How the Internet is Transforming
the Workplace and Business Relationships
Maastricht, October, 2002

Peter W. Van Ness
Founder and President
Van Ness Group, Inc.


31 years ago I wrote my first computer program. It was part of an experiment. IBM had donated 5 terminals to my high school. These "terminals" were no more than IBM Selectric typewriters, which connected (via acoustic coupler modems at 110 baud) to a 360 mainframe at their Armonk, NY headquarters, just over 50 miles away. The program was a simple game.

I don't know how the people at IBM felt, but for me, the experiment was a success. I have never forgotten the exhilaration I felt simply knowing that I was connected to that distant mainframe along with everyone else who was using it. I could write one-line "messages" to anyone on the system whose "handle" I knew (mine was 9129:D). What I didn't know was that the scientists and researchers who were connected to each other via ARPANET (the two-year-old Internet sponsored by the US Department of Defense) had by then mutated it into an electronic post office, mostly for personal communication. They too were far more enthusiastic about this feature than mere long-distance computing.

A few weeks after we began the experiment, two tall, stern FBI agents, in dark suits, visited our school. It seems that a buddy of mine had written a rather offensive message full of expletives intended for me. The problem was that he reversed the last 2 digits of my handle and accidentally sent the tongue-and-cheek note to a professor in Virginia who had a lot of clout, but little sense of humor. A few "Yes Sirs, No Sirs" easily mollified the FBI, but not me. I was flabbergasted to discover that while on the 360, my friends and I were connected with people as far away as Virginia. That realization propelled my journey forward.

18 months later, I narrowly escaped arrest for trespassing on IBM's property. I was part of a small, but vocal, demonstration against IBM's use of their 360s to "run the war" in Viet Nam. I was still programming the 360, but my propitious expectations had clashed with a stark reality and my journey's direction changed.

After 12 years of exploration into spiritual disciplines, various careers and family life, I found myself once again programming computers. It was 1984 and my newly found partner and mentor had programmed the LEM simulator in the late 1960's after joining NASA to avoid the draft. Ever on the lookout for Big Brother, we hailed the advent of micro-computers as a means of empowering small businesses to develop their own, private databases.

None of our clients had email, few had even heard of the Internet and the Web did not exist. Our use of the Internet was limited, primarily to CompuServe. We didn't know it, but while we were building systems to run on private, centralized local-area-networks, Tim Berners-Lee was beginning to tinker with "weblike" software at CERN in the hopes that "a web of links could spread evenly across the globe."1 His dream was to connect all those private networks into a decentralized web available to everyone.

In 1994, having invented the Web five years earlier, Tim Berners-Lee founded the World-Wide-Web Consortium. While he applauded the development of commercial applications for the Web, Berners-Lee vowed to keep the Web itself free, thereby ensuring its evolution into the ubiquitous communication tool we all use today.

Although neither my company nor my clients had any Web sites, we slowly began to embrace email during that same ten year period. My first reaction to email was mixed. I often preferred the telephone or face-to-face meetings and felt that some of my employees were hiding behind the keyboard, using email to avoid difficult conversations. Many of my clients limited email to internal use only and, citing security fears, refused to allow employees to exchange emails with anyone outside the company.

Speed, efficiency, broad adoption and Berners-Lee's vision of a free and uninhibited Web quickly won me over. Within 3 years, I considered email something I could not live without and I began to tell my clients and my investors that we all needed to get onto the Web in order to survive in this new world of 24/7/365.

When did our expectations change? Without noticing it, we have all come to expect instantaneous access to information and each other when ever and where ever we want it - regardless of the time of day or night. Instant messaging (IM), once solely the domain of cyber-teens, is now becoming a serious business tool, with "IM Enterprise Solutions" the subject of new conferences worldwide. Portable devices, such as PDAs and Web-enabled mobile phones connect us everywhere we go and contribute to the ever more prevalent attitude that there is no excuse for being out of touch. My 17 year old daughter points out that if you ever need to know something you can always look it up - and she's not referring to an encyclopedia or the library. When she goes out, she takes her cell phone and leaves her IM "away message" on. So do most of her friends, including kids from other states and people she met while in Australia. She, along with a growing population of teenagers worldwide, is part of a global community of friends - and she has known nothing else.

