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Book review: Starry-eyed visions of the techno-future

November 9, 1998
Web posted at: 2:25 PM EDT

by Bill Rosenblatt

(IDG) -- Blueprint to the Digital Economy: Creating Wealth in the Era of E-Business is a collection of essays by a cast of impressive people on various subjects related to the impact of networked digital technology on management strategy, industry, and government. The collection was organized by Don Tapscott -- author of many books about cyberstrategy, including The Digital Economy (reviewed in Bill's Bookshelf, May 1997) -- and two colleagues. Tapscott is a "name brand" author, thanks to the impact of his most famous work, Paradigm Shift, and the resonance its title has had since its release in 1992.

Tapscott, a clear thinker and fine writer, contributes only an introductory chapter to this book. The essays range all over the map in terms of writing quality, thematic relevance, and degree of insight. The only reason for their existence in one volume seems to be that the contributors are all members of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, an elite think tank chaired by Tapscott. Most of the Alliance's members are senior executives at major corporations or former senior executives who are now independent consultants.

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This book claims, in its jacket description, to be "seminal research" and a "framework for understanding the digital revolution." Yet not much of it is research, and I would hardly characterize it as a framework for anything. There is nothing in Blueprint, apart from a thin organizational structure and Tapscott's introduction, to tie it all together; many of the essays overlap in subject matter; and overall, there is little reason to read more than a few of them. This book does not live up to the large amount of hype surrounding it.

100% pure sludge

It was a hard slog to get through the entire 400-page, four-part volume. The first section, The New Rules of Competition, deals with corporate strategy in the digital age. The articles are by strategy consultants and the strategic development VPs at IBM and General Motors. The piece by Bruce Harreld of IBM describes a system, housed within IBM's vast consulting division, for promoting continuous learning throughout the organization. Apart from that, these articles are 100% pure sludge: thick, devoid of practical examples, and utterly incomprehensible to anyone who isn't in the business strategy field.

The second part of the book is more consistently interesting by far. Entitled Industry Transformation, it's a series of pieces about how the Internet is affecting particular industries, including banking, publishing, photography, education, telecommunications, and transportation logistics. The banking piece, by Lloyd Darlington of the Bank of Montreal, is a well-written, introspective look at how the Internet will completely transform the face of the financial services industry. John MacDonald and Jim Tobin of Bell Canada discuss ways software agent technology, such as Internet price-hunting programs, will change the face of customer service. Chuck Martin, a former magazine publisher, gives an overview of technology's impact on the publishing industry that I, as an insider in that industry, would characterize as interesting but somewhat bizarre in its analysis of current trends; he has an unusual way of characterizing types of publishing and their respective markets.

Carl Gustin of Kodak discusses the future of imaging and indulges in some wishful thinking about the future role and utility of photographs, placing them where you may never have imagined them. In addition to more obvious possibilities, like real estate listings, Gustin foresees assembly-line monitoring in manufacturing as a potential market. He also provides a description of Kodak's FlashPix image format, a truly exciting development. The FlashPix format offers resolution on demand, so that people can view large, highly detailed images efficiently over slow Internet connections. Dennis Jones of FedEx explains how information technology has revolutionized transportation logistics. There are few better examples of IT as a radical business enabler than FedEx, especially in light of the stark contrast between what the company does (transport physical objects, or atoms) and how it does it (by transmitting networked information technology, or bits).

The third part, Enabling the Internetworked Enterprise (now that's a mouthful!), is largely a series of repurposed marketing whitepapers for products and services available from the authors' companies. The guiltiest parties are Ray Lane of Oracle (on network computers) and William Murphy of Hewlett-Packard (on intranet servers). John Roth of Nortel, the Canadian telephone-equipment giant, writes about "Webtone," a term also in wide use at Sun Microsystems. Webtone is a takeoff on the telephone dial tone, denoting highly reliable, plug-and-play-easy access to Web services. Robba Benjamin, a former senior executive at Sprint, contributes an utterly tiresome cyberutopia vision piece that manages to cover everything and say nothing at the same time.

Peripheral vision

Stuck among these pieces, however, is a real gem by John Seeley Brown and Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC, Center and Periphery: Balancing the Bias of Digital Technology. Both authors are noted experts in user interface design (among other things). They start their piece stating that the current Web-browsing experience is analogous to trying to see with cardboard toilet-paper rolls taped over your eyes. They claim there is a dichotomy between "center" and "periphery," and that current technology only supports the center, yet it is the periphery that really makes the difference between experiences that are comfortable for humans and those that are frustrating and unnerving.

