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This just in: The ‘Net’s not important

Jan 20, 20034 mins
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Life’s too short to be running around correcting all the nonsense about the Internet being peddled by the mainstream press, yet a few examples are so flagrant as to beg for a reply. Take this bit of pabulum penned last week by long-time Washington Post and Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson:

“The obvious truth about the Internet [though one rarely acknowledged] is that it’s not especially important. Of course it has grown spectacularly. We e-mail. We buy from eBay. We get homework from the ‘Net. We have access to vast stores of information. But if the Internet collapsed tomorrow, most Americans would go on with their lives in a way that would not be true if, say, they could no longer drive their cars. (The same might not be true of businesses.)”

It must be his kids’ homework that Samuelson has gotten from the ‘Net, because heaven knows he hasn’t done any of his own.

Sure, the Internet has been crazily and lazily overhyped by virtually everyone with a stake in it, including those who do what I do for a living. But not especially important? Compared with what?

Samuelson chooses the automobile – only the most important invention since fire – as his comparison point. I guess he’s right on that score. The automobile is today and likely always will be more important than the Internet. How insightful.

But after the horse-and-buggy killer, what else might be reasonably judged more irreplaceable than the Internet?

Television? Absolutely, no matter what any of us might think of “Joe Millionaire” or the fact that the idiot box made a rich man of Tony Danza.

The airplane? Yes, from a strictly economic standpoint, although I might argue the matter in terms of overall societal impact, because – to borrow Samuelson’s criterion – “most Americans” rarely fly.

What else might top the ‘Net in importance? We might get into materials such as steel or plastic, but that’s cheating in this context.

Radio? Before television, probably. After television, I’d lean against. (You can get almost anything that’s on radio today over the Internet instead. Who’d miss AM and FM besides Howard Stern fans?)

Anything else? Let’s suppose we can come up with another handful on which we all agree. That would still leave the Internet as – what? – one of the 10 most important inventions since the dawn of the 20th century?

But I don’t want to dwell on just that “not especially important” nonsense when there’s so much other nonsense to dwell on.

“Of course it has grown spectacularly,” the writer acknowledges.

Why, yes, it has. I’m sure you’ve all seen the comparison timelines for things like TV, the telephone and the car. Over the first 20 years of its existence – less than 10 of which have seen it even available on a mass scale – use of the Internet has grown faster than has anything else you can name.

“We e-mail,” he notes.

Just like that: “We e-mail.” Much as if Watson had said to Bell: “Oh, we talk.”

E-mail represents the single most profound change in the way human beings communicate since the telephone. Spend an afternoon in an office that has had its e-mail server go down. Talk to anyone whose loved ones have rekindled their sense of family through e-mail because it’s more convenient than snail-mail and less expensive than long-distance.

E-mail alone assures the Internet its spot in history.

Which brings us to Samuelson’s carefully qualified assertion that a collapse of the Internet just “might” prove a problem for businesses.

Look at the bright side, though: You’d still be able to drive to work.

Care to take his side? The address is