Is the Internet an Economic Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Wishing the Internet a happy birthday, Tom Foremski, in his Silicon Valley Watcher blog, says that although "The Internet is the most significant collection of communications technologies ever created...enabling huge numbers of new types of businesses and services, many of them replacing pre-Internet businesses," that ultimately "The Internet devalues everything it touches."

Says Tom: "... if you are in the music industry, movie industry, journalism, software services, cloud computing, if you are a software engineer, if you are a web designer, if you design logos -- if you do any kind of digital work you are exposed to a huge amount of competition, you are exposed to the lowest cost provider in your sector -- thanks to the Internet."

Tom speaks from personal experience, since he is a former dead tree journalist and understands all too well the downside of the Internet on his profession. But I think it only fair to ask someone to try to calculate the upside value of having the "most significant collection of communications technologies ever created" on your desktop, or increasingly, in your pocket.



I am not talking about letting your newspaper subscription lapse because you can get timelier news online for free (and you don't have to fish it out of the bushes when it arrives). Or kissing your cable TV subscription goodbye because between the Hulu's of this world and file-sharing sites you can get pretty much all the TV shows you want (and get to watch them when you want, not the network). I'm not even talking about the millions of dollars worth of music and movies that have been illegally downloaded.

Rather, I am talking about the nearly immediate availability of information that helps you make more intelligent buying decisions (and no, Tom -- they are not always from the cheapest provider, although I see your point clearly). Time was when renovating a kitchen (for example) required multiple trips to the tile store, and appliance stores and countertop stores and lighting stores and Home Depot and local kitchen contractors, just to see what kind of cabinets were in fashion. Put aside the eco-cost of all that driving and focus on the cost of your own time that could have been spent doing other things. Even after devouring all of the kitchen design-related magazines on the newsstand (at that moment) and getting the opinion of your noisy neighbors, you were never sure that you had a clear horizon-to-horizon sense of possibilities, availability and costs.

Now, in a relatively short amount of time, you can visit hundreds of Web sites from which you can harvest design ideas, costs -- even configure what your new kitchen might look like. You can side-by-side compare each and every appliance, and even use social media and chat rooms to review the experiences others have had with their fridge vs. that one and this countertop vs. that one. This provides a level of confidence that transcends the sales patter you get from retailers. If the system works like it should, by visiting the right sites, you should start getting ads for all sort of kitchen-related products and services, many of which will be well worth consuming. You can access advice and ideas from some of the top kitchen designers and manufacturers -- information that in pre-Internet days you would have never gotten. Not to mention getting feedback from Chicago, Paris and Tokyo.

Your goal in all of this may well, as Tom laments, be to drive your costs down as low as possible -- forcing local merchants to match Internet pricing and crush their margins. But it might also be to spend more because you see now that there are 10 things you hadn't thought about that are worth including in the new kitchen. You might order a lighting fixture from an Italian Web site, not because it is the cheapest way to put lumens onto your island, but because it is the uniquely perfect fixture and ONLY available online.

To me the Internet is not always about the lowest possible cost, it is about getting a fast and thorough education before I open my wallet. It is access to retailers that are beyond a 10-mile radius of my house. It is about nearly infinite possibilities. It is about saving my time. Lots of it.

I think in trying to put a dollar value on the Internet, we have to include the upside as well as the down.

2 comments about "Is the Internet an Economic Glass Half Full or Half Empty?".
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  1. C.t. Trivella from NAS Recruitment Communications, October 30, 2009 at 8:42 a.m.

    I agree all the way. The Internet, in my opinion, is one of the greatest tools ever devised. I would rank it with the wheel. It never ceases to amaze me in how easy and transparent information access is. When I weigh the pros and cons, there are more pros to having this fantastic venue than there are cons. Personally, it has opened me up to ideas that I may not have come across without it. I can't image not having access to the World Wide Web.

  2. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo, October 30, 2009 at 10:15 a.m.

    As a dispersed family who loves to spend time together, the Internet is a wonderful bridge. We use online parties and games to mimic what we had during the times we could all get together for real.
    Then social media technology allows us to bridge the time between our online gift exchange parties, by sharing of pictures and thoughts in our blogs and social networks...

    Thanks, Internet... our cup runneth over!

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