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Why do we need
the internet?

July-August 2000

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disponible también en español

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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I was having a pleasant dinner, last night, with a few friends. People with many years of experience online – from the old days when we were using other systems, because there was practically no access to the internet outside a few universities. One of them asked «well... so... why do we need the internet?» and there was a moment of embarrassment, because none of us had an easy answer. It’s even worse for me, because I am writing a new book, that will be published in November. This time it isn’t about business; it’s meant to explain to people why and how it’s really worthwhile to use the net. That seems easy; but it isn’t.

We are so overwhelmed with fantastic news about what the net has to offer that we are losing track of what we can really do with it. Does anyone really have the time to go online just to look at again another picture of another actress or model, more or less undressed? Or to see more sites with lots of glitch and no content? Or to clutter the bandwidth with more silly postcards? Or to "surf" aimlessly looking for nobody knows what?

Yes, it would be nice if we could do all of our banking online, without ever having to line up al a counter. But it will take another while before the banks get themselves organized. Yes, it would be even better if we could get rid of all he waste of time and unnecessary procedure in public offices. But it will take years for our bureaucracy to unlearn its bas habits.

Yes, e-mail is the best tool we’ve ever had for correspondence. Or it would be... if we could get rid of spamming, monstrously bulky attachments, documents in formats that are hard to decode, and many other problems caused by the fact that people are taught masses of boring technical stuff they don’t need and nothing about online manners and practical use of the net.

Yes, it’s convenient to download software, music and all sorts of interesting information. But the clutter is so big, and the technologies so inefficient, that the task becomes often cumbersome and uncomfortable. Yes, it’s nice to be able to read a newspaper online. But I don’t know any living soul that has replaced paper with the online edition – except when people are away from home or looking for something in a magazine they don’t usually buy. And many newspapers don’t provide adequate access to past issues...

Is there a bit of nostalgia for the "old days"? Yes, and it’s understandable. Things were more simple, software worked better – and 2,400 bps connections were much faster than any super-device available today. Even then there were too many people online for us to be able to know them all; but there was a mood of belonging, of mutual help, that made us feel a bit special.

Maybe some of the people would have liked the net to stay small, separate from the crowds. I never felt that way, nor did any of my online friends. We wanted the net to grow and expand, to open up to more people. Now it’s happening, and we must learn to live with the consequences.

But it’s even more difficult for the newcomers. How do they find their way? How do they tailor the net to their personal needs and wishes?

The basic answer, I think, is simple. Don’t use the net unless you know why. Don’t go online without a precise objective. Don’t sit in front of a monitor, put your fingers on a muse and a keyboard, unless you have a specific reason for doing so. If we stop for a moment and think, to understand our intentions and desires, we shall use the net more effectively and waste less time. Of course that’s sooner said that done – but I think it’s a good starting point.

The same idea works for companies. When there was no internet, and I worked in other forms of communication, often I forced myself and my partners to answer a tough question. What would happen if we didn’t do this, if we didn’t spend a penny? Sometimes my honesty was punished, because our client found out that he didn’t have a clear objective and canceled the investment. More often it was rewarded, because it helped us to be much more effective and productive.

I believe there would be considerable improvement if everyone used some quiet time in the summer holidays to think about a simple but serious question. «What would happen if we weren’t online? And if we are, what exactly are we trying to do?» From what we can see, nine tenths of the clutter online are caused by organizations and people who never asked themselves that question – or didn’t find the right answer.

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