The Breakfast Table

Don’t Believe the Hype

Dear Kara,

OK, I’ll bite. How will the Internet become the “most important communications medium of all time”? How will it sweep away ignorance about racial hatred or empower people to take control of their lives? It seems to me that the Internet can foment hate and/or the herd mentality just as easily at it can foment tolerance and/or empowerment. I have to put my cards on the table here: I’m really skeptical of the claims that I hear all around me about how the Internet is going to change the world as we know it.

Let me lay out some of the reasons for my skepticism. First, from a purely historical point of view, I don’t see how anyone can view the Internet as more important than any number of communications media that have preceded it: the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph player, the television among them. To my mind, the Internet is demonstrably less important–less transforming, if you will–than any of these predecessors. Secondly, more often than not, powerful new technologies don’t live up to their supposed “true” potential. Here, of course, television is the prime example. Look back at the claims that were made for television during its formative years, and they sound a lot like the claims being made now for the Internet. Would anyone claim today that television has changed our society? Well, yes, they would–but not in the enlightened fashion that its proselytizers had once hoped.

I know you’re not supposed to say this out loud–at least not on a respectable Web site like this one–but I think the Internet has a way of bringing out the worst in people rather than the best. The anonymity it allows emboldens people to say things to each other they would never say face to face. There are at least as many sites for nuts as there are for people trying to make the world a better place. Everything has to be short and quick. And even some Web ideas that started out as utopian have been subverted over time. The example I know best is that of the chat rooms devoted to particular stocks, which were supposed to be informative, illuminating places, filled with like-minded investors trying to help each other and educate each other about stocks. And what happened? Chat rooms have become astonishingly intolerant places, where anyone who dares dissent from the general rah-rah tenor is branded a traitor and pretty much hounded out of the site. As you know, they’ve also become havens for fraud, abuse, and all sorts of dirty shenanigans. Two or three years ago, I made a point of checking the chat room whenever I began a story about a particular company. Now I don’t bother; it’s just a waste of time.

I’ll go a step further.

Even from a business point of view–which is the focus of most of the hype these days–I think the Web is more likely to disappoint than not. Without question, companies like are eating into the profits of “bricks and mortar” companies like Barnes & Noble, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. But the reason Amazon’s stock is such a high-flyer is that there is a widespread expectation that someday Amazon will be a gigantically profitable corporation itself. But why will this ever happen? There will always be some other Web site offering consumers a better deal than Amazon–get a free PC with the purchase of your next book!--and the Web allows consumers something that has heretofore existed only in economics textbooks: “perfect knowledge”–the ability to know every price that exists for the good you want to buy. That’s empowerment, all right; no question about it. But it’s not the kind of empowerment Internet stock analysts like to talk about. So do I use the Internet? All the time. It’s part of my life. The past few weeks, in fact, I was on vacation on a lake in Canada, where I had little access to television or American newspapers. I spent a little time each day logging on to the New York Times, Slate, and Yahoo!, just to see what was going on. I was glad I could do it. But is that an earth-shattering advance? I don’t think so. Needless to say (he hastens to add) all of the above is offered in the spirit of good, healthy debate. Glad I got that out of my system, though. Looking forward to tomorrow’s correspondence.