No. 39 October 12, 1999
||1. Editorial: Learning from
Mistakes have always been the basic tools of learning.
Trial-and-error is the key to daily survival, as well as the
origin of knowledge. It's the basis of any form of life. So
it has always been; but at this stage of our evolution it has
gained even greater importance as a crucial tool for
intellectual advancement as well as practical action. The
turbulence of change blurs or vision; it confuses us if we
seek certainties, rewards us when we get a glimpse of new,
"infant" trends; that can be discovered by
intuition but need to be verified by experiment. It's no
coincidence that in the last two or three decades, not only
in science but also in the culture of business management,
there is discussion of chaos and
complexity or that the beginnings of the chaos theory came
at the same time (give or take a few years) as the origins of
Mitchell Waldrop wrote in Complexity (1992):
The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to
sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of
life. The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative
genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the
status quo; and where even the most entrenched old guard will
eventually be overthrown.
"Chaos", of course, isn't "chaotic".
It seems confused and incomprehensible only when we try to
define it by the criteria of our established knowledge.
So-called "complexity" isn't more complicated than
our conventional perception of things. In fact, it may be
simpler. But it seems mysterious because it doesn't fit into
the pattern of our habits. Theoretical elaboration on these
concepts can be quite subtle, but in practice we have an easy
solution. Trial and error.
Modern philosophy points out that now, more than
ever, «our knowledge increases in proportion to how much
we learn from errors», as Karl Popper explained thirty
In science, as in life, learning is trial and error, and
that means leaning from mistakes. The amoeba and Einstein
proceed in the same manner, by trial and error; the only
perceivable difference in the logic that governs their
actions is that their attitudes are different. Einstein,
unlike the amoeba, deliberately tries to do everything he
can, whenever he stumbles on a new solution, to find it
wrong; his attitude is consciously critical of his own ideas;
so while the amoeba will die because of its mistakes -
Einstein will survive thanks to his errors.
These facts were obvious at a time when the internet was
only a project in the minds of a few "visionaries".
The net is not the origin of the problem, it's a tool to
What's new with the internet? A lot. Immediate response,
multiple dialogue and the fact that we can change things as
we wish, at any time give us a far greater opportunity than
we've ever had of experimenting, testing, correcting and
re-trying. Flexibility is the biggest single advantage of the
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||2. Is e-business dying? No, it isn't born|
There's a lot of skepticism and disappointment about
e-commerce or generally e-business. Meager results,
unsatisfactory experiments. "Automatic" devices
that promise the moon and deliver nothing but problems.
Websites put up for no good reason that don't achieve
anything, so it's easy to draw a superficial conclusion:
«See? It doesn't work... Let's sit and wait until
According to a report published
by Edupage on
September 24, 1999, the Gartner Group says that "75
percent of e-business will fail".
Most companies launching electronic business projects
neither fully understand the technologies behind their
strategies, nor do they adequately plan their initiatives,
and therefore 75 percent of e-business efforts will fail,
according to a Gartner Group report. In order to succeed
online, Gartner suggests that companies regard e-business as
a tool, not as a final goal. Additionally, e-businesses
should remember to use effective project management by
ensuring that employees understand the technology being used,
charting the project's progress, and using a step-by-step
approach. Gartner also recommends companies check before
deploying new technology to see whether a business goal
exists for doing so. Furthermore, e-business strategies
should plan ways to use new technologies to appeal to new
markets. Finally, Gartner suggests that companies stay aware
of competition and alert to new rivals.
How peculiar. That's pretty obvious, isn't it? Aren't
these normal commonsense business practices? The problem
(once again) is that common sense and sound business
strategies seem to evaporate when companies are faced with
information technologies and especially the internet. They
go online "just to be there", with no clear idea of
why they are doing it. They apply technologies before they
know what they are trying to do. It's quite surprising, under
the circumstances, that the failure factor is
"only" 75 percent.
If that's true in America, it's even worse on this side
of the ocean; especially in a "backward" country
such as Italy. For years we've been laughing rather sadly at
the repetitive predictions that "the takeoff will be
next year". But this time it's happening. In the second
half of 1998, and more so in 1999, there's a considerable
increase in the number of people online, as shown by research
findings that were summarized in netmar37.htm#heading02issue
37 of this newsletter. What is not happening is a sound
development of e-business. The (relatively) good news is
that, in spite of the hype, the problem is beginning to come
out in the open. In a meeting of Italy's economic and
political leaders in Cernobbio on September 3, 1999, for the
first time it was clearly stated that our companies, large
and small, are confused about the internet and unable to use
it properly. As I said in an article
in September, diagnosis is the first step in facing an
illness; though there seem to be very confused ideas about
which treatment is needed.
