The Breakfast Table

The Apotheosis of the CB Radio

Dear Joe,

Well, I am sorry you were much maligned by my friends on the Motley Fool, which was one of the first really successful online communities to take off. But the kind of response you are getting is just the kind of thing I like about the Web. Remember the days we used to sit on high at elite media organizations and broadcast down our words to the people below? No more. And I could not be more thrilled to hear back from readers since it only makes us better at our jobs, despite the agony of having to listen to the wackos that always accompany the good comments.

In fact, I really like this part of the Internet most of all, the ability of people to bypass gatekeepers and perhaps even flex their minds a bit. I am certain that there will be plenty of fraud and hucksters–there was a good story in USA Today yesterday on that lovely trend–but that, once again, is another thing that seems to be a human perennial no matter the medium. It is true though that the Internet is well-suited to these nefarious tasks with its ability to reach out to more easy marks. AOL, for example, has always been plagued by people posing as customer-service reps, who somehow manage to get a lot of people to hand over the most intimate of information.

But you are right, there are limits to technology. Consider Amtrak.

I am riding the train right now toward Denver and have been trying to file my electronic letters to you while traveling. But there are no phones on this train, and definitely no data ports to plug my nifty micro-laptop computer into. So I have been calling in to two very patient Slate editors in New York to read–yes, I am actually giving dictation–my text in order to have it posted. That has worked fine until I passed through a particularly large group of buttes or canyons. Stupendous as they are from a nature point of view, they utterly block my cell phone transmissions and I am left completely without any useful technology. Imagine, a butte trumps all of man’s innovations.

Nonetheless, since nothing works in this situation, I would like to take up your notion that the Internet is not as impactful as communications mediums before it, like the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, and, finally, television. While I think all these mediums are momentous, I feel that they have all been steps to where we are today with the Internet. At its very best, the Internet combines all of these inventions–it is the printed word that can be instantly telegraphed anywhere that adds on the interactivity of the telephone. Soon more advanced audio and video will be part of the daily picture on the Web. A network that links up people all over the world is one that is clearly going to be more important than all others, if you really have to choose.

I think the big question is how does society give everyone a seat at the digital table. As far as I am concerned, the Internet is still a conversation among the world’s elite, a woeful trend that I see only getting worse. So I perk up every time the notion of a free PC or free Internet access is brought up. I was pleased to see an article in USA Today this morning about how venture-capital money is now being spent in areas other than Silicon Valley, from Texas to Florida to New England. Right now, the lion’s share of the cash has headed to the peninsula south of San Francisco. The joke we make there is that there is so much money for Internet venturers available to entrepreneurs located in Silicon Valley that there are not enough rat holes to shove it down. Combined with the giant amounts of money these companies are getting from Wall Street investors via IPOs–an that is real cash they are receiving, no matter how high their stock prices are–there is too much money going to too few people and too few new ideas. I think there has to be more branching out with these investment dollars, especially if they’re going to help as many people get connected as possible.

The real question is, of course, will these already questionable Web business models ever make enough money to pay back all this funding? I don’t know if Amazon can ever make the kind of money that will justify its lofty stock price, although it certainly seems adept at spending cash. I have heard all the comparisons to the tulip mania of Holland and the stock speculation of the 1920s, and this current craze is nothing new. But it should not blind us to the fact that some very real and significant businesses are being built here.

I didn’t see the Bill Gates story in Newsweek, but I have been constantly fascinated by his desire to paint himself as a victim, especially in the Internet age. The Ken Auletta piece in The New Yorker was fascinating to me because it painted an awfully childish tycoon who doesn’t seem to like the way he world is changing. Nonetheless, notice that most of the world’s big companies–from General Electric to Disney to Microsoft–are riveted by the Internet, as well they should be. As the song from my favorite musical, West Side Story, goes, “Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it’s going to be great.” In other words, this ain’t no CB radio, the much maligned craze that the Internet was often compared to in its early days. But consider the parallels–handles were nothing more than screen names, the banter was a version of chat rooms, and instant community was created from nothing. Hey, maybe it is CB radio that is more important than the printing press.

10-4, good buddy,