Apparently, sales of dog food by the U.S. shopping giant Wal-Mart were bigger than the worldwide sales chalked up by e-commerce last year. Even if that is true, the current media frenzy about e-commerce makes it hard to countenance. There is a danger that this current fashion for one particular technology and its commercialization will impede rational thinking.
It is understandably big news when Time Warner, newly empowered by its linkup with the Internet company America Online, takes over EMI, thereby creating a vertically integrated behemoth jeopardizing free competition, market access and more than 3,000 jobs. It is difficult to imagine how the European Commission will avoid an investigation under its competition law.
This is more the product of industrial consolidation to protect profits and executive salaries, in the context of an increasingly globalized marketplace, than daring entrepreneurship capitalizing on the opportunities opened up by a new technology. As such, it does not deserve privileged treatment as a pioneer of a new technological trajectory, which will inevitably be the argument advanced in its defense against the rigorous application of the law.
More worrying is the scramble for instant enrichment among speculators in the venture-capital market. It used to be the case that new companies were set up, developed and grew through initial losses to profit and then — and only then — were launched on the stock market or taken over. More recently, in the e-commerce sector, takeovers follow swiftly on establishment and the posting of the first losses. Now, it appears, mere concepts are fetching millions, as companies are sold that have not even traded long enough to make a loss.
It’s good money if you can get it, and deciding to sell fried eggs on the Internet may be better — and more socially beneficial — than gambling on the lottery.
The danger, however, is that this is all getting out of hand. I once read that the production of furry dice for hanging in the back windows of suburban cars was living proof of the error in Marxist economics that imbued commodities with a use value. Currently, the multibillion-dollar industry in the online sale of cars, telephones and e-mail services, coupled with irrational market speculation on any idea that can claim even the most passing acquaintance with the Internet, is reminiscent of the British South Sea Bubble, Dutch-tulip mania — when single tulip bulbs sold for more than a year’s salary — and Japan’s property boom of 10 years ago — all rolled into one.
Unless these projects are firmly rooted in the real world, with real demands meeting real needs, they may turn out to be just so many castles in the air rather than the foundations of a new industrial revolution. The future victims of such a reality check, when it comes, will probably deserve little sympathy. If the wave of fraud sweeping through e-commerce leads to Visa or MasterCard pulling the plug on credit-card transactions on the Internet that’s the industry down the drain. The key problem is that a vital tool for education and development, for social purposes as well as commercial ones, is being surrendered to the unregulated market at its most brutal.
In Europe, the new Portuguese presidency want to have as its leitmotif the promotion of the social elements of information technology and the Internet. This is something we should all back.
If we are going to license people to print money by allowing them to sell what used to be a common good, then we require a social contract. In postal services, the provision of a universal service is sacrosanct. Why should there not be a similar provision for e-mail service providers or even mobile-phone companies?
We have been promised that this new generation of technologies would release work from the cities to the countryside, from the center to the periphery, but this will not happen if present patterns of electronic traffic etch themselves into the pricing structure, with capital-to-capital costs significantly cheaper than those of island to highland. If we feel justified in assisting regions handicapped by the legacy of the past, what about those threatened by the “promise” of the future? Where is the proposal for special assistance to electronically disadvantaged areas? Maybe they’ll let me know at email@example.com .
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.