The Breakfast Table

What the Net Hath Wrought

Dear Joe,

Well, I guess we probably will not ever agree. But I only need to use your examples as proof that what the Internet has wrought in an unbelievably short time has been profound–the entire computer industry (as evidenced by Michael Dell’s success) has been turned on its ear, the retail industry is reeling (did you see the many news stories today about Nordstrom’s striking a deal with a well-known Silicon Valley venture firm to jumpstart its Web efforts?), and traditional media companies are in full-scale alert.

Consider the daily impact of AOL, which has risen from obscurity to disdain to prominence in only five years. I think you don’t even have to take a poll of America’s top execs to get them to agree that they think this company is an important one these days. Consider its rivals as the best indicator–right now, both Microsoft and AT&T have painted a big red target on AOL and are taking aim on multiple fronts.

And why is this? Because, finally, after all those years of promises, the interactive age is upon us. I used to joke that the idea of interactive television has been around since I had been a fetus, but that it never seemed to work. Now, pretty much every major communications company is formulating plans to shove a fully loaded digital set-top box into America’s living rooms to move interactive services from the computer to the television–or any device in the house, really. Did you hear about the Internet refrigerator that links to grocery sites? Of course, I am probably the only one who thinks this is a good idea. It’s clear to me that either via a plethora of wires or satellite or wireless means, we are all going to be plugged in more than ever before in the coming years. I myself am a cell phone freak, who cannot imagine being without my little Nokia 6160. Relying on cell phones completely, I had even abandoned land-line phones from the local telephone provider until I was recently forced to link up again to get high-speed Internet access over telephones. I used to be mocked for my cell addiction, but now I am regularly sought after for advice on just which plan to get.

But to a bigger point, we should all think about what this means to society and its citizens on a more personal level. For this, I turn to an article in the New York Times today about an outbreak of syphilis in San Francisco being linked to one chat room on AOL. Apparently, six men who have contracted the disease have said they met those partners offline after meeting in cyberspace first. To say nothing of the idea that the Internet is replacing the bar as the best place to hook up, the Times asked the more pertinent question: “When does the right to online privacy yield to public health issues?” The big problem is that most of the men knew their infected partners only by their AOL screen names. And AOL, which can identify these customers, was not giving out the real names.

I would be curious what you think of this and perhaps about the broader issues of so much personal information sloshing around about Internet users. The medium is really a marketer’s dream, giving them the ability to glean a lot of highly specific information about people and their habits. A dozen companies and more to come are focused solely on recording and interpreting user patterns.

It also cuts both ways. Several missives ago, you did hit on a good point about the Internet’s being important in giving consumers perfect knowledge about products and, most important, prices. This is another big idea to me and one that I have been waiting to happen for a long time. I was a retail reporter for seven years before I started covering the Internet, and my one major conclusion from the job was that retailers hate customers. Any new system that allows a consumer to take back some of the power that is rightfully theirs to begin with–it is their money, after all–is one I will back immediately. I am particularly taken with the new sites called “demand-driven” retail. In this system, people ask for what they want and the retailers respond rather than being told what they like and don’t like. But is there some problem with this? Will, for example, there eventually be a site dedicated solely to Joe Nocera and his needs? And, dare I ask, what would be on it?