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|I hope readers wont think that this is too abstract, or off-topic. Some general
observations about human behavior can, I think, lead to very practical results.
This is about genes. I believe that our understanding of new communication systems can improve if we put people before technologies; because human behavior, not just technology, will set the direction and pace of development.
Genetics is a complex science; I dont have the competence to understand its subtleties. But a few simple things are clear. All species, including ours, have definite genetic and social traits. I think politicians and economists, as well as managers and students of organization, could have avoided many mistakes by understanding more clearly the basic patterns of human behavior.
Its proven by genetics that survival of our species is based on a complex combination of individual and community drives. We are not a totally "social" animal, such as an ant or a bee; nor driven by total individualism. As confirmed by history, totally collective human societies dont work; nor do those based exclusively on selfishness. There are similar traits in other species, especially mammals, from dolphins to baboons; but what matters here is the unique set of genes and behaviors that defines us as "human".
Behaviors not unlike those of todays humanity existed in "early humans" nearly a million years ago. But we dont need to go back so far. Its enough to know that our DNA hasnt changed significantly in the last ten thousand years. Even without genetics, we would know that from history and literature: we find five thousand year old writings, from poetry to accounting, that seem written yesterday.
This leads, I think, to a simple deduction. When technologies offer new options that fit "human nature", they develop. If they dont relate to our true needs and desires, they are only a passing fad or fashion.
There are several practical applications of this concept. For instance, there is a lot of interesting discussion about the value of communities in the net. A social and economic system based on mutual help; a sharing of information and service. The more I give, the richer I shall become; of knowledge and, why not, money. Skeptics would be right in calling this utopia if we were dealing with something totally new.
This is as old as humanity. There would be no human culture or society without a relevant amount of apparently "unselfish" free exchange. Cruel as we can be, we also know how to help each other. This attitude is not based on a strict quid pro quo; we give away information and help, and expect receive it, even when there is no immediate reward. There is a basic perception, often intuitive rather than rational, that its more pleasant to have dialogue and exchange that to be isolated in a selfish world of aggressiveness and fear.
The study of organization has proved over and over (though its rarely practiced) that sharing and partnership in groups that spontaneously define roles and functions is much more effective than any hierarchy or bureaucracy. The network economy is the result of new tools that enhance a type of human behavior that was successful when our ancestors lived in caves.
These "success machines" (that of course are biological, not mechanical) are often born spontaneously and unexpectedly. In that case we need to be good gardeners: we must nurture them and protect them without damaging their growth process. But they can also be generated, if we have a clear strategy and flexibility in the way its achieved. The internet is a good example: it was conceived as a strictly defined objective, built by an extraordinary aggregation of different people and a variety of competence and knowledge. To this day its still based essentially on free exchange: I give away something because I need something from everyone else. Communities are not based on unconditional generosity, but on an exchange of benefits.
The power of the net is in the countless opportunities it offers for human exchange and community. It allows us to do what the best human organizations have always done, but offers more options than we have ever had. We can use it for fun, for the sake of knowledge, or to make money. Its perfectly possible to mix the three if well done, it makes the process more effective and the experience more pleasant.
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|This years 400-page report by EITO
(European Information Technology Observatory 98) contains an enormous amount of
figures. As all statistics, they need to be taken
with a pinch of salt; but I think its interesting to look into this vast reservoir
According to EITO, this is the volume of the information technology and telecommunications market by large geographical areas in 1997 (millions of ECU):
This is the development of the information technology market in sixteen European countries:
Southern European countries are behind, with Spain. Portugal and Greece growing faster than Italy (a trend that will continue, according to EITO, in the next few years). Of the large European counties, the strongest is France; as we shall see, according to this study the French are also leading in online communication.
Here are the data, from the same source, on telecommunications:
The two markets (IT and telecommunications) have similar trends in the more advanced countries, while in Southern Europe there is a relatively stronger development of telecommunications than information technology.
This is the number of telephone lines in seven countries:
Source: EITO Task Force
Southern European countries (and Japan) are weaker than the US and Northern Europe even in the most basic communication technology: telephone and fax. The picture is somewhat different when we look at mobile phones:
Its common knowledge that Italians are heavy users of mobile telephones; but there are more subscribers to that service in the United States and Japan.
