I enjoy stirring up debate with the ideas espoused in this column, and this one seems to have really done the job, judging by the volume of e- mail it generated. I've had a great time answering the e-mail, and am even now continuing to wade through it all. (I'm posting the most representative and interesting missives, with their authors' permission, to a Web page (http://ww2.gulker.com/ news/literacymail.html).
As usual, keen-eyed and sharp-minded readers have pointed out my every miscomprehension. I'm "often in error, but never in doubt", to quote George Gaines, (who thinks Disraeli said it first) and much in need of someone to keep me honest. The reams of corrections, clarifications and opinions that come to me with a ".uk" return address are clearly an instance of British literacy at work on the Internet!
Before I plunge into some of the interesting responses to the last column, a few more words about Europe, Britain and the Information Age.
Nicholas Negroponte, the well-known digerati, has some opinions of his own about Europeans and the Internet. While researching another project on the Net, I stumbled across one of his 1994 columns in Wired magazine where he takes the French to task for being so unwired. Negroponte feels cultural differences are the culprit, along with the phone companies.
"The point is that new ideas do not necessarily live within the borders of existing intellectual domains," he writes. "In fact, they are most often at the edges and in curious intersections. This means that institutions like universities and PTTs have to embrace some very anti-establishment ideas. Europe's dominantly state-run universities and PTTs just don't do that very well. They run a close first and second for knocking down new ideas."
He also says: "Only England respects and even cultivates idiosyncrasy. The result of this lack of educational freedom is less playfulness and an infrequent convergence of intellectual cultures, which is where computer ideas have traditionally come from."
So, while I was content to point at the high cost of connecting to the Net, and the high, heavily taxed price of computers, Negroponte would seem to say these are merely symptoms of a larger cultural issue.
It's easy for us foreigners to point a finger at you all and say it's a cultural thing, and I'll probably get another ton of e-mail for even suggesting that somehow America's arguably wacky "culture" gives us an edge in the Information Age. Britain, after all, was the incubator of profound and weighty concepts like democracy and communism, where America regularly turns out things like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Beavis and Butthead.
Many correspondents cite the current non-viability of the Web's content business models as a reason more Brits weren't taking the information worker plunge. Many point out that even those with computers and Net connections are hard-pressed to make money in a medium awash with free content.
My response is that that this particular challenge faces everybody on the Net, not just Britons. My sense is that, in a medium where the business models are still emerging, there is an initial correlation between lower costs and higher acceptance. Ergo, places where computers and Net connections represent a relatively small economic hurdle are places where the biggest communities of users are to be found.
The challenge, for Brits and everybody else, is clearly to find, or invent, the ways in which "pure" knowledge workers can support themselves. Programmers are a class of knowledge worker who once worked for love only, in the early days of computers, and who now are capable of generating huge wealth from their ideas.
One correspondent, John Woodwark, makes reference to the dislocation suffered by weavers when the Industrial Revolution's looms appeared - power looms meant much more cloth was made, but weavers as a group went bust. Almost as if to answer Woodwark, another respondent, Kathleen Kinder, says she is a modern day weaver who programmes, and teaches others to program, automated looms.
The Internet means a whole lot of information is getting published, but the publishers are by and large still looking for a paycheck. Nothing guarantees that there ever will be such a model ... but looking at the billions that are earned by "traditional" information companies today, I just have to believe that we're just not there yet on the Net.
Gutenberg's first press was repossessed: Time Warner and Bertelsmann and Reuters hardly know what to do with all the money they earn from disseminating information in more or less traditional media.
The Net badly needs inventors and out-of-the-box thinkers: Britain has centuries of experience creating daring ideas like evolution and computer networks based on packets. Usually when there's a big need in one place, and a proven ability to fulfill that need somewhere else, a business proposition is not far behind. Gulker to Brits: "Get wired and invent it."
Because, if you don't, somebody in this wired world will. Maybe in the US, but just as likely somewhere in a Third World culture that is colliding head-on with modern technology, a powerful idea will be born, as Negroponte says, at the edges and interesting intersections of the non-mainstream.