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New(d) Economy

From the editor in chief
March 1, 2001

The Internet changes everything. “E-tailing.” “Stock options-not salary!” “Dot-com billionaire.” “Cyberspace.” “Internet time.” “B2C.” “Free Agent Nation.” “New Economy.” Like the language of some Stone Age culture unearthed by an enterprising anthropologist after a five-day canoe trip upriver into the jungle, the vernacular of Internet hysteria is a whisper from another era, a language with a thousand words for Web and not a single word for profit.

Of all the drivel that passed for visionary wisdom during the recent Internet psychosis, perhaps the sorriest was the idea of a “New Economy,” based on the Web, that was going to colonize, dominate and finally dispatch an “Old Economy” rooted in antiquities such as cars, chemicals, copper wire-and clothing. That’s the problem: this concept had no clothes. It was the Emperor’s New Economy the whole time. But in the frenzy of the moment, few had the courage to say so.

For the record, this magazine has never been too impressed by the New(d) Economy. We are, of course, a technology publication, and we believe in the value and power of emerging technology. But our take on that power has little to do with heavy-breathing about the New Economy.

First of all, we don’t think there is any such thing as a New Economy separate and distinct from some other, Old Economy. As Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO, put it in the superb interview by Bob Buderi we published in our last issue (What New Economy?”, TR January/February 2001), the Internet will ultimately have a significant impact on how we live and do business. It will have that impact, however, not by carving out some new “space” we all migrate to but by transforming the way existing industries do business.

As Michael Dertouzos, another New Economy skeptic and frequent contributor to this magazine, likes to put it, when the automobile was invented, we didn’t enter “autospace.” We started driving, and ultimately the automobile did change many things. But not by creating “autospace.” The same could be said of electric power or the telephone. There is no reason to think the Internet is going to be more transformative than these technologies.

Furthermore, in the New(d) Economy there isn’t nearly enough attention given to human beings and their needs. It’s a mirror world in which whatever is “cool” is produced. But information technology (like any other technology) is valuable only insofar as it satisfies human needs. There’s no point in expending energy on things like ordering pet food online. Or storing your rolodex in your running shoe. Or having your refrigerator order your groceries.

As Dertouzos argued forcefully in his TR column “The People’s Computer,” machines exist to serve us, not the other way around. And the real Information Age will begin when the huge amount of repetitive data shuffling (i.e. office work) that humans now do begins to be done automatically by machines. Dertouzos’s theme has been taken up by Michael Hawley in his column “Things that Matter.”

Don’t get me wrong: Technology Review believes technologies now on the horizon will make our lives very different. But that will happen only to the extent that these new tools respect human history and satisfy human needs-for more leisure, better health, freedom from drudgery, better communication with other human beings. Such changes won’t by any means result only from information technology. One of the biggest New Economy blind spots is the failure to understand that information technology, while hot now, is only one of the major technologies that together will indeed “change everything.” Two other fields we believe are destined to rise to the same level-and that consequently get a large share of this magazine’s attention-are biotechnology and nanotechnology.

But the really profound changes will happen slowly, over a half century or more, and they won’t happen in some arcane “space” of their own. They will happen right here where we all live and work and love. And when that transformation is over, only anthropologists will remember the dead language of the New(d) Economy.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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