Too bright a light?

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 08/23/99

It seems like there is a December tradition among various publications to issue predictions for the year ahead. Now as we reach the end of the 20th century, predictions for the 21st century are starting to show up. I wonder if the prophets are going to be able to see past the Internet's current mindshare.

I'm sure there have been others, but the first set of predictions I've seen were just published in Business Week. The cover story on this special issue promised "21 Ideas for the 21st Century." Eight of the 21 ideas mentioned the Internet or the Web, and three others seemed related.

One of the most effective ways to hide is to stand just to the side of a very bright light. The light overloads the observer's senses and makes it almost impossible to see beyond the light. Countless B-grade cops and gangsters movies of days gone by relied on the concept, as did the original version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," a movie worth renting.

The Internet seems to be acting like a too-bright light shining into the eyes of many would-be prophets. They are finding it very hard to put the 'Net in its proper place and gage its future impact.

Clearly, the Internet is and will continue to be a facilitator of change. But the 'Net is only the latest in a long series of facilitators that may be doing basically the same thing: improving the ability of individuals to communicate with a minimum of intermediaries.

This sort of change has been going on since the Protestant Reformation with each generation of technology from the printing press, to the telegraph, to the telephone and now the Internet. Each generation of technology has increased the efficiency of communications and made it easier for individuals to participate in such communications.

But in the case of the Internet, too many people seem to confuse the facilitator of change with change itself. They forget about the technologies that came before.

Victor Hugo called the printing press "the parent revolution." That is, the revolution from which other revolutions are born. The same thing could have been said, and probably was in one way or another, about all other communications technologies since then.

I fully expect some other communications technology to come along to continue this trend - direct mind projection, perhaps.

It's hard to see what is happening in a world of improved communications without focusing on the technology. The 'Net won't do everything. It will not cure baldness - though it would be nice if something did. But the improving ability to communicate will continue to have profound impacts. If only we could more easily see past the neat toy of the moment and understand what those impacts might be.

Disclaimer: Harvard mostly avoids the deer-in-the-headlights reaction to bright lights, but the above observation is mine.