This new expectation that we must always be "connected" - indeed, an intolerance for being out of touch - is having a profound effect on the way we work and play and is reshaping our image of ourselves. Just as the pictures of Earth from the Moon made us feel like one community of people, privileged to inhabit this rare and beautiful planet, these attitudes have sparked a new sense of interconnectedness, without which we feel isolated. As with many other technological advances, we suddenly find ourselves bound to a new necessity of life.

Just in case this new obligation has crept up on you without being noticed consciously, ask yourself the following questions:

Debate has been raging for years about the effect of the Internet on society and our daily lives. The Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) and the University of Maryland's Internet Scholars Program have jointly launched a new academic journal titled IT&Society, which is "…devoted to the scientific analysis of the social impact of information technology on society…." Studies documented in their first issue (September 2002) seem to suggest that early fears of increased isolation and anti-social behaviors resulting from Internet use were unfounded and, by contrast, the Internet serves to enhance community where ever it is used and to lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation among its users. Other studies seem to suggest the opposite. Most interestingly, though, is the fact that a majority of the 20 studies documented show that, whether we like it or not, the Internet is being integrated into our daily lives. Essentially, the Internet is quickly becoming a fact of life for most people in the developed world.

Unlike any other form of mass communication, the Internet is interactive. Even the telephone is generally used by only two people at a time. By contrast, the Internet is available to everyone at once and we need not be connected at the same time in order to interact with one another. These remarkable features demolish, for the first time, certain restrictions of time and space that books, radio and TV left untouched. Community is once again being redefined - transforming from a group of people brought together by physical space into a virtual space containing everyone who shares a common need or business or passion. One more step toward Marshall McLuhan's global village.

The Web's interactivity raises our expectations even higher. Not only do we expect to be able to find anything we want when ever we want it, we now expect to be able to interact with everyone and everything we encounter on the Web. If we're looking for music, we expect to hear it, share it with friends, see what other people think of it and make our comments known to all - even the musician. When planning a trip, we expect to see where we're going (live if possible) and book travel, hotels and activities.

Now we expect to find community on-line. Nearly every consulting firm and numerous studies tout the value of community in creating site "stickiness" (bringing the same visitors back to your site). Community on the Web would not exist with out interactivity.

The interactive nature of the Web, combined with the fact that it is available to almost everyone almost all the time, has created new attitudes and expectations among those of us who use it.

What does all this mean to business people and their relationships with their customers? Today businesses are expected to have an on-line presence and their customers expect to be able to transact business at their convenience. Of course, the Web makes it nearly as easy for small businesses to develop an interactive, on-line presence as it is for large ones, thereby removing the monopoly on worldwide publicity and presence previously enjoyed by large corporations. But the fact remains, large or small, business customers will no longer tolerate being out of touch with those who provide them with products and services. Furthermore, the Web provides most consumers with more opportunity than ever to switch to a provider who can meet their needs. The power is slowly shifting in favor of consumers.

The big 5 record labels 2 feel especially hard hit by the Web. Since Edison's phonograph, large companies have controlled both the medium and distribution of recorded music. That is, until 1999 when CD burners became standard equipment on new computers, MP3 became the standard format for music on the Web and Napster introduced millions of people to music file swapping. In one fell swoop, nearly 100 years of control was yanked away from record companies and dropped into the hands of consumers.

The big 5 are now trying to get it back using the courts, legislation, new encryption technology and by developing their own music subscription services (pressplay and musicnet). But their crushing defeat of Napster along with other bullying techniques is producing a groundswell of opposition, partly because of the Web sites that will no longer allow them to maneuver undetected by the public eye.

On the Web, small, "indie" labels have the potential to reach the very same audience as large companies. For musicians, the Web offers viable business alternatives to being "signed" by a label.3 This is especially good news because, for the majority of signed musicians, a record contract doesn't turn out to be as lucrative as most people believe.

Is this the "power to the people" that John Lennon envisioned in 1971 (the year I wrote my first program)?

I believe the answer is: sort of, but...

