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Toward Renaissance Not Convergence or Thin Film Surface Tension

It seems time to retire *convergence* and *bubble* as the leading characterizations associated with the Internet. The expected convergence never arrived as the Internet and traditional telecom don't mix. The world continues to move toward Internet like packet based networks, but this represents displacement not convergence. The bubble metaphor never seemed appropriate beyond describing the behavior of capital markets and the standard list of excesses associated with the love of money. The Internet as a wholly new paradigm for communication remains. To the extent the Internet has failed to live up to its promise, it seems attributable to clumsy implementation (we don't know to use it), the distraction of quick buck schemes, and the ability of incumbents to drag the Internet into the regulatorium.

Renaissance seems a more useful way to describe the impact of the Internet. Renaissance refers to the revival of classical art, architecture, literature, and learning that followed Johannes Gutenberg invention of moveable type in 1452. The period lasted for roughly 200 years as the world moved from medieval to modern times. The Internet and the printing press similarly reduce barriers to the communication of ideas. Education remained out of reach for the vast majority of the population before the printing press. The broader availability of books gave rise to an educated middle class that demanded more democratic government. The Internet seems to offer at least an equivalent benefit for society and global prosperity.

Renaissance captures the idea of rebirth as well as the reluctance of the status quo to release the levers of power. The importance of the Internet does not lie in IPO's or a technology the status quo players can use to operate more efficiently. The Renaissance played out as the forces of dominance and top down control (i.e. oppressors) were engaged by people focused on community building and asserting the rights of the governed from the bottom up. The present seems to offer both the possibility of Renaissance and the possibility of perpetual war. Corporate influence over the apparatus of government and unchecked power in pursuit of global dominance parallels the role of the church in the last Renaissance. Inquisitions seem a likely response by the forces of the status quo this time as they were last time. The worst forms of oppression occur when government loses control over scarcity (e.g. education, communication, or transportation) that had provided the basis for power.

Consolidation of media and telecom companies collapsed competition in network access by 2001, and the bottleneck control and higher prices essentially stopped growth the Internet in the United States. Various estimates suggest 600 million people or ten percent of the world's population can access the Internet today, but had the growth rate achieved between 1990 and 2000 persisted 3 billion people might have benefited from Internet access . Two hundred bills effecting the Internet were introduced in the recent session of Congress in the United States. Not a single bill improved the prospects for a communication Renaissance. The legislation ranged from bad to terrible to devastating. The FCC leads a long list of regulatory agencies that have similarly set in motion efforts to control the Internet for reasons of national security, to establish a "level playing field", "piracy", or some other thinly veiled attack on freedom of Internet communication. Consider the recent news about the creation of a spy agency targeting citizens and a homeland security bill that includes life in prison for hackers.

Tracing the legislation to its source always leads to an incumbent threatened by Internet enabled communication. The notions of convergence and bubble serve the interests of incumbents by framing the Internet as either an incremental improvement in technology or a illusory one. Johannes Gutenberg was chosen as the "Man of the Millennium" in 2000. Opportunity arrives for us now as a rebirth not convergence. Bubbles in the capital markets come and go, but it seems safe to assume the Internet will have a more lasting impact than excitement about tulip cultivation in Holland. The printing press proved useful beyond printing bibles, and the greatest impact of the Internet remains in the future. Decisions about the role of the Internet in communications over the next few years will determine when we enjoy a new Renaissance or remain mired in feudal despotism for a bit longer.



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