This year, thank heavens, I avoided the awful menagerie
called Smau (the yearly trade fair for electronics and office
equipment). But friends of mine that ventured into that mess
told me that there was a whole floor of stands offering
"web solutions", at very convenient prices (some
vendors promise to provide "full e-commerce
service" free of charge to whoever uses them as an
internet or telecommunications provider.) I don't want to
discuss technical solutions; they can be good or bad
depending on the needs of each company. But it's plainly
impossible for any of those devices to replace a clear
strategy and a strong commitment to making it happen. I hope
most companies will be wise enough to see through the
smokescreen. But if any fall into the
technology-before-strategy trap, the probability of failure
is likely to be closer to 99 than 75 percent.
Actually a 3 to 1 failure factor isn't too bad when we
move into a new territory. It seems sort of normal, if not
optimistic. And the solution is so easy... as I said in the
#heading01editorial of this issue. The net is an ideal
environment for trial and error, testing and
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||3. An anthology of confused thinking |
Let me start with a disclaimer. I don't know Riccardo
Chiaberge and I have no reason to argue with him. I'm not
picking his article in Corriere della Sera (September 29)
because it's any worse than most. In fact, it's better than
average and I agree with some of his comments. But it happens
to be an anthology of the way of thinking that seems to
dominate newsmedia, universities, economic and political
powers in Italy as well as across Europe and in several
other places. That's why I think it's worth analyzing.
In the world of computers the hero of Europe's
retaliation is called Linus Torvalds, the kid from Finland,
author of a new operating system competing with Windows.
A sort of Willam Tell of the digital age, confronting the Bill
Gates empire with naked hands.
The good side of this is that finally though several
years late mainstream media are becoming aware of Linux.
Though they still don't understand the broader perspective of
opensource and compatibility.
The description is quite romantic, though of course it
doesn't fit reality. At thirty, Linus Torvalds is young for
the success he has gained; but he's no kid. He is even a
parent (his daughter is called Patricia Miranda Torvalds).
Linux isn't "new"; it's been there since 1991 (and
it's based on Unix, that was around ten years before
Windows). Maybe in the beginning it was really like a brave
archer facing the empire with "naked hands". But
now it's an established technology, supported by big
And this is no European renaissance. Torvalds was born
and bred in Finland, but he lives in California. (The same
thing happened with the world wide web; originally conceived
by an Englishman in Geneva, but developed in the US; and Tim
Berners-Lee now is at MIT). The heart of opensource
development in the United States (though programmers from all
over the world are contributing and developing as they
please). The problem in Europe is that it's even more
subjugated than the US by non-compatible and cumbersome
software. There can't be a level
playing field, but chances for European developers would be
much greater if they were based on opensource.
The plan for computer literacy announced in July and
confirmed by the government in September appeared serious.
But in a few weeks it has disappeared from the budget.
Someone in treasury or finance has removed computers from the
shopping list and left only pecorino cheese. Unfortunately,
unlike cheese, the net doesn't ferment by itself. It needs
Well... it's sad that information technology isn't
getting as much attention as it should. But I don't agree
with the reasoning. The net is a live thing, a biological
system; it does "ferment" and grow by itself. Before we call for
the intervention of politics we should have a better
understanding of how it works.
Before worrying about how much money is invested by the
government to support the internet, we should be much more
serious about the quality of the incentives. It's better if
politics stays away from the net until it has understood what
it should do and especially what it should not do. We've
already seen so much poorly conceived and worse executed
intervention that it might be better if they just left it
And... they should stop talking about technical literacy
(a nickname for oppressive and hostile indoctrination) and try to understand the real
(human and cultural) values of communication networks.
Our Prime Minister is right when he says that the
internet should become a status symbol as were mobile phones
(but maybe they aren't any more.)
Is he? Why should we get into anything as silly as status
symbols? The net is growing because people are beginning to
understand that it's useful; there's no need to turn it into
a fashion or a fad. We've got enough problems with companies
and institutions setting up useless, cosmetic websites as
The internet is the backbone of the new economy, the way
of the future.
Yes, it is. But we need more than rhetoric.
Our companies, with few exceptions, use the net only to
show off; 130 thousand are online but there are only 650
e-commerce websites, with a total yearly volume under 700
million lire (less than 400 thousand dollars or ecus.)
Yes. Here the article hits the heart of the problem. I
don't know where the author found those figures; and, as
usual, the definition of e-business is very restrictive
(selling things on a website). But, more or less, that's the
picture. Pretty awful.
The article also points to another fact. There are many
more Italians buying things from sites abroad than there are
Italian companies selling online to the world. And it's
likely to get worse. If Italy has 1 percent of the worldwide
net (see issue 38) there is a 99
percent probability that, if and when online buying develops,
it will do no good to our trade balance. Conversely, 99
percent of the potential market is outside our borders. The
name of the game is export or die.
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||4. The "convergence" myth (Gerry McGovern)|
Here's one more quotation of my favorite author, Gerry
McGovern. On October 4, 1999 he published an article on
The limits of convergence.
