Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's the Internet Stupid!

Twenty years ago, when I was the editor of American Demographics magazine, we published an article entitled "The Fifth Medium," the purpose of which was to describe and name the Big Thing that was about to happen. Everyone who followed the trends could feel something coming, but no one knew quite what it would be.

"A new medium is emerging that may be more powerful than newspapers, magazines, and television put together," the American Demographics article announced. For want of a better word, we called it the "fifth medium" (the others were radio, television, newspapers, and magazines). We struggled to identify the fifth medium: "People call this new medium electronic publishing, on-line information, telecomputing, multimedia, or videotex. They are all evolutionary names for a beast that hasn't yet shown its full form."

Doesn't it make you want to scream, "It's the Internet, stupid!"

The identity of the beast is painfully obvious now, but it wasn't so back then. For proof, try a search of the New York Times archives by year for the number of articles that contain the word "Internet." Here's what you get:

  • 1988: 3
  • 1989: 7
  • 1990: 17
  • 1991: 9
  • 1992: 12
  • 1993: 89
  • 1994: 375
  • 1995: 1,241
  • 1996: 2,218
  • 1997: 2,779
  • 1998: 4,057
  • 1999: 7,737
  • 2000: 10,134

On November 5, 1988, the word "Internet" appeared for the first time in the New York Times. The article was about Robert T. Morris, Jr., a Cornell University graduate student who unleashed a computer worm on what the Times calls "an international group of communication networks, the Internet." The other two articles of 1988 in which the word Internet appeared were also about the Morris worm, one of them noting that "many teenagers are treating Mr. Morris as a folk hero and are busy designing their own virus programs." (Mr. Morris is now Dr. Morris and a professor at MIT.)

For years, even as late as 1996, the Times felt the need to add explanatory descriptors whenever using the term Internet. In a 1990 article: "An international computer network known as Internet..." In a 1992 article: "a worldwide network called the Internet." In 1996: "the linkage of computers known as the Internet." By 1996, the word 'Internet' had become common public currency, says After that year the New York Times no longer felt the need to explain the Internet to its readers.

Although the public was familiar with the term Internet by the mid-1990s, most were not Internet users until more recently. In the early months of 2000, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 46 percent of Americans were online. The figure topped 50 percent later that year. Today, 79 percent are online.

With that kind of penetration, you might think the Internet revolution is behind us, but you would be wrong. The Internet revolution has been slow to unfold and is only now--right now, this year--fully on top of us. What took so long? The demographics. The effect of technological change on human history unfolds at the pace of generational replacement (henceforth known as the Russell Rule). The Internet has been part of the fabric of our daily lives for only one generation, which is why the full force of the Internet is only now being unleashed. Among today's young adults (18 to 29), 95 percent are online, according to Pew. The figure is 87 percent among 30-to-49-year-olds, 78 percent among 50-to-64-year-olds, and just 42 percent among people aged 65 or older. The older generations have resisted the Internet, but they are being replaced by younger generations who live in "the cloud." A growing percentage of the world's population has never known a world without the Internet.

Future generations will see clearly how the Internet revolution led to the dislocations that are causing our current economic woes. In contrast, most of the generations alive today--including all historians, pundits, politicians, and most business leaders--are not in a position to comprehend this cause and effect. Here is their position: They are standing barefoot on a shore, gazing out at the ocean, and seeing for the first time strange white clouds on the horizon. What could be coming their way? It's the Internet, stupid!

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