life in an Internet-driven world. --S. Ketchum