How the Internet has changed our lives
August 17, 1999
by James Fallows
(IDG) -- For 19 and a half of the past 20 years, I have worked in journalism. During the other six months, which just ended, I was inside a software firm (a great big one, based in Redmond), on a project to develop better software for writers. This experience taught me a lot about why software does and does not get better (about which, more later). It also reinforced my fascination with the way the related technologies of the Internet Economy – code-writing, chip-making, network-building and creating sites for the Web itself – are driving other changes in the way we live and work.
Whether technology can actually drive history has been debated by historians. A generation ago, Daniel Boorstin – the author of a series of influential histories, later to become the Librarian of Congress – was roughed up by other scholars for suggesting that machines and inventions might be as important as Big Ideas, such as freedom and nationalism, in shaping how societies evolve. It's obvious now that Boorstin was right. If anything, it's too obvious. At this stage in the Internet's evolution – when its potential effects seem enormous, and when everyone involved has a stake in hyping every new development – it may be useful to set a benchmark of how much, or rather how little, the Internet has already changed our lives.
Historians 1,000 years from now will say that two technologies revolutionized 20th-century existence. One was electricity, and the other was the telephone. Just behind these in importance is the combination of medical and agricultural inventions that roughly doubled human life expectancy in this century. Behind that we have the automobile, the airplane, the secrets of the atom – and behind them, the computer.
It's conceivable that histories of the 21st century will show that the spread of the Net – or of mobile devices, or whatever – mattered as much as electricity and the telephone have in the 20th. (The main competition is likely to come from biogenetics.) But it's amazing what the Net has not changed.
Location, Location, Location
In theory, it doesn't matter where people live, as long as they can connect to the Net. But if face-to-face contact weren't still crucial, flights wouldn't be jammed, there would be no traffic and real estate prices wouldn't be soaring from San Francisco to San Jose. Much as the "paperless office" era has only increased the demand for paper, the rise of the Internet has – for now – only underscored the importance of place.
I "know" people from Web discussion sites I've never met and never will. But I don't know them in a deeply different way from the pen pals I had in junior high school – or from the way CBers knew each other when calling "breaker" over the radio 20 years ago.
Fifty years ago, George Orwell and others said that information technology was sure to oppress us. For the last 10 years, we've heard the reverse: that it will magically empower the individual and make oppression obsolete. This could be true some day. For now, it still takes bombs to get the attention of a Milosevic or a Saddam Hussein. The big setback for tyranny – the collapse of the Soviet Empire – came back in the Arpanet age. And if the Net were going to mean a breakthrough in our domestic politics, would the likely choices in the next election be … the ones we've got?
In theory, every person can now be his own editor, producing a customized daily news feed. And it's true, the research power of the Net is enormous, and network TV in particular has been laid low. But this shift is due as much to cable TV as to the Internet – and in most other parts of the information ecology, from books to movies or music, the blockbuster pattern of one huge, Titanic-style success, surrounded by many pathetic failures, is stronger than ever.
What the Internet has accomplished so far is something of great importance to those inside the business. E-commerce has taken us further toward making the world one big marketplace. Quaint local businesses, from drugstores to stock brokerages, are facing enormous pressures. Those who are clever and quick on the draw are reaping enormous fortunes.
Yet in most important respects, the Internet has only just begun to show its impact. In this column, which I'll write every other week, I hope to chronicle some of the ways in which the people and the businesses and the technologies of the Net are shaping 21st century lives. The contemporaries of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell had the privilege of watching technological history as it was being made. I'm ready for a similar show.
How technology is changing IT
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