Culture

Amusing ourselves

Culture | Entertainment and the Internet have eclipsed the steel industry and the stock market

Issue: "Chaos in Colorado," May 1, 1999

The entertainment-based economy
Move over General Motors. As Disney goes, so goes America; as business consultant Michael Wolf explains, we live in The Entertainment Economy (Times Books). Since pop culture means more for America's might than industry or the military or anything else, Mr. Wolf's book is an excellent introduction to this amazing new world that is popping up around us. Why? People are willing to sacrifice themselves for spare time-and when they get it they want fun. The mega-branded, mega-corporate explosion is a worldwide revolution. In Britain, he explains, the earnings of Trainspotting, the Spice Girls, Tomb Raider, Teletubbies, Mr. Bean, and Miss Saigon have created a trade surplus greater than the British steel industry. Similar activity is underway in areas as disparate as Bangkok, New Delhi, and Lagos. With a manic style that is at times downright frightening, Mr. Wolf explains how Michael Jordan, Tommy Hilfiger, and Martha Stewart have transformed themselves into globocult moguls who define taste for millions. Never mind Citizen Kane. Look at "Citizen Case." Steve Case, that is, the head honcho of AOL. This high-stakes game is played out on cable TV, shopping malls, Web sites, sports arenas, and even supermarkets. These hands are even reaching out with "Edutainment" that pitches Barbie, Furbys, and "educational toys" at our children. Of course we are amusing ourselves to death. But there's some serious money to be made too, says Mr. Wolf, who promotes his own consulting firm at every turn. This revolution promises both an easier, more pleasant life and the dreaded McWorld that crams life into something explainable on a business plan. This theme-park society may or may not be attractive, but it is what we have got. Christian challenges to the reigning globocult exist, but they haven't shown up on big radar screens. The book of gates
How's your digital nervous system? Bill Gates wants yours in tip-top shape, so he sings the praises of information technology in his new book, Business @ the Speed of Thought (Warner Books). Microsoft has been behind on the Internet for several years, so its CEO wants the world to know he's still a visionary. Having a computer on every desk isn't the goal anymore. Those machines must do the right things at the right time for their owners to succeed. Surprisingly, Bill Gates's guide to the near-future is intellectually rooted in the Industrial Revolution. Think streamlined. He and ghostwriter Collins Hemingway spend the book arguing for more efficiency, less paperwork, and better access to information. Computers should work smarter and "empower people" to make better decisions. "Every employee should be a knowledge worker," he writes. The book is full of examples (overloaded, in fact) of how this is to work. Mr. Gates refers to Microsoft's eliminating every possible paper form in favor of e-mail, fighter pilots using a PC program called FalconView to prepare missions, and Wal-Mart's amazing inventory management. Good software, like steel and steam engines, keeps industry running. Mr. Gates says his favorite business book is the memoir of Alfred P. Sloan, who ran General Motors from 1923 to 1956. He streamlined the automaker with a more efficient accounting system, which made communication easier for employees and dealers. This prototype of Mr. Gates's digital-nervous-system concept comes from one of the few companies whose influence rivals Microsoft. The super-fast, super-easy PC world of the future isn't here yet, the book argues, so we must use what we have wisely. "The social adaptations that have to occur take years, and the infrastructure has to be built out," Mr. Gates argues. But once the pieces finally come together, the world will be irreversibly changed. The Business book reads like a long Fortune article and deals with ideas many have discussed elsewhere. Mr. Gates doesn't focus on any long-term consequences save one: If companies can't manage information, they will be sure losers in the new millennium. The Stock market online
Daytrading may make some people good money on the stock market, but it also makes others lose their good sense. A hot tip hit the Net claiming a telecommunications company called PairGain was about to get a high-stakes buyout. The news passed around daytraders' chat rooms, whereupon the company's corporate stock shot up 31 percent. But the whole thing was a hoax. A 25-year-old low-level engineer, Gary Dale Hoke, was arrested after the FBI tracked down his Internet address. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $1 million fine. This incident shows some of the insanity in the daytrading subculture. The bogus story was passed off as coming from Bloomberg news, but it originated from another site, one that gives away free pages to anybody (including Mr. Hoke). Still, people bought it-and PairGain's stock. It rose from $8.50 a share to $11, before going back down to $9. Computer connections have democratized the stock market and brought millions into the game with free real-time quotes and cheap trading. These people range from CEOs to pensioners to bus boys. Info-hungry daytraders scour the Net looking for any tidbit they can dig up. Some of them who aren't so savvy could be manipulated into heavy losses. "The Internet has become the world's largest conference call," said online trader Anthony Elgindy. "And plenty of the people talking about stocks have hidden motives for what they're saying." Such stunts make stock trading look more and more like sports betting. (By association, they also tar legitimate news operations that have opened up online.) Daytraders don't play by the normal rules that move Wall Street. These barbarians at the gate have sent exchanges to high after high after high. Neither a Clinton impeachment nor a Yugoslav war has stopped the upward surge. Guessing where it will lead is like predicting the future of the Net: Nobody knows. But it isn't your father's stock market anymore. A southern mystery
Filmmaker Robert Altman has been making unusual mysteries with a flair for strange characters. Like The Long Goodbye, The Player, and The Gingerbread Man, the 74-year-old director's Cookie's Fortune (October Films; rated PG-13 for adult themes and suicide) breaks with Hollywood clichés. This time, the story is an anti-mystery: When a lonely Mississippi grandma decides to kill herself, her wacked-out daughter decides to make it look like murder. When Cookie (Patricia Neal) dies, her best friend Willis (Charles S. Dutton) is locked up in a small-town jail for the crime that never happened. Crazy daughter Camille (Glenn Close) wants her mother's jewels and house and doesn't want her family to be embarrassed. She convinces sister Cora (Julianne Moore), who is more disturbed in her own way, to play along and keep the secret. Sheriff Ned Beatty and an investigator (Courtney B. Vance) with a film noir wardrobe must figure out what's going on. Lyle Lovett also hangs around in the background. Added to the mix is a granddaughter, played by Liv Tyler, who stays in jail with Willis as a self-proclaimed accomplice. Mr. Altman's picture of the South differs from the usual stereotype; these people aren't a racial powderkeg ready to explode. Cookie's Fortune mixes white and black characters without pandering. It is as if Mr. Altman wants us to forget that Willis and the investigator are black and the family with the "murdered" matriarch is white. Odd religious imagery abounds. Cookie kills herself to ride in a golden chariot like the Greek god Helios. Camille is directing a production of Oscar Wilde's Salome as a church Easter play, with her sister in the title role. Cookie's Fortune is slow starting, but becomes soon becomes engrossing. It's the sort of movie that will play well on A&E in a few years. Although Mr. Altman's career has had many highs and lows, this will be marked as another unusual trip into Americana.

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