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This chapter is from the book


The rapid deployment of the Internet turned out to be one of the most important developments of the 1990s. Once its features made it relatively easy to use, Americans took to it rapidly in their work and private lives. As the costs of the technology to use the Internet dropped, ever-increasing numbers of Americans could afford to use the network. As a result, more than a third of the population has used the Internet. That rate of deployment, and the increase in regular usage of the Internet by those already on it, is impressive. While it yet does not match the rate of use of telephones and television, usage is more extensive for the short period of time it has been available (really since the middle years of the 1990s) than for comparable early periods of all other information technologies. Deployment of the Internet across American society is not yet complete; various forecasters think we are only somewhere between a third and half done.

The measure may become meaningless if the number of individual machines and information appliances that connect to the Internet rises sharply over the next decade. The traditional measure of deployment has been access to the Internet by an individual using a PC. But with other ways of using the Internet increasing, that definition may no longer hold. Millions of Americans can access the Internet through other people's PCs, for instance college students in the basement computer labs so common in dormitories today, and workers in all fields using intelligent beepers, to mention just two already common examples. We are reaching a point where how many Americans are online is about as relevant as counting how many people have used electricity today. In the early decades of the 20th century, counting how many homes had electricity was important because that data defined potential markets for electrified goods and helped government agencies determine what kinds of programs they needed to foster deployment of this new form of energy. To a large extent we are going through a similar process today with the Internet.

In the second half of the 1990s the federal government became very interested in e-commerce, the extent of usage of the Internet, and in defining digital economic activities. Social policy makers worried about "digital divides," and about what it will mean if someone does not have access to the Internet. Many of these concerns are reminiscent of those discussions held early in the 20th century on electricity, radio, and telephones. If there is a consistent pattern of behavior on the part of public officials at the national level, it is that once a new form of information flow emerges, they want to foster access to it by the largest possible percentage of the American public. That concern motivated many of the initiatives taken by the federal government to provide Internet access in classrooms.

As the European experience with expensive Internet usage demonstrates, the desire of American government officials to drive up the use of electronic commerce makes sense. Expanded use—driven by high-quality, low-cost availability—is a competitive advantage for the U.S. that is not lost on public officials or the private sector. As occurred with other electronic forms of information handling, the rest of the world is slower in adopting this technology. The consequence is serious for them because the United States, already the Internet hub of the world, may dominate electronic commerce. That is the good news for the U.S. The bad news is that Europeans and East Asians have figured this out and are beginning to lower their costs of access to the Internet. Lack of competition, high access fees, an inclination to manage the flow of information, among many issues around the world, suggest that Americans will once again adopt this latest technology faster than others.

The concern over the Internet shown by individuals and public officials, and by those who track the Internet's growth, clearly are proof positive that this new infrastructure is significant and has become an important part of life in the 21st century. Social and economic historians will probably look back on the 21st century and describe a society in which the Internet is as ubiquitous as electricity became in the 20th. A generation of children is growing up not knowing a time when digital things did not exist; only their grandparents live with the memory of most of their lives without such tools. Parents, on the other hand, are the transition generation, in which the first few years of their lives were without PCs and the Internet. However, they had so many other information tools around them: TV, radio, telephones, telegraph, postal systems, newspapers, books, magazines, CDs, tapes, and phonograph records. The antique stores of the 22nd century will probably sell the digital discards of our century as rare and early examples of a new world.

However, the Internet is not as novel as we might be led to believe. As I have tried to demonstrate in these first four chapters, Americans have a history of creating and deploying massive networks of information tools. The pattern is too extensive and too visible to ignore. Regardless of century, political and economic circumstances, or state of science or technology, Americans built these networks for a variety of reasons. Their political belief in the free flow of information was one reason. Practical applications for economic advantage were always important motivators. It is hard to tell whether or not Americans had a proclivity to tinker with technologies in excess of other societies. My guess is they did not. But Americans are a people willing to use technology to solve a great number of their problems. We will see that specific pattern of behavior at work in the next four chapters.

