Blinded to both the limitations and the real potential of IT, we risk squandering an opportunity of the century.
From a technical perspective information technology (IT) represents the most important technology of the last third of the twentieth century.
While it might not warrant the breathless hype about a ‘third wave’ of economic revolution on a par with the agrarian and industrial revolutions, it certainly justifies an exalted place in any history of technology of the past 200 years.
But we are in danger of squandering IT’s potential. And the biggest problem standing in the way of its greater use has nothing to do with the technology – the major barrier is society’s disdain for human-driven change at the turn of the millennium.
In a number of ways society seems to have difficulty realising the genuine possibilities of IT.
Consider how the internet has been heralded as a solution to just about every major social problem, from global poverty to electoral disenchantment to educational standards. Focusing on technical solutions to social and cultural problems sidetracks IT from what it could be really good at: raising social productivity by revolutionising production techniques and promoting human cooperation.
And today’s culture in politics and business is inimical to the long-term investment in time and resources needed for IT to develop. So the web has been used for its most ‘quick result’ opportunities, and has been underutilised for lack of a business culture of strategic thinking and planning.
But the most immediate illustration of the social roadblocks hindering the deployment of IT is the negativity with which the new technologies are now being seen, in the current mood of economic pessimism. The about-turn in sentiment towards the internet from the dotcom frenzy of 1999 and early 2000 to the dotcom gloom of today, is significant in illustrating not just the shallowness of the earlier hype, but the strength of the social impulse to rein back.
And just as the initial hype about IT’s ‘revolutionary’ implications blinded people to its strategic requirements, so the more recent popping of the New Economy bubble is encouraging unjustified gloom and will further postpone its proper deployment.
Is the world economy really in such bad form? The immediate danger seems to be that the USA will talk itself into a sharp recession, and bring the rest of the world down with it. The fear of a recessionary hard landing in the USA was initially exaggerated when it took off in the latter part of 2000, but it could become self-fulfilling.
To point to ‘exaggeration’ is not to say the world economy is in perfect shape. But the fundamentals of the US economy and the businesses that drive it are still reasonably robust. What should be clear is that the US economy is neither stuck in slump nor overheating.
Yet all the talk, especially in the USA, is of the unfolding recession. Every bit of economic news is interpreted in the worst light. And the catalyst for all this was the puncturing of the dotcom bubble during the spring and summer of 2000.
When we read every day of another dotcom company closing or laying off a big chunk of its workforce, it is deduced that the whole e-business idea was a fraud. But the real facts so far are that dotcom companies are surviving better than most new businesses. Half of new businesses never make it to their fifth birthday and most of these don’t last even two years. Yet the dotcom survival rate after 18 months stands at about 90 percent.
While the earlier techno-utopian approach to IT owed much more to perception than reality, the more gloomy recessionary sentiment now doing the rounds won’t help us to break free from the real scenario of inadequate technological innovation.
A ‘hold back’, let’s-not-risk-the-consequences, precautionary principle prevails, and continues to be a huge handicap holding back the prolonged creative and experimental path required to be pursued by man to make the most of our new technologies.
We have hardly started the year 2001 – yet already we risk wasting an opportunity of the century.
Phil Mullan is the author of The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population Is Not a Social Problem, IB Tauris, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))
- Part one: Information society – frequently un-asked questions
- Part two: New Economy – what’s new?
- Part three: Technophobia and technophilia – the dynamic of restraint
- Part four: IT’s potential – computing and communications
- Part five: IT’s potential – the internet
- Part six: From dotcom boom to dotgloom
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