the Internet reshape business in the 21st century? Naisbitt, Negroponte,
Kaku, Knoke, Sterling and Gates explore the end of the
corporation as we know it — and what may lie beyond.
future is upon us.
There could be as many as 1 billion Internet users by 2000.
According to William Knoke,
“the Internet will revolutionize commerce over the next 20 years as did the
telephone in the early 1900s.”
The implications for
business are staggering.
Like the railroad, telephone, automobile and airplane, the Internet
We are headed for what William Knoke, author of
Bold New World:
The Essential Road Map to the 21st Century, calls the
“placeless society” where communications portability makes location
geographic independence comes the economic irrelevance of the city, the factory,
the office building — even the school and the household — each of which are
defined in terms of place and proximity to other people.
In the placeless society of the 21st century, it doesn’t matter where
you are. “It
used to be that we had to have face-to-face contact,” explains Knoke.
“We had to have customer and supplier meet.
We had to have retail stores to walk into.
We had to come together in 13 floors in a downtown office building to
have a ‘critical mass’ to work together.
But in the days of what I call ‘connector technologies’ —
computers, telecommunications and transportation — we no longer need to
‘physically’ connect to interact.”
The logical conclusion is the end of the corporation as we know it —
and that is precisely what the futurists predict.
When buyers meet sellers on the global network, intermediaries and
middlemen, including banks, stock brokers, salesmen and retailers, disappear,
corporate hierarchies tumble, telecommuting becomes the norm, high-tech
free-lancers and small enterprises which sell products globally prosper,
outsourcing prevails, and strategic alliances and joint ventures compete
successfully with monolithic corporations.
“I believe that in many — but not all — industries, the giant
bureaucratic behemoths will get their shorts eaten by more nimble
competitors,” says Knoke.
That doesn’t mean that corporations will
fade away. There are still many
products and services that require economies of scale — as the record $1
trillion in mergers last year involving U.S. companies attests.
“I still can’t build a 747 in my garage,” says John Naisbitt, whose
Megatrends has served as a blueprint
to the future for an entire generation of corporate managers. “But I judge
that the fastest growing business sector is single entrepreneurs who get on the
Internet, advertise their product or service for next to nothing, and who use
DHL or UPS as their distribution system. At
almost no cost they can have a global company and deliver goods or services to
anywhere in the world in a few days. As we increase bandwidth, individuals can do all these
While big business will continue in the
Internet era, Naisbitt predicts that successful corporations will increasingly
model themselves after such highly decentralized companies as Asea Brown Boveri
and Visa International. ABB, the
Swedish-based global corporation (the term multinational is now passé) has
reconstituted itself as 1300 individual companies, while Visa International
operates a $1 trillion business through a loose confederation of member banks. “The notion of headquarters is totally out of date,
just as is the old Soviet Union model, where every decision was made in
Moscow,” says Naisbitt. “Now,
you have a network of organizations where each part functions as if it were the
Naisbitt even goes so far as to blame the
financial crisis plaguing Japan and South Korea, where the 10 largest
conglomerates account for 73 percent of the national economy, on the outmoded
headquarters mentality. “We are
seeing now what can happen when an economy gets too hop heavy — as opposed to
what can happen with more entrepreneurially-driven economies.”
The new paradigms recall the “small is beautiful” mantra of the 1960s
— except this time around, computer networks are the facilitator with a human
face. Naisbitt thinks that instead
of making work more impersonal, computer networks will allow enterprises to
recapture the human scale lost during the industrial and post-industrial
revolution of the last 100 years. Instead of undifferentiated corporations of 40,000 employees,
Naisbitt believes that loosely confederated groups of no more than a few hundred
people at most, each of whom know each other personally, will be the basic
operating units of the 21st century. “Creativity
happens when everyone knows everyone else, and everyone knows what everyone else
in contributing to the whole. We
are reclaiming human scale with the aid of technology.”
Naisbitt’s own company, Mega-trends Ltd., has 57 joint ventures in 42
countries, but only four employees, including Naisbitt himself.
“We out-source everything and we use the hell out of the technology,”
he explains. “We’re not a
virtual corporation — it’s just how business is done these days.”
Limits of Technology.
the digital era, getting the job done will be far more important than
being present in a office from 9 to 5, says
Nicholas Negroponte, author of the best-seller Being
Digital and founding director of MIT’s influential Media Lab. The
distinction between work and leisure will be more and more difficult to make. “People will not follow the lockstep obedience of
‘hours,’ be they rush hours, office hours, or vacation hours,” says
Negroponte. “I spend most of my
work time in cyberspace; work and play are deeply commingled.
An increasing number of people in the future will find lives where job
and recreation are closer to each other.”
How long can this bandwidth-driven
information revolution continue? There
is a limit to the Age of the Silicon Chip, says theoretical physicist and author
Michio Kaku. Sometime during the
next 15 to 20 years, Moore’s law, the often-quoted dictum coined by Intel
Corporation co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 that states that processing power
doubles while computer size is halved every 18 months, will reach the
“point-one” barrier. At .1
micron, transistors be-come as small as DNA coils, and processing power will
cease to in-crease as a matter of course. When
that physical limit is reached, there will be major disruptions in computer
technology as physicists furiously try to exploit new computer architectures,
from optical, molecular and quantum computers to chips built on protein and even
DNA itself. “Some computer
visionaries say that the Information Age is the victory of bits over atoms, when
cyberspace replaced real space,” says Kaku.
“Sorry. Atoms will have
their revenge in 15-20 years — so be prepared for major shock waves that will
dwarf the oil shocks of the 70s."
Still, in his book Visions:
How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Kaku foresees good news
over the next decade as the cost of computer chips plummets to a penny apiece.
“This could mean that intelligent systems, which will tame the chaos of
the wild and wholly Web, will become as invisible and pervasive as electricity
If chips are everywhere, and there-fore
routine, and if the information age is reaching its theoretical limit, what is
the next frontier? Science journalist and science fiction author Bruce Sterling
is betting on a biological revolution, heralded by the controversy over Dolly,
the cloned sheep, as the next wave. “The
computer industry will continue to advance prodigiously, but will settle down as
an enterprise, reduce its growth rates, and attract much less press
attention,” predicts Sterling. “Bio
will take off, amid bitter moral and political controversy, in a thirty year
“revolution" that will be quite scary, because bio is vastly more
dangerous than mere computers. Then
bio and computers will combine to create a Cognitive Revolution some-where in
the middle of the next century, when people begin to industrialize and
commercialize neural structures and human thought processes. That will be a very
wild development, and will probably mean the dawn of an epoch when people are
simply no longer human.”
Until then, as Kaku suggests, enjoy the final
10 years of the digital age while silicon is still in fashion, and be ready to
join the bold new networked world of instant global interaction and a computer
in every pot. As science fiction
writer William Gibson, the inventor the term “cyberspace” says, the future
is already here, it’s just not distributed yet.
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