Disclosure: One day in late 1995, Ajit Balakrishnan phoned me and asked if I’d like to join a new internet company he was setting up. “Internet? Er...you mean the Information Superhighway?” I replied, trying not to sound like an ignoramus. I spent the next couple of weeks trying to convince him that I was quite wrong for the job, while he tried to convince me that I was right for it. Fortunately for me, he won, and I ended up working at rediff.com for the next few roller-coaster years.
The Wave Rider is a book not many CEOs would have written. What could have easily been a work of corporate braggadocio, is, instead, a small, quietly reflective and insightful book about the internet age, and its impact on society. The narrative keeps intercutting between Balakrishnan’s personal journey as he created rediff.com and issues that have helped shape the information era—ranging from the lessons of the railway mania of the 1850s for telecom companies of the late 1990s, to Jared Diamond’s evolutionary biology theories and their relevance to the personal computer. The experience, therefore, is something akin to reading a piece of hyperlinked prose: you click on a link, metaphorically speaking, taking you on a delightful tangential riff, before bringing you back.
Balakrishnan weaves his own journey with a wide range of issues that shaped the information era. It is like reading hyperlinked prose.
We feel Balakrishnan’s discomfiture as he realises, early on, that this is a game where business and technology models are going to change every few months; we share his agonising over taking the fledgling rediff.com for a seemingly premature ipo on the NASDAQ under pressure from his venture capitalists; we get his outrage at being dragged into an extortionary lawsuit by a sleazy New York law firm. This narrative weaves in and out of a ‘hypertext’ on an eclectic range of subjects: How, for example, it was an unknown Japanese calculator company that badgered a reluctant Intel into getting into the microprocessor business. How Larry Page and Sergey Brin had originally tried to sell their Google idea to Altavista, then the #1 search engine, so they could get back to doing their PhDs. How a technology battle between the indigo planters of the Raj and the German chemical industry inadvertently helped create Gandhiji’s political career. Even more interesting are Balakrishnan’s reflections on concepts and trends—technological, financial or sociological—connected with the information age. His lucid explanation of financial derivatives traces the evolution of the instrument back to the Chicago grain traders of the 1960s, and weaving in Nobel winners Black and Scholes, Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand. What could have been a great benefit to the information age, Balakrishnan rues, lost its virtue in the dark corners of Ayn Randian business practice.
The Wave Rider is a slim volume, and leisurely in pace, well-informed and felicitously written. Just one little thing: Balakrishnan claims that a corporate predator once phoned him to ask how much it would cost to buy rediff.com, and he retorted by asking him how much it would cost to sleep with his wife. I find it hard to believe that someone as soft-spoken as Balakrishnan could have done that; the anecdote belongs, perhaps, to a ‘Things I wish I’d said’ box we all maintain inside our heads.