Jeffrey P. Papows, Ph.D., is in a good position to prognosticate on the future of commerce in the age of the Internet. As president and chief executive officer of the Lotus Development Corporation, he runs a software company that has risen and fallen and risen again on the intangible karma of information technology. His new book, Enterprise.com: Market Leadership in the Information Age, surveys the state of cyberspace and commerce and finds it on the brink of a great leap forward: from concentration on the machinery of computing to the potential of networks and the World Wide Web. This shift, he says, is provoking massive changes in the way business is done and how people fit into a business framework. The changes, he predicts, will be in the nature, not just in the number, of online enterprises.
Like many people tantalized by the possibilities of cyberspace, Dr. Papows looks back to the huge technological advances in transportation and communication of the late 19th century for comparison. The railroads, telegraph, telephone, light bulb and eventually the automobile and airplane transformed economic and social relationships.
Computers and cyberspace, Dr. Papows predicts, will have the same transformative power. The signs are already present in, for example, productivity growth since computers became ubiquitous. For support, he cites Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, an authority who is rarely accused of hyperbole or irrational exuberance. In 1998, Dr. Greenspan attributed the inexplicable continuing robustness of the American economy to productivity gains wrung from information technology. "Signs of a major technological transformation of the economy are all around us," he said.
The conventional wisdom on computers just a few years ago was that for all the time and money they lapped up, computers were really just fancy calculators or typewriters that yielded no particular competitive advantage. In reality, Dr. Papows declares, whole industries are being changed by the wide availability of increasingly fast and sophisticated computers and access to the Internet. People use the Internet to buy books, trade stocks and find the cars they want to buy. Automobile makers are reinventing their supplier systems. The financial industry makes (and, once in a while, loses) millions doing trades on minuscule price differences because of the new speed of computing and telecommunications. New technology underlies changes in workplace organization at many companies. Employees no longer need to be at their desks all the time.
It may be true by definition that visionaries and theoreticians of cyberspace seem to have little patience for or experience with real time and reality. One thinks of the computer geek deep in the bowels of a university writing ever-more-elegant code, never realizing his graduation ceremony has come and gone. Or there is the image of the chief executive who delivers speeches in Aspen or Telluride about the Internet but never actually has to cull through the 456,789 responses to a query on one of the terminally inefficient search engines.
You get a similar feeling from Enterprise.com. It is dense and thorough, but its notions about the great technological transformation have an ethereal, translucent quality — think David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Dr. Papows often seems to regard business and the future from a great and distant height, like the jet fighter pilot he once was. From the cockpit, the details of everyday life are not discernible. Does it bother employees that new electronic technology makes it possible for them to work even while they are on vacation? "At times it may be better to work occasionally while on vacation," he writes ominously, "than not be on vacation at all."
More problematically, "Enterprise.com" neither questions its blue-sky version of the cyberfuture nor acknowledges that there is a running debate about the impact of cybertechnology on productivity. Many economists, in fact, doubt that productivity gains can be credited to information technology. It is true that the examples of changes Dr. Papows gives in online commerce and their likely future impact are entirely logical and reasonable. Yet, many of the exchanges are simply eased by the Internet, not changed in some fundamental way. Discussing buying online, Dr. Papows uses the term "disintermediation" to describe the displacement of, say, bookstores, when everyone decides to order from an Internet site such as Amazon.com. In the old neighborhood — anyone's old neighborhood — that is called "cutting out the middleman," and it has been the raison d'etre of people in the trades since Marco Polo.
Celebrations of the cyberfuture seem to view life entirely from the perspective of convenience and efficiency. It is true that we would like to dispense summarily with some transactions. When I want a particular book, I am happy to, and frequently do, order from Amazon.com, and not unlike during last-minute dashes to the grocery store, I almost always buy more than I intended. I like to think I know the difference between the convenience of having books arrive at my door and the tactile, spontaneous pleasure of browsing in a good bookstore. The problem with the future in books such as Enterprise.com is that there are no humans present, while the immense explosion of online activity suggests that it encourages humans to interact, for whatever purpose. Enterprise.com joins a long list of books that fail to explain why this convergence of humanity and technology works so well.