The Net Changes (Almost) Nothing

The Net Changes (Almost) Nothing

I'm a contrarian by nature. If someone comments on the lovely weather we're having, I'll automatically point out the nimbo-cumulus monsters on the far horizon. If clouds are the topic of discussion, I'll be eager to find that small ray of sunshine peeking through. Perhaps I should have been a lawyer, inflicting my argumentative views on opposing counsel rather than on innocent bystanders.

But there are some areas of life in which it's been particularly difficult to be a contrarian of late. The stock market is one. God knows I've tried-I would have even shorted Dell Computer if I knew how to call a put (or is it put a shot?), but, fortunately, you can hardly buy a contrarian mutual fund these days. I did, however, go bullish on Japanese mutual funds a few years back, secure in my iconoclastic knowledge that the country's economy couldn't stay down for long.

Another area that's tough to besmirch is the Internet and electronic commerce.

I could have no greater pleasure than to reveal that all this e-frenzy is just a brief bubble in history or a big hoax-perhaps the nefarious creation of Lex Luthor, Superman's nemesis. It depresses me when everything gets better all the time, particularly when I neither invented the Internet nor predicted its incredible rise. Fortunately for my ego, nobody else seems to have predicted it either, and the inventors are either dead or very modest (excepting Al Gore, of course).

That's why, when I read the tag line of a new business/ technology magazine (I won't dignify it by revealing which one) telling me that "The Net Changes Everything," I responded by imagining all the things that the Internet (calling it the "Net" seems like something only tourists do, akin to calling San Francisco "Frisco") is not changing at all. I came to the conclusion that life as we know it is still largely analog (or, for those with a continental flair, analogue).

It's pretty clear to me, for example, that you can't get a meal on the Internet. And given the choice between a supercinnamon bagel from Aesops and a well-designed Web page picture of one from the same company, I'd prefer to hold the virtual cream cheese and slather on the real thing. Besides, the Web page version would no doubt specify the number of calories per serving, since they have to find some information to put on the Web. The calorie level would sound reasonable-only 100 calories per serving-until you read the fine print and learn that there are 22 servings in the average large bagel. Perhaps someday the SML (smelly markup language) standard will make it possible to connect a smell-o-vision peripheral to my FireWire port, and I'll be able to sniff the circle of boiled dough on the screen. But then that would only increase my frustration.

In addition, almost everything you buy on the Internet requires advance planning and deferred gratification. Whether it's a steak dinner, a new car or a little something from Victoria's Secret, I want it now. By the time I actually receive my purchase over the Web, what with downloading delays and then shipping delays, I could have covered every inch of my local mall. Web shopping, it turns out, is very much like catalog shopping, except that the resolution in the aforementioned Victoria's Secret underwear line is much nicer in the catalog. Not to mention that, if I strolled the mall, I would also get some much needed exercise and meet a lot of other geriatric-but-pleasant mall-walkers in their Rockports. Internet exercise won't help me work off that bagel anytime soon. Caloric engineers have calculated that each mouse click consumes .000443 calories. That means that you'd have to stay on ESPN SportsZone for 37 hours to burn the calories in one Cheerio.

Then there's the whole relationship thing. I know it's possible to chat with lechers and other unseemly folk from all walks of life on the Internet, but actually doing it seems silly to me. I entered a chat room once, but the experience felt curiously like conversing on a CB radio, only with typing. I felt compelled to end every session with "That's a big 10-4, good buddy!" Or, as it's known in chat room lingo, "TAB10-4GB." In fact, I've discovered that by using the letters C, N, X, and the German umlaut, you can actually form an emoticon that closely resembles a tractor-trailer, which I always find useful in these CB-like discussions.

I'll admit that I did see the movie You've Got Mail, and the prospect of literate correspondence with a Meg Ryan type is intriguing, despite my happily married status. However, it may be that not every female who walks through the door of a chat room actually looks like Meg Ryan. Were I to stray into digital adultery, I would no doubt be punished with the likes of a Roseanne as my intimate correspondent. Perhaps my wife and I could just simulate the whole thing by sending each other slightly racy e-mails as if we had never met. It would be kinky, but undeniably safe.

Then there's the fact that the Internet really doesn't address the physical dimension of life. Mowing my lawn, for example, seems curiously unaffected by the e-world thus far. And shaving is still pretty much the same, although I am confident that Gillette will eventually announce their Web-enabled Mach 26, with each blade serving as a tiny key for data entry.

And the Internet hasn't affected the fortunes of the Red Sox much (yes, I have ordered tickets through the Web, but that didn't do much to prevent the loss of Mo Vaughn nor last year's incredible performance by the infernal Yankees).

Ordering clothing from LL Bean, the ultimate source for a fashion contrarian, remains constant. Sure, they have a Web site, but the catalog and phone are still much quicker. Besides, not even an infinite number of pixels can make their clothing seem stylish.

Even if you do like the Web for ordering stuff, there's still that pesky step involving delivery. I would be quite willing to buy my groceries by walking down the hypertext aisles of some huge warehouse in Memphis, but I can't imagine somebody loading my Cool Ranch Doritos, Underwood deviled ham and Charmin onto a FedEx airplane. I believe that God will ultimately punish those who shop for staples in this conspicuously consumptive fashion.

The physical component of e-commerce has led several stock analysts to suggest investing in FedEx or UPS. These are great companies, but why follow the crowds? Be a contrarian like me. Invest in the US Postal Service. All those cute little trucks have to be worth something.

My contrarian streak also reminds me that not all of the wired world is really that new. Let's face it-extranets have a lot in common with letting a customer dial into your mainframe, and the "extended e-enterprise" is very similar to EDI. Then there's my really retrograde view that newfangled "application service providers" or "netsourcers" seem to have a lot in common with the service bureaus of the '70s. Anyway, the notion of e-commerce has become any way that you use technology to buy and sell products, and it really doesn't seem to matter whether the bits are delivered over the Internet, a satellite or a taut waxed string.

What is truly impressive and different about the Internet is the ease of getting information. The questions are, Do you really need it, and Will it change your behavior? For example, last night my sons had a contentious argument about whether you could legally hit someone on the head with your stick in a lacrosse game. I hardly know how to spell lacrosse, so I couldn't resolve the debate in my usual Solomon-like fashion. A $10 bet was placed on the matter-a surprising level of commitment in view of the fact that neither child actually plays lacrosse. My older son, who owns nary a lacrosse stick but does own a cable modem Internet connection, "Asked Jeeves" about lacrosse rules. Very quickly he found that you can't legally beat someone about the head with a stick, which raises my opinion somewhat of the game. However, my younger son refused to pay up, claiming that the rules were really for women or for field hockey. So what has really changed? Digital information exchange, as much as we in the IT biz would like to believe otherwise, is still a small chunk of life. An MIT survey from 1996 once found that personal computers are ranked in the top 10 among inventions that have affected modern life. The sobering part is that they were ranked number 4, alongside the blow-dryer and aspirin.

All this skepticism, however, doesn't mean that some potential Internet advances wouldn't really impress me. What I'm waiting for is Internet teleportation. If you could take my corporeal mass and turn it into packets, that would get my attention. I would even tolerate a few lost packets and a little turbulence through the router.

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