Revolution or evolution?

I recently ran across an article in The Financial Times with the headline "Revolution? What Revolution?" The article begins with an interview of a truck driver leaving a fish-and-chips greasy spoon in Grimsby, a small town on the east coast of England. Asked about the Internet, the driver responded, "Don't ask me anything about it, 'cause I ain't interested. I get sick of hearing about it. Web site this, dot-com that — it drives you up the bloody wall."

The underlying skepticism of the Internet, according to the article's author, Richard Tomkins, is doubt that the Net will profoundly change people's personal lives. Tomkins reminds us of technological changes that have profoundly affected how we live. Clocks dramatically transformed our relationship with our environment, factories completely changed the way people worked, and transportation advances brought us physically closer. Tomkins argues that the Internet has done none of these things, and at least for now, people aren't suggesting ways it might.

He cites a passage from Bill Gates' Business @ the Speed of Thought, about how the Internet will transform our lives. Gates' example involves a family having an online chat about the location for a reunion, performing electronic polling to narrow down options and electronically calling up tour options and airfares. When the system sees a family member watching a rodeo on television, it automatically informs the group about rodeo-watching possibilities at the preferred reunion destination.

As Tomkins notes, none of that sounds particularly revolutionary, except perhaps to a technologist. People are still watching television, going on vacations and flying planes. For all the whiz-bang information technology behind Gates' vision, this is, to put it mildly, hardly in a league with the transformation from being a farmer to being a factory worker.

How might a techno-enthusiast reply? He might say that e-commerce applications (many of which are business to business or government to business, and hence invisible to the public) will, taken as a whole, reduce costs so much that the public will notice a dramatically higher standard of living over time.

Likewise, no individual improvement in transactions between citizens and the government because of the Internet is likely to make much difference. But in a world where most transactions occur online, there will be an improvement, both concretely and in terms of perceptions of competence.

Let me ask readers to offer their own responses to Tomkins by sending me an e-mail at steve_kelman@harvard.edu. I'll take some of the responses I get and put them in a future column.

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