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The robber barons, version 2.0

The billionaires who changed the world (wide web)

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Numerous culprits have been faulted for the technology industry's recent woes, from profligate executives to Pollyannaish stock pickers. But wide-eyed journalists deserve a fair share of the blame, too. During the go-go '90s, Silicon Valley press coverage often seemed more like hagiography than reportage, as high-tech magnates were treated with an awe previously reserved for rock stars and astronauts.

In "The New Imperialists: How Five Restless Kids Grew Up to Virtually Rule Your World," Mark Leibovich offers an antidote to that brand of lightweight cheerleading. The book promises warts-and-all portraits of five of the Digital Era's savviest tycoons - Oracle's Larry Ellison,'s Jeff Bezos, Cisco's John Chambers, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and AOL's Steve Case.

A veteran Washington Post reporter, Leibovich digs into the youthful traumas and psychic wounds that shaped this techno-elite. What he unearths, however, though sporadically compelling, is not quite meaty enough to keep "The New Imperialists" from reading like a New Economy version of VH1's Behind the Music TV series - a bit too long on platitudes, a bit too short on illumination.

That's not a knock on Leibovich's reporting, which is first-rate. To his great credit, he never buys into corporate hyperbole or self-serving fibs. His doggedness is especially evident in the portrait of Ellison, an infamous truth bender. Leibovich tracked down Ellison's first wife, for example, who complains that her ex "told me that he graduated from an obscure college in Sheffield, England"; Ellison is actually a University of Illinois dropout. The software mogul also forged an acceptance letter from medical school ("It was very short and had typos," recalls one ex-girlfriend) and has long exaggerated the roughness of his upbringing (Ellison's Chicago neighborhood, which he calls a "ghetto," was comfortably middle-class).


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