Legend has it that when IBM began producing commercially viable computers it foresaw that six Big Blue machines would suffice for the whole of the US. These monsters would, of course, be acquired and operated by big business, big government and the military. The notion of a "personal computer" was as alien as an individual citizen owning a personal aircraft carrier.
Now the PC, like the mobile phone, is ubiquitous. We like to think of this leap in technological access for the masses as a good thing. But is it? William Davies takes a sceptical view. Is universal webocracy, he asks, "progress" or merely a pampering of the public? Does new information technology serve society, or merely make its members' lives easier? Should we, Davies wonders, pour so much investment into continually refining a technology whose current primary purpose is to make the world ever more "flexible to the whims of consumers in egocentric and irrational ways"?
The term that Davies has come up with for the downside of universal Web connection is "digital exuberance." It has a strong whiff of Alan Greenspan's straitlaced thinking about how to manage the US economy. Is Davies, I ask him, a digital conservative?
"There's a case for asking questions in periods of rapid change," he responds, "even if they're naive-seeming questions such as: `Why are we doing this? What actual benefits is it delivering to us?' We also need a sense of what kind of answers will be useful to us. Traditionally, technological advancement on the scale and at the speed we're seeing at the moment has been justified in terms of the direct productivity gains it offered to big businesses, large organizations and government departments. My question is: `What is the case for individuals equipping themselves, technologically, to the extent that they're doing at the moment? What is the case for the wholesale shift from analogue, face-to-face services to online services?' One of the things I want to suggest is that many of the benefits of this present phase of modernization, and the technological investment that drives it, are not the traditional benefits of efficiency gains to the supplier. What's happening at the moment is that those benefits, the efficiency savings, are disproportionately benefiting the demand side, the consumer, not the manufacturer, distributor or supplier. There's greater convenience for the public at large, but not necessarily greater efficiency for society as a whole."
The buzzword devised for population-wide access to the new electronic technology is "e-readiness."
"Recent e-readiness national rankings, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, put Denmark top," says Davies.
Doesn't higher ranking bestow an advantage over countries lower down? For example, European big-hitters such as France and Germany?
"The connection between these technological investments and associated productivity gains is a very murky area. In the US it's now believed that a jump in productivity in the late 90s was partially attributable to this kind of technological investment," he says.
But Davies says there is no obvious correlation between investment in technology across society and productivity growth.
So do you think we should, for our own good, introduce bottlenecks and speed bumps on what Al Gore called the "information superhighway?"