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Too bright a light?

by Scott Bradner

It seems like there is a December tradition of various publications to issue predictions of 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 that I've seen were just published in Business Week. The cover story on the special issue promised "21 Ideas for the 21st Century." Eight of the 21 ideas mentioned the Internet or the web and 3 could have based on the content of the idea.

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 it. Countless grade B cops & gangsters movies of days gone by relied on the concept as did the original Thomas Crown Affair. (A movie worth renting by the way.)

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 it in its proper place and to gage its future impact.

Clearly the Internet is and will continue to be a facilitator of change. But is only the latest in a long series of facilitators that may be doing basically the same thing: improving the ability for individuals to communicate with a minimum of intermediaries. This has been going on since the Protestant Reformation with each generation of technology from the printing press, to the telegraph, the telephone and now the Internet increasing the efficiency of the communication and making it easier for the individual to participate.

But too many people seem to confuse the facilitator of change for change itself in the case of the Internet. They forget that the technologies that came before. Victor Hugo called the printing press "the parent revolution." That is, the revolution from which other revolutions are born. This same thing could have been said, and probably was in one way or another, about all of the other communications technologies since then.

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

It seems to be hard to see what is happening in a world of improved communication without focusing on the technology. The 'Net wont 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.