Internet Changing Society, Says McKenna

Silicon Valley guru speaks at Connect '96

The social change made possible by the Internet and related technologies will have at least as much impact on the world as the automobile and television, a leading technology marketer told an assembly of electronic networkers meeting at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, this month.

Regis McKenna, founder and chairman of Gemini McKenna, High Tech Strategies (formerly Regis McKenna, Inc.) of Palo Alto, spoke to Connect '96, a global conference of leaders interested in establishing interconnected regional electronic networks. McKenna has helped launch such companies as Apple Computer and Intel Corp.

The early automobile was developed by hobbyists in much the same way as the personal computer was, McKenna said. But it took a national highway system before the public accepted cars and used them to change their way of living. The differences with the Internet are that the social change is not dependent on government action this time, and the change is happening much faster. "When technological innovation was highly institutionalized, the diffusion of that technology into society was very slow," he said. "But it led to a change in the social makeup of society." A similar change is now beginning to happen on a global level with the Internet, and it will happen "somewhat independent of the wealth of a nation," McKenna said. "The low cost of developing this technology allows countries around the world to share in the information network. Costs are coming down continuously and access is going to be provided to everyone, anywhere, all the time. Half the people in the world have not even made a phone call, but in the next decade, satellites will make it more economical and faster."

"Half the people in the world have not even made a phone call, but in the next decade, satellites will make it more economical and faster."

McKenna noted three social changes already evident from the advance of global information networks:

Society is becoming more diverse, and that has led to some fragmentation. "In a way, we are on our way to mass customization," he said. "The ability to segment markets heads in this direction. For example, over 200 languages are spoken in this county."

The complexity and the number of choices in our lives also has increased. "I do not see this becoming less in the next half century," he noted. "We see a sort of constant turmoil in society-constant dissatisfaction. We are very insecure in a boundaryless world, with instant information."

Things now tend to happen in realtime, without any chance for pause or contemplation. "The instantaneous nature of networking allows us to participate in realtime activities. We used to sit back and reflect on things. Now there's almost no time even for planning. By the time you put out a six-month plan, the marketplace has changed."

But in spite of the changes, "Networks are a way of rising above this diversity and fragmentation and bringing people back together again," McKenna said. In addition, the role and power of the individual are increasing. "There are 200 million computers in the world and 50 million fax machines. Today, the individual is accessing the big corporate databases. Government is worried about the individual breaking into their files. In the '50s we were worried about government getting information on us. So it's a complete reversal of what happened before."

Because of these changes, businesses are becoming more and more engaged in social institutions, to an extent not seen 10 years ago, McKenna said. "The corporation today has to engage itself. And the medium for engaging is not only the corporate intranet but the public Internet."

McKenna said networking equipment makers such as Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems are the only ones making much money off the Internet so far. "Making money may not be the best way to use the Internet. It may be free and it may best be a free mechanism. The Internet is growing because people are using it and people need it. We have never seen a technology that has expanded so rapidly and moved into the home so rapidly."

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