Network: If you can't take the heat

Silicon Valley shops still don't have the right wardrobe for sweating geeks
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The Independent Culture
PREDICTING THAT the Internet will change things doesn't make me sound like much of a genius. Anything but.

Net pundits (that would be me) can presume to tell sceptics (that would be long-suffering you all) that you will do business differently, bank differently, stay in touch with family and friends differently, meet new people differently, get into more and varied kinds of trouble differently - and I'm still not telling you anything you probably haven't guessed.

Not these days, anyway. Almost everybody sees that the Net means big changes, big trouble and big opportunities. You see that, my 77-year-old Auntie sees that, a guy I bumped into sleeping in an iMac box on the Embankment could have hipped me to that.

But I'm not near the Thames just at the moment. I'm back home in Silicon Valley, where it's been unseasonably hot of late. Summer in the Bay area is usually cool - no one, neither weatherman nor Net seer, predicted that we were going to be roasting in near 100-degree (F) temperatures.

Certainly, no Silicon Valley guru saw this heat wave coming; they saw the Internet, the seismic shift of Java, Linux and lots of other things. But local clothiers don't have enough shorts, tank tops, sandals and bathing suits for customers sweltering under current conditions. They probably all signed up for Internet connections - "clothes fornerds. com" and such - and they still don't have the right wardrobe for sweating geeks.

Which goes to the difficulty of prediction. "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future," said Niels Bohr, father of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is famous for its uncertainty principle, which is to say that Niels was maybe only half right. Quantum mechanics offers the delightful option of being both right and wrong at the same time, depending on your point of view. I wonder why more politicians don't study the field.

I am struck by the ubiquity of the Net-will-change-everything predictions. The Economist published an Internet issue recently (no doubt following The Independent's lead). Stateside, even staid Forbes magazine is launching a start-up,

Even the serious Valley Sources have problems with prediction. Take DaveNet, a Valley e-mail newsletter produced by one Dave Winer, a quintessential Valley guy. Dave is tall, not slender, bearded, brilliant, and unevenly skilled socially, and lives on an estate in Woodside, on the very classy side of I-280, aka the Silicon Freeway. Dave lives next door to the singer Joan Baez - sometimes Joan's goats get into his back yard.

When Dave isn't busy writing code, he produces an e-mail newsletter and website that can best be thought of as a Valley geek's stream of consciousness. DaveNet is usually well-read, and oscillates between stone gospel and utter irrelevance, depending on the week, day and hour of delivery. Dave writes about everything - major movements in technology, Bill Clinton's morals, obscure software protocols. But even DaveNet missed the current weather. Dave, originally a Mac fan, then a Windows apologist, now embraces Linux. He has yet to embrace the weather.

An article in the aforementioned Economist points out that big changes in the way the world works have often taken a generation or more to catch on. The influence of the Net is happening faster than that, I think. I, for one, am acutely aware of the world, my world, changing almost daily.

Time is compressing. The last five months feel like five years to me, and I'm not alone. Whole books have been written on the topic. Interestingly enough, the writer and technologist Ray Kurzweil says that time speeds up as order increases. He points out that when the universe existed as a single point, as orderly as creation is ever going to get, according to the Big Bang theory, time moved extremely quickly. Every billionth of a second or so, you had a completely different universe.

And I am of the mind that the Net is bringing greater order and greater velocity to the world. OK, so maybe search engines return 215,200 hits on my query "really good ideas". Even so, I find it's ever easier to fill in gaps in my knowledge and advance my poor attempts at new ideas with the serial contributions of other, more knowledgeable people, who are easier and easier to reach.

A sure sign of this are the changes in the way that businesses are being conducted. The San Jose Mercury News reported recently that printers' business was off 30 per cent for the second year in a row, here in Silicon Valley. In particular, stationery printers have all but disappeared as e-mail has taken over. Valley printers of leaflets and brochures say business is way down, and websites are most often cited as the culprit. Businesses used to send each other purchase orders and invoices; now they just log into each other's Web-enabled business systems.

So many businesses are doing this that a whole new category of hi-tech business has sprung up to Web-enable the older systems of other businesses. These guys are called, techno-acronymically, EAI businesses, for enterprise application integrators. And they're busy: businesses seem to have no problem embracing the cost cutting possibilities of the Net.

So they can't get the weather right, but they can make it less expensive to be wrong.