In 1995, I published The Digital Economy, a book that became one of the first best-sellers about the internet in business. To mark its 20th anniversary, my publisher asked me to write a dozen mini-chapters for a new edition. As I revisited it, I was struck by how far we’ve come since 1995 and by how many concepts in the book have withstood the test of time. “The digital economy” term itself has become part of the vernacular.
The book was pretty breathless about the opportunities of the digital revolution, but it equally warned of some huge dangers ahead — and this dark side has indeed emerged over the last two decades. Back then, I wrote:
The Age of Networked Intelligence is also an age of peril. For individuals, organizations, and societies that fall behind, punishment is swift. It is not just old business rules but also governments, social institutions, and relationships among people that are being transformed. The new media is changing the ways we do business, work, learn, play, and even think. Far more than the old western frontier, the digital frontier is a place of recklessness, confusion, uncertainty, calamity, and danger.
Some signs point to a new economy in which wealth is even further concentrated, basic rights like privacy are vanishing, and a spiral of violence and repression undermine basic security and freedoms. Pervasive evidence exists that indicates the basic social fabric is beginning to disintegrate. Old laws, structures, norms, and approaches are proving to be completely inadequate for life in the new economy. While they are crumbling or being smashed, it is not completely clear what should replace them. Everywhere people are beginning to ask, “Will this smaller world our children inherit be a better one?
While the digital revolution has brought us many wonders, in hindsight my somewhat discouraging conclusion is that the “promise” of a more fair, equal, just, and sustainable world has been unfulfilled. It has become clear that the original democratic architecture of the internet has been bent to the will of economies and societies in which power is anything but distributed. If anything, the power has become more concentrated, and the main benefits of the digital economy have been skewed.