Friends can be a mixed blessing.
The other day, I went to lunch with a friend I haven't seen in years. Over my patty melt and his chili dog, we brought each other up to date on our interests and activities. As with many a friendly lunch I've had lately, the conversation soon turned to two subjects that are dear to my heart—the Internet and Star Trek.
At first, we discussed the Internet and how it will change the way we live. Among other things, we talked of how the Net culture of "free" has permeated the web—even the once high-flying dotcoms look more like nonprofit organizations these days. He wondered how long this "free thing" was going to last on the web. I thought a second and responded with, "How long will the 'paying' thing last in the real world?"
Being a true capitalist and entrepreneur, he looked at me like I had two heads.
I told him I was a firm believer in the vision of Star Trek, reminding him that when Kirk was asked in the movie Star Trek IV whether they used money in the 23rd century, he replied, "We don't!" In Star Trek's 23rd century, people don't work for money—they work to improve themselves and the common good. Technology has advanced to the point that people don't have to work; all their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and safety are met—for free. I told my friend that I believe the Internet culture we see today is a long thin shadow cast backward from the future, giving us a glimmer of a world yet to be, and that "free" is not going to be the exception, but the rule.
He called me a socialist.
He then reminded me that even as we speak the idea of the "free" Internet is being challenged by e-businesses that are looking for ways to charge for the content and experience they offer Netizens. And what did I think of that?
I admitted that some of the free Net experiments didn't turn out as well as expected—for example, free PCs and free Internet access. But these were just experiments, and others such as free operating systems (Linux) and free software applications (StarOffice 5.0) have been joined by peer-to-peer exchange networks such as Gnutella.
He called me a democrat.
He then asked what people would do with all their free time, if not work for a living?
I replied that Net technologies will let people explore their creative side. Anyone can record, publish, and sell their MP3 music over the web, or create Internet radio shows and TV stations with Real Audio servers, and videos with Real Video. Journalism as we know it will change because of the Net. New technologies such as Blogger give users a free and easy way of posting daily thoughts on anything and everything. The key part of the blog experience is linking to and providing commentary on stories or other content elsewhere on the web, thus connecting these new "reporters" to each other.
He called me a republican.
I finished my diatribe by saying that people in the 23rd century, once freed from the need to work for a living, will explore their abilities and share their skills to improve themselves and their communities, and children will be taught from an early age to reach their full potential.
He called me an idealist.
I told him that I couldn't say what organizational forms and institutions would exist to accomplish all this—no one has yet detailed the socioeconomic basis of the Star Trek culture. But I believe that these institutions and organizations will come to pass. I then said that our current economic, social, and political ideas are based on the concept of scarcity—that there's not enough of everything to go around. But that's not what the Internet shows us. With as little as an Internet connection, a universe of opportunity opens for individuals, filled with sophisticated technologies at their beck and call:
Want to be a publisher? You can set up a free web site at Yahoo! Geocities or About.com and tell the world about yourself, your family, your interests and concerns—or establish a protest and spread the word. You don't even need to know a coding language to create and maintain your web site. In fact, you don't even need to go to a server on the web to set up your own web site, with the advent of peer-to-peer technologies like Gnutella. These "content-on-the-edge" technologies allow users to search for and exchange various information directly from the desktop, without setting up a web site or uploading files to a server. You can set up your own web site on your PC, in essence becoming your own web page server. Think how this will affect sites like Yahoo!, Angelfire, and Tripod in the future. Gnutella enables real-time searches of vast libraries of content. That's in stark contrast to current search engines such as Excite and AltaVista, which use Webcrawlers to search one site at a time. It takes weeks or months for a search engine to crawl the web and add new web sites. Gnutella's peer-to-peer network works like the old game of telephone. A user's computer is connected directly to 20 others, and those in turn are connected to 20 more, for a total of 400. Add only two more layers, and the original computer can talk to 160,000 computers on the network. It also means virtually no dead links. That's something not even today's search engines can claim.
Or how about becoming a popular commentator, like George Will or Walter Cronkite? Anyone can keep a running diary of daily thoughts or tirades searchable by fellow commentators on NewsBlogger. NewsBlogger is like an information food chain. When an article is produced, it's indexed and brought to the attention of a web Blogger. He or she then adds the selection and commentary to create a new, repackaged information product.
Got that great American novel under your bed? You can publish it on the Net in the form of an e-book that readers can buy and download onto their computers (see http://myks.sitesell.com). Or perhaps you want to be the next radio personality, like Howard Stern? No problem. Create your own Internet radio station and listen to thousands of stations created by others at Live365.com, where broadcasters, artists, and fans can interact with each other. With just an Internet connection and a computer, anyone can instantly become a DJ, talk show host, or stand-up comedian. At Live365.com, you can broadcast live, or you can make a station, and they'll broadcast it for you—for free.
Take these "free" Net service ideas and throw in the revenue-generating opportunities of affiliate marketing—selling other companies' products and services from a web site for a piece of the action—and you have the makings of a new business model for a new digital economy.
No, I said to my friend. You can't stop this online freedom train just because companies can't make their tired old business concepts translate well to the new digital economy. In the end, I believe that the free Net will prevail and that Net-empowered individuals will be rewriting the rules of how we'll survive and thrive in a new economy that will unfold over the next 100 years.
Shaking his head in disbelief, he called me a dreamer.
So what's a few words between friends?