The Breakfast Table

Same Old Same Old

Dear Kara,

Ah, you quoted a lyric by Sondheim, my personal hero. I can talk about him as obsessively as other people can talk about, well, about the Internet. But I’ll spare you–for now at least.

I fear, meanwhile, that our readers are getting sick of hearing us go back and forth about the Internet (aren’t we supposed to be discussing the day’s news?). But after your last missive, I can’t help myself. So I’ll give it one last go-round. And I’ll begin by saying that I think your idealism–laudable though it is–is causing you to miss how the Internet is evolving here in the World In Which We Live.

You keep focusing on it as a new and improved means of communications. Surely, though, it is becoming apparent that purely in terms of its power as a communications medium, the Internet is, at most, a marginal improvement over current technology. E-mail is a bit more convenient than the telephone, but if e-mail disappeared tomorrow, we’d all adjust in about five minutes. Really, we would. But take away the telephone and the world grinds to a halt. Magazine-y Web sites like this one have cool features that magazines can’t replicate (such as conversations like this), but it isn’t that much different. Chat rooms can create a sense of community, but communities have existed for as long as humanity itself. You keep saying that the free flow of information the Internet fosters is a net good that will expose the bad guys and make the world a better place, but I don’t see a shred of evidence that that is happening. The Internet provides convenience, provides fun, provides information, but it’s not changing the way we live in any substantial way. The invention of the telegraph reduced communication time from five days to five minutes. To my mind, that’s far more powerful, and more transforming, than anything the Internet has done–or is likely to do.

On the other hand, purely as a business tool–that is to say, in its least idealistic form–the thing is a monster. Michael Dell figures out how to use the Internet before anyone else in his industry and begins crushing the competition. Bill Gates becomes terrified when he realized someone else beat him to the Internet–and realized the potentially devastating implications for his Windows monopoly–and takes the steps that eventually lead the Feds to accuse his company of violating the antitrust laws. Brand-new companies crop up on the Net that put longstanding, valuable franchises at risk. You bet media companies are focused on the Web; every business has to be. The Internet cuts out middlemen, causes prices to drop, changes distribution patterns, blah, blah, blah. But you know, in the end it’s just business. Nothing less, but nothing more either.

Perhaps this will now irrevocably land me in the camp of “whining Luddite,” to use your earlier phrase. But I guess I can live with that. After all, I’ve been called worse online. Just ask the Motley Fool.