In general, these examples represent good news for most of us and illustrate the new, more level playing field on which business will compete over the next few decades. However, a more level playing field by no means guarantees smooth sailing for small businesses, developing countries and "the people".

Huge, multi-national corporations still control much of the infrastructure and software on which the Internet depends. For example, by some estimates, WorldCom's UUNET backbone carries 40% of all Internet traffic and 96% of all web surfers use Microsoft's Internet Explorer. This presents us with a dilemma. On the one hand, the concentration of power in the hands of a few large corporations can be dangerous. On the other hand, too many different, competing systems could impede the adoption of standards, making it far more difficult for small developers to bring innovative products and solutions to market and for users to communicate with one another.

Of far more concern is the serious lack of privacy protection. More and more companies are publishing privacy policies on their Web sites, but if you look closely at most of them, you will find all sorts of wiggle room. The brutal truth is that most companies don't really want to protect your privacy. To many companies, your personal data is more valuable than your business. Just notice the ever increasing amount of spam in your inbox and remember that every unsolicited email you receive has most likely been sent by a company who paid for your address.

Your email address may be the most trivial piece of data about you that is on the Web. For less than the cost of a magazine subscription, anyone can purchase your most private data - medical records, complete financial portfolio, purchasing habits, a list of Web sites you visit frequently, just to name a few. What's more, this same data is readily available to your government, your employer and most businesses, such as insurance companies and financial institutions. Attempts to enact legislation in the US that would protect privacy have failed and reaction to recent world events bodes ill for privacy protection. Making our views on privacy known to our governments is becoming paramount.

Personally, I feel that privacy protection must become a priority for all of us. For our part, Van Ness Group refuses to take any client who does not promise to keep their customers' data strictly private. While we offer opt-in newsletter services, we refuse to spam and we take steps to secure the participants' data. We write simple, plain-language, air-tight privacy policies for most of our clients and have been successful in convincing them that protecting privacy and avoiding spam is good for business in the long run.

If we fail to secure our privacy now, it will become even more difficult as the Semantic Web evolves. Promoted by Tim Berners-Lee and the W3C, the Semantic Web, will empower users to instruct automated "agents" to search the Web on their own, retrieve and organize information, schedule appointments and even help other trusted agents do the same. Quoting from a May 17, 2001 article he co-authored for Scientific American, "The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation."

Many Web sites already change and grow as a result of each visitor's interaction, giving the Web an almost lifelike quality. Imagine how much more lifelike the Web will seem once we rely on these agents to do our research, schedule our appointments, alert our friends and colleagues when something of interest is found, and who knows what else. In the current vision of the Semantic Web, users will instruct these agents to recognize and "understand" certain keywords that are put into Web sites by their authors (much the same way as Meta Tags are used today to inform search engines). At some point, in the not too distant future, developers will want to see if they can program these agents to understand the content in the body of a Web site. For example, this paper is the content. Given enough time, agents could be directed to "read" everything they can find on a given topic and inform us about it when we ask. Who knows what effect this will have both on the Web and on us.

We have seen the Internet evolve in less than 40 years from a tiny, secret connection of 4 computer nodes to a worldwide web of over 162 million servers containing over 3 billion "pages" of information and connecting nearly 600 million people with each other.

It has been a colossal experiment and we are as much the subjects as is the Web itself. Every time we use the Web it changes, and it changes us at the same time. This gives us a glimpse into the Web's true nature, which is that of a feedback loop that operates much like our own decentralized immune system. Agents of the Semantic Web can be seen as various types of cells that travel around the body of the Web and signal other agents into action when appropriate. If everything we learn about the Web is published on the Web and we are able to program these agents to understand it, could the Web become conscious of itself?

It is certainly too early to speculate about that, but I propose we continue the experiment by doing our very best to build sites that engage us, while, at the same time, striving to understand why we are so engaged.

Notes:


1 Berners-Lee, T. with Mark Fischetti (1999).  Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor.  NY: HarperCollins

2The Big 5 Recording Labels are: Warner Music Group, BMG Entertainment, Emi Recorded Music, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment

3 For example, Big Record Promoter, Broadjam, Tonos and Vitaminic