On Sept 27th, I went along to the one day Spiked-Online conference on the subject "Don't Blow IT". This was the culmination of series of evening seminars on different aspects of IT. In the end the predominant theme of the day was "IT and Privacy" especially in the light of September 11th and the sometimes ludicrous proposals from various governments. The conference effectively broek down to three themes.

  • Technophilia, technophobia and Beyond the Internet Bubble
  • Knowledge in the Information age
  • Privacy, Freedom and IT

    Beyond the Internet Bubble
    Helen Guldberg kicked this off with a brief comment "The web and internet is a content distribution and communications medium, but also a deliverer of mis-information and an aid to terror organizations.

    Phil Mullen of Cybercafe led us through an analysis of what really went on in the Internet bubble. The over-riding comment from him was that far from doing too much in the last few years we in fact did not move far or fast enough. We were dominated in our society by scarcity thinking, by the "need for balance"; in a "new paradigm of economic restraint"; by too little focussed investment; by an awareness of (self imposed) limits to growth. This may seem strange when the era was trumpeted by Wired and others as "The Long Boom". But the reality was that growth as a % of GDP was actually lower than the booms in the 70s and 80s. The irony here is that we had too superficial a party, but we still have to endure the hangover.

    The key factors involved this time around were:-
  • Financial Expansion - Cheap money which extended credit, growth in importance of the CFO, 7* growth in fund management, A move by industry into finance and using finance to secure growth via acquisition.
  • Short Termism - This quarter's results are more important than 10 year plans. The catch-phrase "Internet time" sums this up as "The long term is for losers". The web was the ideal "quick fix" that would "enhance share holder value".
  • Uncertainty and caution - Industry became risk-averse. This exagerates an over-reaction to events.

    The major effect here was that the 90s internet bubble was a financial bubble, not a technical bubble, even though it was tech companies that led it. Previous periods of disruptive technologies (such as the railroads or telephones) and the bubbles they spawned at least left behind a physical infrastructure. This time around the bubble left only virtual infrastructure with little real physical capacity leftover. So in the end the Internet bubble can be seen more as a mechanism for the re-distribution of wealth. The Internet acted as an intermediary as money was funneled from financial institutions and investors to support industries such as consultancy and advertizing.

    So as we come out of this period, we are stuck with an over-reaction to a mythical down turn. We must challenge "restraint in all it's forms". Ultimately, business' greatest threat is fear. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of failure. Self-restraint and self-censorship is the enemy and will do more harm than any unwarranted optimism.

    During question time, the audience warmed to this and raised a number of points. One of the more interesting was a comparison between the current prevailing mood of pessimism and the unbridled optimism of the 50s and 60s. Then, a "Good old fashioned future" was hugely optimistic in the belief that the future would be better than the present. This used any dissatisfaction with the present as a driving force for improvement, not as a reason to hold back. But now we have a generation that has grown up with Nader's "Unsafe at any speed", Schumacher's "Small is beautiful" and a belief that there are "Limits to growth". And we have a series of events that meant that we could no longer visualise a future. We could not imagine what life would be like after 2000, after 2012, post Sept 11th. If we don't *believe* that there is a better future ahead of us, how can we summon the energy to create it? As someone said, "Pessimism and Optimism are both self fulfilling prophesies. Choose one". Another aspect of the 50s and 60s (and the New Deal in the 30s) was the promotion of grand projects. "Irrigate LA", "Fly to the Moon", "Beat the Russians". Perhaps mankind needs similar long term goals to kick us into action again. The "War on Terrorism" is somewhat negative here. What about "Feed the world", "Clean water for everyone", "Wipe out disease". Or even perhaps "Internet access for everyone".

    go to Part II

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