Brown and Weiser list 10 characteristics of current technology that contribute to its lack of periphery. For example, there is still quite a difference between a videoconference and a real face-to-face meeting. The difference is in all of the nuances of expression and real knowledge of the other person's culture and environment that you can't observe over a videoconference. Brown and Weiser call this effect "stripping." Another effect is "reifying": computer systems that automate (reify) business processes usually do so in a rigid way that allows neither for flexibility nor for working beyond the specific rules of the process.

The best/worst example of the reifying effect is a class of groupware applications that appeared in the early '90s, which purported to automate decision processes in meetings by making every participant type things into a computer according to a structured regimen. If you remember these, you are undoubtedly chuckling right now. Such packages rendered irrelevant the fine art of "meetingsmanship" -- the hallmark of the successful executive -- replacing it with typing skills as the key to success in meetings. To this day, it amazes me to think that groups of senior business executives actually organized off-site meetings where they would sit in a room full of PCs and subject themselves to this type of software and the guidance of a professional facilitator.

The final section, Blueprint, Governance in the Twenty-first Century, deals with legal and political conundrums that arise when it's so easy to transmit information across borders. Here, too, the contributions are mixed. Michael Nelson of the Federal Communications Commission says little more than, "Government agencies can improve communication by building their own Web sites." True enough, as far as it goes, but this is a deep insight?

Stephen Kobrin, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, does considerably better by raising lots of thought-provoking issues about transborder electronic commerce and related matters. For example, entire bodies of criminal law are based on the idea of a crime taking place somewhere, but now it's possible for unethical behavior to take place nowhere in particular. If an e-commerce company with servers distributed worldwide defrauds someone, who prosecutes them, and under what law?

Professor Kobrin reminds us that existing legal and commercial constructs are based on the more fundamental idea of territorial sovereignty and the nation-state, which has only existed for about 350 years. It's possible that networked digital technology will erode the relevance of nation-states and replace them with some other form of sovereignty, perhaps arising from the private sector. But of course this won't happen overnight. Until it does, there will be many conflicts and ambiguities between territory-based laws and cyberspace-based actions.

Vinton Cerf, the celebrated coinventor of TCP/IP who is now a senior executive at MCI, contributes a clever and alternately amusing and disturbing piece that focuses more particularly on types of cybercrime and how to prevent them. The book's final essay comes from Riel Miller, an economist and high-level European policy advisor. It shows that Miller is an extremely smart guy who has thought about lots of issues and how they interrelate. His piece covers a lot of terrain but is unfocused and hard to follow.

Posturing and prognostication

A book like this exemplifies, more than anything else, how much uncertainty and how little real knowledge there is about the world being enabled by digital technology, and how few real, impartial visionaries we can trust to lead us into the future. For every ounce of uncertainty, there's a pound of prognostication; for every ounce of real knowledge, a ton of posturing. Maybe I'm being too cynical, but I look at the think tank that sponsored this work as a group of people who are there to protect and advance their own interests rather than to produce any constructive research. Some of these essays enlighten, but in the majority of them, enlightenment takes a back-seat to agenda mongering.

The players from private industry are there to toe their official corporate lines, such as Ray Lane of Oracle with his anti-Microsoft ranting, and Carl Gustin from Kodak with his Pictures Everywhere vision. The consultants are there to show how smart and knowledgeable they are, for the sake of their own visibility to potential clients, such as the players from private industry. And so on. Only the actual researchers -- and there are few of them -- contribute any actual research.

This book may be useful in predicting future directions of the industry by showing what several highly influential people get together and talk about. This is true insofar as these people actually affect the directions of their organizations. But I wonder about two things: first, whether any of these people will give away any real trade secrets in a public forum like this book; second, how much some of these big-company strategy chiefs and consultants really do influence actual corporate directions.

Let me close this month's review with a little of my own crystal-ball gazing on the networked digital future. This pertains to my own industry of publishing. Within a couple of years, it will be common for people to buy customized information on the Internet in whatever sizes and shapes they want, not just books, magazines, or newspapers. This casts doubt on the need for certain information products in traditional forms. If it doesn't make sense to publish a body of information as a book, it can be published in smaller (or larger) units.

Take Blueprint to the Digital Economy, for example. It doesn't have much reason for existence in book form. So, instead of buying the whole thing, you could download the pieces by Lloyd Darlington on financial services in the Internet age; John Seely Brown and Mark Wiser on center versus periphery in technology design; Stephen Kobrin on international law and commerce; Vint Cerf on cybercrime; and maybe a couple of others. That would be information worth paying for.

Bill Rosenblatt is market development manager for media and publishing industries at Sun Microsystems Inc. Reach Bill at

Title: Blueprint to the Digital Economy: Wealth Creation in the Era of E-Business Author: Don Tapscott Publisher: McGraw-Hill ISBN: 0070633495


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