What makes a revolution?

In my Jan. 10 column, I noted an article from the Financial Times expressing skepticism about whether the Internet is creating a revolutionary change in people's lives comparable, say, to how people's work lives changed during the Industrial Revolution. I invited people to e-mail me their reactions.

Respondents were split about whether the impact of the Internet was likely to rise to the character of a revolutionary change. Those who voted with "revolution" emphasized changes coming in the future rather than the impact of the Internet in the present. Harry F. Armstrong III of Tinker Air Force Base argued that "what we today call the Industrial Revolution did not happen overnight. It took about a generation."

During its early stages, he continued, many regarded the revolution as a passing fancy, believing that it produced inferior goods that wouldn't be able to compete against craft production. Similarly, he said, in the early days of the automobile, people saw cars "as too difficult to operate and maintain, noted problems with roads, fuel supplies, spare parts, etc."

Such examples show how hard it is to respond to breathless and vague predictions. Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn once said, "Never make predictions, especially about the future." The Economist recently reported the same skepticism about Internet predictions in a recent article. "Like a newborn baby, the Internet is still young enough for people to predict all manner of things for it without anybody being able to prove them wrong."

Armstrong also wrote a fascinating example of what he said would constitute a revolution: a pocket-size device you could talk to in plain language and give commands, which could then "access other sources of information via wireless means." This might be something you could use to renew books at the local library while sitting in traffic. I found this example more of a revolution than Bill Gates' story about a future family making online travel arrangements, as cited in the Financial Times article. Perhaps Armstrong has a future as a futurist.

One of the supporters of the "revolution" side, Cmdr. Jim Nugent, director of the Naval Reserve, noted the link between the booming stock market and the New Economy. Millions of market players clearly believe a revolution is brewing and have bet their money on it.

A fascinating e-mail from Ken Brejcha of the Minnesota Army National Guard noted that the Internet would revolutionize life by dramatically decreasing human-to-human interactions. I was skeptical about one of his examples, however: "Once each household can get broadband capabilities, videoconferencing and e-mail will replace some family reunions and other functions." You can't hug people during a videoconference.

Brejcha worries that "since humans are social creatures," the effects of this big change would be negative unless we figure out how to deal with it.

John Rehberger of the General Accounting Office predicted that the Internet would produce revolution in the private sector, but only evolution in the public sector. He argued that the greater competitive pressures in the private sector would produce more truly revolutionary Internet applications. I don't necessarily disagree with Rehberger, but I think it would be a shame if the Internet created a different kind of digital divide, this one (yet again) between private and public service provision.

The proposition, however, poses a challenge for all folks in the public sector to overcome.

Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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