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Online All The Time, Every Where

By Jack Powers

Published: March 15, 1996

Here I am in Paris moderating Forum Numérique, a conference on digital media sponsored by France Graphique, the leading French magazine for printers, As soon as I’ve clocked my thousand words, I’ll plug my laptop into the French telephone system and zap this column to California. Then I’ll check my email from New York, send a fax to some nice people in Toronto, and log onto the World Wide Web to check some things in Brazil for an old friend. Being wired means never having a minute to yourself, never being out of touch, never off-duty. The global telecommunications network links the whole world in real time at ridiculously low costs, abolishing distance, accelerating the pace of change, and bringing the world together in interesting new ways.

We’ve all heard how the worldwide capital markets keep money constantly in motion around the globe: as soon as the London markets close, the action moves to New York, then San Francisco, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, spinning trillions of dollars around the Earth faster than the eye can see. In Washington, the CIA is constantly tuned to CNN, which reports the news faster than any spy in an overseas embassy. And repressive regimes like China and North Vietnam wage a constant battle against foreign faxes, email and satellite transmissions that bypass government censors.

When they write the history of the late 20th Century, it’s the development of this instantaneous global information marketplace that will make the headlines, not the minor wars, trivial politics or monomaniacal subcultures that chew up so much newsprint and broadcast bandwidth today. The big news is that everyone is connected to everyplace, through ’round the world television networks, increasingly affordable telephone and fax connections, and high capacity/low cost Internet links. Telecom visionary Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a science fiction story set far in the future that looked back on a watershed event in world history: on January 1, 2000, he wrote, the world’s telephone companies abolished long distance toll charges. A call around the world cost the same as a local call; so people all over started talking to each other, and peace and harmony descended upon the Earth.

History has a way of sneaking up on science fiction. On the Internet, every call IS the price of a local call: you pay no more to spend an hour browsing a computer in Singapore than you do browsing one across the street. Often, you have no idea that you’re accessing pages from a computer halfway around the world, reading the news, chatting with friends or shopping and ordering products. Peace and harmony haven’t yet descended upon the Earth, but you can retrieve 5 million web pages at your desk with a few keystrokes.

Vice president Al Gore actually said something interesting about this emerging global environment. In the future, he noted, the barriers to communication would not be distance or cost but time zones. We can pick up the phone or log onto the net and talk to anyone in the world—anyone, at least, who happens to be awake when we are.


The abolition of space and time has its greatest effect on the commercial world, and sometimes the new technological expectations run ahead of the human reality. The minute a client’s fax has run through his machine, it seems, he’s on the phone demanding an answer. The second an email hits my emailbox, the sender figures I’ve got it and I’ve started thinking about it. In the era of electronic banking, the check is never in the mail—they either didn’t send it or it’s already in my account.

In addition to timeliness, though, there are other new digital age expectations. I expect everybody I meet in business to be computer literate, to know what a CPU does and how a modem works, and to have at least a fax machine and preferably an email address. I expect to be able to get every file I need in electronic form, and to find most of what I’m looking for on-line, either on the Internet or on a pay service. (I even canceled most of our business magazine subscriptions last year on the theory that we never get time to read the printed versions and we can always go back and search the electronic ones.)

At a recent Lab meeting, we were discussing firms that some of our associates should be contacting. We just mentioned the company or product names, not the addresses, phone numbers or cities that they were in. We all understood that we’d just search the web for the background data rather than try to phone them, much less mail them a letter. On the Internet, I find that we’re gradually developing a more global perspective. Readers from over 25 countries regularly visit our web site, and we’ve bought products on-line from Holland, Australia, Canada and Sweden. Email and bulletin board messages come regularly from beyond the U.S., and they often relate a much different perspective from our standard American viewpoint.

(The clash of perspectives got CompuServe into trouble when a judge in Bavaria found that some of the Internet USENET newsgroups the service carried were obscene by German standards. Not able or not willing to screen out the offending groups for German readers only, CompuServe censored the USENET feed to its entire global audience, raising questions about how a minor local official in Germany could limit the First Amendment rights of American citizens living in the New York.)

Never mind sex, which most humans mostly agree on, the global information environment will pose other interesting new challenges and some exciting new opportunities for people in business. Along the way, many of our old assumptions about markets, business practices, communications and even national sovereignty will be called into question. The new world order has nothing to do with old style geopolitics, alliances and armies, it’s the coming together of smart people around the world, on-line one-to-one, without the mediation of governments, institutions or local customs and traditions. What a great time to be alive!\\



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