An now... the net. Let me repeat here that all estimates of the number of online "users" are inaccurate, and we are not even sure that comparable criteria are used for different countries. In spite of those necessary doubts, I think its useful to compare different sources.
Lets see the number of online users, according to EITO, in the same seven countries.
Source: EITO Task Force
The most remarkable difference in this picture, as compared with other sources, is online activity in France. In this study, online does not mean only internet. The difference is due to the French peculiarity that was pointed out several times in this newsletter: wide use of the minitel. This study indicates that, when the minitel is considered, online activity France is one of the highest worldwide. As we have seen, France is also ahead of the game in information technology; if and when its minitel activity moves to the internet, the impact could be quite remarkable.
Here is a graph that summarizes the situation in the same seven countries.
In the United States there is almost equal development of all communication technologies. All other countries are unbalanced. Japan and Italy have a higher concentration of mobile phones, less of cable TV and online connections.
Lets look at Europe in greater detail. This is a bit complicated, but I think the comparisons are interesting.
For a quick glance at some of the most relevant differences, here is a graph, covering only two new communication systems (mobile phone and online).
Throughout Europe (except in France) there is greater penetration of mobile telephones than online connections. We must remember that mobile phones can be counted precisely (number of subscribers) while the number of online users is an estimate, always larger that the number of contracts with ISPs or other online providers.
Now a quick summary in two "pie" graphs. According to EITO (that, I think, overestimates the role of Europe) this is the worldwide breakdown of online connections:
And this is the situation in Europe:
Once again, we see France as the leader, with 37 percent of online activity in Europe (and over two thirds of the European total concentrated in three countries). It this a "true" and fully reliable picture? I dont think so. Its debatable, as all other data. But its an interesting change of perspective; and one more proof of the fact that different sources and types of analysis can reach very different results. Once again, this is a picture of a very immature, unbalanced and unpredictable market.
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|One of the traditional qualities of the internet, that I hope will be maintained as
the net grows and spreads, is the frequent use of humor.
As usual, there were many "April fool" tricks this year, and it was quite fun to see major newspapers swallow a bait that was originated in the internet. Other jokes, such as this one, were not as widely reported.
I am grateful to Enrico Colombini for his permission to quote a story that he wrote (on April 1) in an online forum about viruses:
There is a double catch here. The humor is about the frequent imaginary virus scares, that are still echoed by so-called "reliable" sources, and by the press, years after they were identified as jokes. But its also about the widespread reporting of an endless variety of nonsense on new technologies and especially the internet.
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|Many big interests, all over the world, are trying to gain control of electronic
payment systems (several of them are spreading scare stories that get in the way of
business activities online). One of them is, guess who? Microsoft.
A report by Nathan Newman published by Netaction on April 13 describes how the Justice Departments 1995 opposition to the proposed Microsoft-Intuit merger opened the door to industry competition and ultimately resulted in the emergence of an open standard for electronic banking protocols. But... Newman says:
This is not the only attempt to monopolize electronic transactions. There are also big interests in Europe trying to gain control. Even before net marketing has had any chance to develop, greedy maneuverers (that often do their best to stay away from the public eye) are trying to set patterns that could be stifling for a free development of business online.
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|Ive read good reports on a browser called Opera.
I must admit I havent found the time yet to test it thoroughly (Im rather lazy
with technicalities) but it seems to work well and takes up much less space than its more
popular competitors. Its reported to be faster and more efficient. But there are
even simpler offers on the market.
More are coming. For instance a Czech programmer, Michael Polāk, has developed a browser called Arachne, that works on any old DOS computer (a 386 or even a 286) with full efficiency (including graphics). This suite includes other utilities, including a file manager, e-mail, telnet and FTP.
I don think we shall see this news reported widely in the general press, or even in specialized magazines. And its most unlikely that simple, efficient software will be offered in stores where unnecessarily expensive computers are sold. But there will be remarkable opportunities for wider use of the net if and when people find out that they dont need expensive equipment. They can use their old computer; or buy one on the second-hand market for one tenth of the price of the latest innovation now announced by the trade that of course will be called obsolete in a few months time.