Did you hear about the new TarmaAquaAir from GM? It's a
car that turns into a boat that turns into a plane. You
haven't? Well, neither have I. Because while most of us use
road, water and air transport, it just doesn't make sense to
create a multi-purpose transport vehicle.
Again and again I get asked about convergence.
Principally, there is a constant question about how long it
will take for the internet and television to converge? My
answer is that it will take about as long as it takes GM to
launch the TarmaAquaAir.
What is television? What is the internet? My answer is
that it doesn't matter what a television is or what the
Internet is. What is important is what they do. What is
important is what the "function" of the tool is, not what the tool is
itself. It's like defining a hammer as something that hammers
nails into wood, not a tool with a wooden handle and a metal
As the Digital Age matures, the construction and even
name of the tool may change, but the original and primary
function of television and the Internet will remain the same
as long as people want to be entertained and people want to
be informed/educated. Yes, there will be convergence at the
edges but the basic functions of entertainment and education
will remain separated.
Let's think ahead for a moment. In five years many homes
will be networked with digital systems. There will be a
central server computer through which programming and
information will enter the home. Most rooms will have a
screen and keyboard/remote control device. (In fact, many of
the functions may well be voice controlled.) Some rooms, such
as the sitting-room, will have very large screens placed on
walls, others, such as the study, will have smaller screens
placed on a desk.
When you "turn on the television" in 2005 you
will probably be relaxing in the sitting-room after a hard
day's work, wanting to vegetate. You will want to be
broadcasted "at". You will have no special interest
in interacting unless something very unusual occurs. Because
a great many of us watch "television" to be
entertained; to allow our minds to relax, not to tax our
brains with interaction.
Let me let you in on a secret. There's a lot of people in
the world who really like being spectators, who really like
being part of the audience, who would come out in a rash if
they were told they had to "interact" with
strangers through their television.
Back to 2005. When you need to do some work you will most
likely go to your study, call up a word processor, access
some information, whatever. You might call it using the
computer or accessing the internet, but that will be because you got
into the habit of using those terms.
Today, too many people who should get it don't. Don't get
confused between the tool (television, computers, internet)
and the function (broadcasting entertainment and news, doing
work, accessing information). Because it really doesn't
matter what you call it. What matters is how and why you use
Like Gerry, I don't see much potential in the internet
marrying television. There's much more to be achieved in the
cross-fertilization of the net and publishing. There's
already al lot of "digital publishing" but most of
it is superficial. As Alan Cooper says, it's like a dancing
bear: the dancing is awful, but it's peculiar because it's a
bear. Electronic publishing will mature when nobody will be
intrigued by just having a book on a disc or looking at
pretty pictures, but the power of the hypertext
structure will be used to its full potential in
managing content. And of course there is a powerful marriage
in e-publishing: the combination of static supports (cd-rom,
dvd, or whatever) with the internet. E-publishing is not as
immature as e-commerce, but it's still in its childhood.
There's a lot to be done.
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||5. The fable of the baby millionaire |
On October 5, 1999 there was a carefully staged presentation by
Mediaforce in Milan called Insight 2010 A story of technologies and
human beings. The keynote speaker was Arno Penzias (Nobel prize for
physics) and he discussed some pretty serious stuff, such as
how to control an increasing multitude of electronic devices
that often don't understand human language, how companies
should be managed in the light of increasing customer power,
how life is changing in a network economy and how we need to
manage technology so that it works for people.
But none of that appeared in newspapers the next morning. The headlines
were about a "baby millionaire". I had a bit of a
nightmare. If more such stories hit the media, we could see an
eager mother, after she has pushed her daughter into a
beauty contest or a casting couch, rush to a computer store
and buy the latest equipment hoping to turn her younger
child into another money-making machine. Hold it, ladies. It's
not as easy as that.
The Insight 2010 presentation included teleconference connections and
one of them was with an "entrepreneur" in the US.
It was a deliberately planned surprise. When he appeared on
the screen the audience discovered that he is a kid. Not a
very impressive kid, either. He didn't have the attitude or
the behavior of a computer genius or a star salesman or,
in any way, an enfant prodige.
He was obviously embarrassed his (bland and stereotyped)
answers to questions were prompted by someone off-screen.
Ben Blonder is 12, his brother Keith is 10. They live in
Summit, New Jersey. Their tiny company, Shop Summit,
offers service to small local traders that want to go
online. Some of their friends help as salesmen. By looking at
their site we find that their prices range from 5 to 20
dollars a month. They have fourteen clients a shoe repair
shop, a grocery, a gym, a stationery, a baker, a wine store,
etc. So... five or six kids share an income somewhere between
70 and 200 dollars a month. More than they would make
delivering newspapers or selling lemonade; but not
What's so interesting in this story? Of course the net
isn't a playing ground for baby businessmen. But it shows
that there are all sorts of opportunities for someone
offering "the right thing at the right time". And,
even if you are selling to the world and not (like the Summit
boys) just to local customers, neighborhood roots are