Net Prophet

SAN MATEO (01/24/2000) - The rise of the automobile led to the foreseeable introduction of freeways. But an unforeseen consequence of the automobile was the traffic jam. Living in Silicon Valley, I get to think about this a lot.

That's the thing about technical innovations -- there's some impact that's obvious, and a lot of consequences that are tough to spot. That's because technology interacts with humans, and humans tend to be tricky. Broadband Internet is our current industry obsession. It's the biggest shift on the near-term technological landscape. It's impossible to underestimate the impact of broadband and even harder to actually foresee some of those consequences.

But -- what the heck -- I'm not doing anything else at the moment.

Say goodbye to privately owned PCs. The changing workplace is going to make enforcing workplace standards difficult to the point of being impossible.

Persistent, broadband connections will prove a mixed blessing. Employees take their work home with them, and when that information resides on a PC with an always-on Internet connection, it's vulnerable. So, how does a company enforce a rigorous security policy on the privately owned home PC? In the end, the only thing that might make any sense is for a company to own its employees' personal PCs.

Better take some white-out to monopoly law. Even before Judge Jackson handed down his take on Microsoft Corp.'s market power, some said that monopoly law didn't fit well in the information age. If Microsoft strained current monopoly law, then 21st-century companies will shatter it. What happens when companies, distinct in a legal sense, use technology to inextricably tie themselves together? The rise of things such as virtual private networks, extranets, and business-to-business marketplaces gives rise to the possibility that two companies could operate as one for all intents and purposes, yet still be legally separate corporations. And what if they declined to give equal access to their infrastructure? What would the Department of Justice do if Microsoft, Compaq, and Dell connected their digital nervous systems so tightly that they essentially operated as a single entity?

Privacy on the Internet is already a troubling issue, and it's only going to get worse with broadband. In fact, our notions of "privacy" are going to take a beating. As companies gather more valuable information on their customers, people are going to try to throw a monkey wrench in the works. The diminishment of privacy could lead to an intelligence arms race, such as the games that the CIA and KGB (the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency) used to play. Hence, the rise of personal information warfare in the form of disinformation campaigns -- people obscuring their Net habits under the noise of everyone else's activity, as well as the deliberate sowing of misinformation.

Finally, with broadband providing quality education to anyone in the Americas, Europe, Africa, or Asia, how will this affect world economies? How radically will the economic standards of countries such as India or China change when people are paid Silicon Valley wages? I can't begin to answer this; I'll just say that language, culture, and economy will get turned on their heads.

Sean M. Dugan realizes a very foreseeable consequence of this column is that it will look blindingly naive in five years. Write to him at

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