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Oped #1

By JOHN R. GRAHAM

When it comes to the Internet, there are no experts.

There may be thousands of what might be called “microperts.” They have something to contribute but only at the moment, and within a narrow range of Internet activity.

Those who have caught the clearest vision of the Internet’s potential are calculating in their comments, and even somewhat restrained in their enthusiastic predictions. They include Esther Tyson, Don Tapscott, Ivan Schwartz, John Hagel III and Arthur Armstrong, among others.

The caution comes from recognizing that while the Internet isn’t beyond comprehension, it’s beyond our reach. This can be particularly frustrating for those who take pride in understanding everything. It’s the fact that the Internet is new that’s so challenging. We ask ourselves, “How should we think about it? What should we do with it? How should it be used, particularly in business?

We’re uncomfortable in our understanding because the Internet escapes us. For those who would like it to go away, it continues to intrude. It’s easy to forget that we’ve learned to live quite well with little more than a cursory comprehension of the universe or the atom. The Internet is just one more item to add to a lengthening list.

An indication of our frustration is the call for Internet safeguards to keep inappropriate material away from children. Ethical issues aside, it makes good business sense for major players such as Disney and Time Warner to support controls. Quickly, a host of techniques are being put into place to limit Internet access, report infractions and generally police the World Wide Web. The objective of these efforts, along with government endorsement, is to make families feel comfortable and to dissipate apprehension and fear.

But remember this: While Internet access providers like AOL and others can implement controls and parents can limit access, the Internet has ushered us into a new reality, one which humankind has never before confronted.

Although we’ve talked about “mass media” and “mass communications” for the past half century, the Internet takes us to a level that’s qualitatively different from even television, in that it super-democratizes communication. For the first time, communication has been taken out of the hands of gatekeepers (publishers, telecommunications companies, broadcasters and so forth) and been placed in the hands of the 5 billion inhabitants of the planet. We are well on our way to reaching this figure, since it’s estimated that 1 billion of us will be on the Net by the turn of the century.

Here just a few of the fascinating and far-reaching implications of the new reality when thinking about the Internet:

? The Internet is beyond control. Unlike print and electronic media, the Internet can’t be controlled, although access mechanisms will be used for a small portion of it. In a literal sense, the Internet is out of control in that it’s beyond any type of limitation. As this dawns on more people, look for the concerns to increase.

? Knowledge is now universal. The sheer, incredible excitement the Internet engenders is that it makes information universal. What Gutenberg began, the Internet completes.

With the advent of the Internet, at least commercially, a fundamental change of epic proportions began to take place in American business. Its impact remains under-appreciated by most of us. It can be expressed in one sentence: What you know is more important than who you know. In spite of what the cynics say, information is a tool of business success.

? The Internet has leveled every playing field. Because of the Internet, every individual has the potential to become a publisher, operate a business or communicate worldwide. This staggering concept is only beginning to penetrate our understanding.

The “global village” analogy that was popular two decades ago never really captured the imagination of more than a group of intellectuals, perhaps because it portrayed an innocence and simplicity that avoided the aspirations and realities of the late 20th century. Few could connect with what appeared to be a “turn-back-the-clock” way of life.

The global village was an interesting idea, but inaccurate. The Internet connects us to the new reality by creating what can be called a “deplaced” world, one in which where you are is no longer meaningful. Today, anyone can interact or do business with anyone, anywhere. The Internet gives both individuals and companies unlimited opportunities to do business universally.

The impact of a “deplaced” world has enormous implications. At the top of the list is the inevitable crumbling of all barriers, including state licensing, quotas, borders, currency, individual national standards and so forth.

While it can never be a global village, a “deplaced” world will refuse to tolerate unacceptable behavior on the part of nations. Because a wired world is “super-democratized,” there will be little tolerance for miscreants.

There’s an irony in the Internet. On the one hand, the technology is beyond control (even though some will say it’s out of control). At the same time, it’s also the safeguard, because its existence demands openness.

For the first time, there’s no place to hide. Human rights reform is inevitable in China, not because of external pressure but because there are no barriers.

Today, we are faced with the unavoidable realization that technology is destiny. The Internet is not about Web sites or home pages. It’s not about AOL or even e-mail. It’s about discontinuity and concepts that are not just new but totally different. The old analogies and the old logic don’t apply. It’s a new reality that’s upon us.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass. He is the author of a new book, “203 Ways To Be Supremely Successful in the New World of Selling.”

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