Internet right up there with the printing press?

Writing in Business 2.0, Clay Shirky says the Internet is the most important thing for humanity since the printing press. That's quite an assertion, because since the printing press we've seen such advances as antibiotics, antiseptics, and anesthesia.

"No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future."

-- Ian E. Wilson; provided by my friend and colleague Stirling Rasmussen.

If you enjoy science fiction and have never read Roger Zelazny, you owe yourself one of his novels. Zelazny was unequalled at portraying grand themes and larger-than-life characters. Usually powerful, often immortal, his characters act out their dramas as ordinary people in extraordinary roles.

Start with Lord of Light, an up-close and personal look at the Hindu pantheon. Nine Princes in Amber is very good, but skip the rest of the series (trust me on this).

And by all means read his requiem, Donnerjack. Written with Jane Lindskold shortly before his death, it takes place in two universes: "Virt," which we might call cyberspace (or maybe not), and "Verite," which is our actual reality, more or less.

In Donnerjack, Virt is as real and important as Verite. Some pundits describe the Internet in similar terms.

Take, for example, Clay Shirky. Writing in Business 2.0, he says, "The Internet is the most important thing for humanity since the printing press."

That's quite an assertion, because since the printing press we've seen such advances as antibiotics, antiseptics, and anesthesia.

These innovations changed infant mortality from an expectation to a tragedy, and disease from a likely death to a minor inconvenience. Call me prosaic, but I rank them higher than the Internet. And that's just medicine and just the A's. The full list of innovations more important than the Internet is pretty long.

Shirky's take on the Internet has a lot in common with Zelazny's description of Virt: "The Net is not an addition, it is a revolution; the Net is not a new factor in an existing environment, it is itself the new environment."

Well, maybe someday. Right now it's simply a medium for exchanging bits which assemble into communiques of variable accuracy, authenticity, and quality.

I don't mean to pick on Shirky, who is, I'm sure, a great guy with useful insights. His column is just the latest overblown hype about the Internet's importance.

Let's be clear about what the Internet is and is not. It is a new environment, not "the" new environment. Elevating its importance further elevates virtual reality above actual reality.

As the ad says, "This changes everything." It's true, or nearly so -- the Internet has already influenced much of our experience (and jobs).

In general, we can execute business transactions more efficiently via the Internet than through other channels. Elevating business efficiency to life-changing transformation is a pretty shallow worldview, though.

In terms of how we live our lives, the Internet's influence is limited. We can send e-mails more quickly and conveniently, although less reliably, than paper mail; we can research subjects of interest more quickly and conveniently, although less reliably, than by going to the library; we can buy goods and services more quickly and conveniently, although less reliably, than through face-to-face channels.

Until someone invents a technique for making virtual reality as realistic as actual reality (for example, the Proctopod in Bruce Bethke's hilarious Headcrash), Virt will remain far less important than Verite.

When that changes, the Internet will no longer be just another communications medium. We will have created a new universe, at which point it just might become what enthusiasts say it is today: the most important thing for humanity since the printing press.

Maybe even more important.

Communicate with Lewis in Virt by sending an e-mail to ISSurvival@cs.com. Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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