The Internet's three positive principles

Now that legions of Internet workers - including me - are unemployed, I'm frequently asked about the Internet's future.

True, maybe people aren't as eager to buy dog food or patio furniture online as we may have thought a year ago. But the Internet's impact remains profound - and highly beneficial. Three positive principles fostered by the Internet have altered the way we live and do business: linking everything, closing the loop, and empowering individuals.

Linking everything: When the Defense Department launched ARPANET, the Internet's precursor, in 1969, the government made a conscious decision not to set rules for its use. Rather, rules evolved through a collaborative effort by users in government, academia, and corporations. Today, that spirit of cooperation and the ease of linkage the Web allows are altering competition and society.

Early in the 1990s, cheap Russian imports threatened Boeing's Rocketdyne engine unit. Boeing responded by making its design process for engines collaborative. Previously, its engineers designed the engines, then turned them over to suppliers, who made the parts. Today, Rocketdyne's "extranet" - a portion of their intranet that's available by password to authorized outsiders - involves suppliers throughout the design process.

Team members work concurrently instead of sequentially, and everyone has access to relevant information.

The payoffs for Rocketdyne are astonishing: Prototype costs were cut from $1.4 million to only $50,000, the number of parts in an engine went from 140 to five, and design time was cut from seven person years to less than one.

Linking information is just as important as linking people. As Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web's father, wrote, "The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information."

Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, captured that spirit in his announcement last week that the university would make most course content available - for free - on the Web: "It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate."

I suspect the Internet's most fundamental contribution to progress may be this ability to link ideas formerly isolated from one another. That will facilitate inclusive solutions to complex issues that would be impossible with piecemeal approaches.

Closing the loop: The Internet is truly a web that makes it as easy to respond as to initiate. That contrasts with the old "linear fashion" of working and governing, when feedback by users of a product or citizens affected by a government program rarely reached those creating the goods and services.

Now it is easy to feed back information and make quick revisions. For example, in Massachusetts, the company Systems Engineering Inc. designed a website with linkages that allows social workers to track and coordinate all the relevant services available to help at-risk youths, and then monitor their progress and fine tune the combination of services.

Similarly, Adobe software designers don't guess what customers might want in upgrades. They simply monitor their "user to user" forums to learn about real-life problems that can't be anticipated in the lab.

Empowering the individual: One student, Sean Fanning, brought the music industry to its knees when he leveraged that empowerment to share music with friends. Mr. Fanning's product, Napster - a free system for downloading and sharing music via the Internet - is on the legal ropes, but the industry's victory is Pyrrhic.

Other new Web-based systems facilitate sharing without needing a single website, which is vulnerable to lawsuits.

Xerox Corp. saves millions in repair costs by using a knowledge-management system, Eureka, which works because it gives individual workers power to contribute to it. Originally resisted by senior management, Eureka lets field service people contribute their own solutions to real-world problems to a database that's instantly available to their peers.

Field rep Chuck Rutkowski told Darwin Magazine that he uses Eureka daily because the information comes from his counterparts: "If I want to know what temperature the water is, I'm going to ask the guys splashing around in the water, not the guy standing on shore."

If the "irrational exuberance" about the Internet has been dashed, that's not all bad. Maybe the English language can be spared those abominable "e-" and "i-" words.

But I'd say a technology that can create a society and economy in which we are all interdependent, where "virtuous circles" speed beneficial change, and, most important, where individuals are valued and empowered, really does change everything - for the better.

W. David Stephenson is an Internet strategist and futurist. He also teaches Internet strategy courses at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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