The use of the Internet illustrates some darker features of American behavior that raise issues that as a nation we should not ignore. Perhaps the most important is the lack of privacy laws and practices that protect individuals from the misuse of information. The digital technologies developed in the late 20th century are very effective in collecting and analyzing data, doing it rapidly and inexpensively. That can be a noble purpose, but it can also mean intrusion into our private lives, or the usurpation of our credit cards by thieves bent on charging their purchases to our accounts. West European nations have been more diligent in dealing with these problems of data security than Americans because of their fundamentally different attitude toward the flow of information in society. Whereas Americans have hard-wired into their constitution and laws many safeguards to ensure the free movement of information in support of their democratic form of government, Europeans have historically been more willing to manage the access and movement of information. Recall that, for example, the French government thought the telegraph of the 1800s should not be allowed to carry just any kind of information, and that it should be used primarily to serve the state. That kind of attitude, while it might seem anathema to Americans, meant that public officials would consider issues of privacy (constraint of information flows) sooner than Americans. In fact, their privacy protection laws and practices are far more effective than those in the United States.

Another aspect of the Internet that we should not lose sight of is the fact that it is quickly becoming a global network similar in scope to the globally available supply of electricity, television, and telephones. Historically, the United States often surged ahead of many other nations in the deployment of some new information technology, such as the telephone, television, and computers. Deployment of a new technology sooner than others often provided this nation with certain competitive economic advantages. The productivity increases the American economy experienced in the 1990s, for example, thanks to returns on investments in computing, is a clear example. The Internet has played an important role in that surge of economic strength. However, with the rapid deployment of the Internet underway around the world, albeit slower than by the U.S., the initial advantages gained in the late 1990s by Americans may neutralize. As so many other societies either exploit the Internet as effectively as Americans or even do a better job of it, our momentary euphoria over the Net may change. Already the Finns are producing better quality cell phones, while the Europeans have established clear and consistent telecommunications standards that have led to wider use of cell phones than in the U.S. In short, the Internet may just be part of the common infrastructure in existence in any typically advanced economy.

This situation would not be so terribly different than what occurred in other periods. Our postal system, which grew so rapidly in the early 19th century, basically replicated what existed in Britain. In other words, Americans did with the postal system what East Asians and Europeans are doing with the Internet—we installed a proven information infrastructure. The surge in development and deployment of electrically based information technologies by Americans, beginning with the telegraph and continuing down to and including the PC and the Internet, may prove to be a momentary aberration in what has clearly been a global pattern of adoption.

Is there anything unique about the American experience with the Internet? The new infrastructure does suggest two unique features. First, Americans have a history of developing and adopting new information infrastructures very quickly. The relatively free flow of knowledge required to develop new technologies on the one hand, and the environment of minimal government control over free market economic activity on the other hand, have facilitated the rapid development and exploitation of new information tools. Second, these efforts have been rewarded in a variety of ways, which in turn encouraged further uses of technology. Most of the rewards have been economic, such as the creation of major firms (e.g., IBM and Microsoft), and the use of these tools to lower the costs of operation (e.g., distribution of goods by canal, train, and trucks, managed with information networks such as the postal system and the Internet). Americans have been relatively successful in exploiting many technologies, not just those involved in information handling.

The account I present in subsequent chapters is a relatively positive one of how one class of technology—information tools—was used, and this account comes at a time when many Americans are questioning the benefits and costs of technology. Pollution, loss of privacy, restructuring of work, and other issues are being debated. Negative descriptions of technology are quite common today. One of the leading historians of American technology, Carroll Pursell, documented a rising tide of criticisms that emerged in the last two decades of the 20th century. Pursell observed that "technology has been criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, and, of course, defended from the middle."32 But this historian also observed that the American experience with technology demonstrates that it "can only be understood and used to best advantage when seen as the very embodiment of human behavior and purpose."33 The conclusion we can draw is that whether or not any technology is good or bad, if it is used we must deal with it.

The American experience clearly demonstrates a willingness to work with technology. That ultimately it is a reflection of human behavior and purpose can further be demonstrated by looking at how information technologies have been used in America in very specific circumstances. Since the vast majority of adult Americans have always worked, and spend most of their waking hours at work, what better place to begin a more detailed look at how they used information and its tools? For that reason, the next chapter is devoted to the role of information in the workplace.

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