October 23, 2014


More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook. By Jim Dwyer. Viking. $27.95.

John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $27.99.

     Optimistic in the face of a glaringly pessimistic climax, focusing on the naïve optimism of tech-savvy young men as if it is a story never before told, Jim Dwyer tries to make of More Awesome Than Money something more than a tale of high hopes and ultimate failure. Slow-paced and cogently but not excitingly written, the narrative instead comes across as an unsurprising story of youthful dreams and overreaching, of pizza-chomping coders overwhelmed by practical realities as they march forth to save the world. Dwyer, a New York Times reporter, seems blissfully unaware of just how clichéd his story of Dan Grippi, Max Salzberg, Rafi Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy seems: he tells it as if these four New York University undergraduates were the first young people ever to dream a technological dream and try to scale the heights of its implementation. Dwyer followed their story for years and seems to be fascinated by it, but readers will likely be less gripped by a narrative that takes them through far too many unsurprising tech-geek events and far too much self-sabotage. The four tried to create a social-media alternative to Facebook called Diaspora, based on the notion that social-media companies should not have such extensive control of users’ personal data – users should retain that control, and would in a Diaspora world. There was initial financial success through crowdfunding (a Kickstarter campaign that raised $200,000), but the four principals never really had any idea of what their project was or might be worth: they completely alienated a venture-capital firm by asking for $10,000,000. During a three-year time period, Grippi, Salzberg, Sofaer and Zhitomirskiy lived in what appears to be an utterly standard San Francisco tech-startup pressure cooker, trying to satisfy their crowdfunders, attract bigger money, and actually write the code needed to launch Disapora into the world.

     Comparing the project’s eventual failure to the flare-out of a comet – itself a clichéd metaphor – Dwyer explores the personalities of the four principals without ever giving a sense that they differ in any fundamental way from other tech-oriented members of the millennial generation. Calling them “boys” in the book’s subtitle borders on insult, for example; and does it really signify anything that they, like thousands of others, attend the Burning Man festival? The skimming of the inner lives of the four would-be tech entrepreneurs undermines what could be strong emotional impact when the most idealistic of them commits suicide at age 22 – an occurrence that ought to lead Dwyer to tamp down his enthusiasm for what the four tried to do, or at least to put it into a stronger context, but that does not. The shock at the suicide thus becomes a generic reaction to the death at a young age of a man with high ideals and considerable talent – but there is little sense that his ideals and talent were fundamentally his rather than an example of beliefs, hopes and abilities shared with a large number of others of his generation (including his three compatriots in Diaspora). There is some irony in the fact that the word “diaspora” refers to people with similar heritage (originally the Jews) who have dispersed widely, since the suicide – and the ultimate failure of Diaspora as a project – did indeed scatter the four principals. But there is little sense of irony in More Awesome Than Money, which takes its story very seriously indeed and very much at face value, to the point of including within it a history of the Internet as a whole from the start of the World Wide Web through the creation of the Firefox browser. Dwyer notes that digital innovation occurs so quickly that innovators can find themselves left behind: some useful features intended for Diaspora were quickly copied, modified and introduced by major tech companies even as the Diaspora protagonists were struggling to pull them together. Indeed, the Diaspora concept is similar to that of Ello, which specifically proclaims that it was created to counter a world in which “your social network is owned by advertisers” and which has been designated by several media organizations as “the anti-Facebook.” Ello may become what Diaspora was intended to be – but because non-electronic book publishing takes so much time, there is no mention of Ello in Dwyer’s book. More Awesome Than Money is ultimately the chronicle of people who failed, largely through unworldliness and hubris, to achieve what they idealistically and unrealistically sought. But because the people seem more types than fully formed individuals, it is a story that seems not “heroic,” the book’s subtitle notwithstanding, but one filled at most with pathos and never with tragedy.

     The issues are far older, drier and more complex – and incomparably more important – in Harlow Giles Unger’s John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation. This is an extended biography of a man who, if remembered at all by non-scholars and non-lawyers today, is known for having served longer than anyone else on the Supreme Court (35 years) and for presiding over an important but little-understood-by-non-specialists case called Marbury v. Madison. So the title of Unger’s book may seem a vast overstatement to most people – and, indeed, his hagiographic arguments are so pro-Marshall (and so strongly condemnatory of other Founding Fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson) that the book may be difficult for people unfamiliar with early United States history to follow and accept. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating if often one-sided read, clearly celebrating a jurist who went beyond the letter of constitutional law to establish the balance-of-powers system we have today. Unger traces Marshall’s pre-Supreme-Court life as a Revolutionary War officer, congressman, member of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, diplomat, and Secretary of State under John Adams – who initially appointed Marshall to the court and even named him Acting President  one summer, during which Marshall supervised the planning of what would become Washington, D.C. Yet all this political material, and the personal information on Marshall that Unger also lays out with care and attentiveness, serves as window dressing for Marbury v. Madison and a second case of nearly equal significance, McCullough v. Maryland. The details of the cases are arcane: Marbury v. Madison had to do with whether or not Secretary of State James Madison could be compelled to deliver papers commissioning Maryland financier William Marbury as a Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, a position to which Marbury had been named during a lame-duck congressional session at the end of President Adams’ term; McCullough v. Maryland dealt with the state’s attempt to impose a tax on all banks not chartered within the state – specifically targeting the Second Bank of the United States. What matters to American jurisprudence today, and what was recognized in Marshall’s own time as being supremely important, was the rationale for the decisions the Supreme Court made – decisions by means of which it immensely elevated its stature from that of a mere “final appeals court,” which heard only 11 cases in its first 11 years, to that of a branch of government as powerful as the executive and legislative.

     Marbury v. Madison established, or at least solidified, the principle of “judicial review,” a concept that appears nowhere in the Constitution and that allows the Supreme Court to nullify laws, duly passed by Congress, if the court finds them to be in violation of the Constitution. McCullough v. Maryland affirmed federal sovereignty over the states and severely restricted the actions that states could take affecting matters outside their borders. Together, these decisions, reinforced by others in the Marshall years, created the delicate and complex tripartite balancing act within which the United States government operates – establishing and affirming a system very different from the parliamentary democracy of Great Britain. Unger does a good job of explaining these decisions, their implications and the controversies they generated – and in so doing makes it clear that he favors Marshall’s arguments over those of Jefferson, who himself exceeded explicit constitutional authority by authorizing the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. The back-and-forth of early American politics resembles the push-and-pull of today, albeit with more resonant language and more physical violence (from fisticuffs to duels). Unger, however, is less interested in the rough-and-tumble of political infighting in the young nation than in the way Marshall’s own political savvy helped his controversial decisions stand up to objections and even stopped Jefferson from packing the Supreme Court with his own supporters (as Franklin Roosevelt notoriously tried to do many years later). A treat for scholars interested in early American history and an eye-opener for non-historians seeking insight into the unusual balance of powers within which the U.S. government functions, John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation will be slow going for others – a worthwhile task to read, but a task nonetheless.

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