As we step into the 21 st century, I’m having a paroxysm of Luddite-ism. Maybe it’s millennium fever that has me feeling so philosophical. Maybe it’s the AOL/Time Warner megamerger, which promises even further consolidation of our media outlets and “corporatization” of the Internet.
Or maybe it was the announcement that Cisco Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and GTE Corp. made recently at the Consumer Electronics Show about their Internet Home Platform. According to the press release, this platform is for “building high-speed home networks that support New World services.” By bringing “always on” Internet access to our residences, these companies will help us access new Internet activities throughout our homes, such as downloading recipes to our built-in ovens and monitoring our home security. Cisco also plans to work with Whirlpool to build Internet-ready home appliances, such as refrigerators and ovens, which will go into Internet homes that Cisco will work with home builders to construct.
Is this what we want from the Internet? Don’t get me wrong, I take advantage of the wide range of information available over the Internet, from IETF documents to tips for getting my kids to do their homework. But I don’t want an Internet-based existence. Call me Old World, but I like to adjust the thermostat myself and to feel the texture of a blanket before I buy it. I don’t see a burning need for an Internet-connected home so that I can remotely control my VCR.
Perhaps what’s really bugging me is that the current telecommunications gold rush is exacerbating what is already a huge income gap in this country and around the world. Stock mania, coupled with a still hot acquisitions and mergers scene, has turned many folks into instant millionaires. Lawyers and other professionals are leaving their traditional jobs in droves hoping to hit it big with stock from some Internet start-up. For those of us who live near Silicon Valley, all this instant paper wealth translates to a housing crunch where a two-bedroom starter home will set you back a half-million bucks.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans enjoyed 86 per cent of the stock market’s gains in recent years. Thanks in part to a hot technology market, the U.S. has 66 billionaires; meanwhile, 31.5 million people are living below the poverty line. The idea of a networked home perpetually connected to the Internet seems absurd in light of the reality that half of the world’s people are trying to scrape by on $2 a day. Do any of us really need a refrigerator that can tell us when the milk runs out? Does anybody really believe Agilent Technologies is worth US$37 billion?
Clearly the Internet and related telecommunications developments are having a major impact on our economy and society, and will for the foreseeable future. Certainly there is some significant social good that can come from the technology, such as remote medicine and distance learning, but I shudder when I read the prognostications of folks such as Ray Kurzweil and Esther Dyson, who expect the Internet to become the basis of everything. Visions of information junkies dance through my head; public service advertisements will run on TV urging Internet addicts to just unplug.
I hope we don’t get to the point where each of us is wearing our own personal LAN with wireless Internet access. I don’t want a computerized heart monitor in my jogging shorts. I don’t want a Web interface on my watch telling me I have 10 unread e-mail messages. In fact, sometimes I don’t even want to know what time it is.
Fortunately, I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that, even at Internet speeds, technology usually takes longer to develop and deploy than we think. Hopefully, this delay will give us time to figure out how to use this technology for social good, not just to feed consumerism – and time to educate ourselves and our children to turn off the computers, cell phones, personal assistants and who knows what else and just take a walk.
Petrosky is an independent technology analyst based in San Mateo, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].