SYNOPSIS: The Internet revolution may already be over.
So enough already about the election. Let's talk about William Shatner.
I happen to like those Priceline.com ads, though they have never actually tempted me into giving Priceline any business. Still, lately the ads have acquired a special piquancy; in my mind's eye they seem like sepia-toned relics from a long-lost era. For a few months there basically from November of last year to May it wasn't just hip to be cool; if your coolness could be packaged as an e- business, it was very, very lucrative. Now only the ads remain.
Priceline, even more than Amazon.com, has served as a sort of tracking stock for the whole dot-com sector. At its peak Priceline stock went above $100 per share, and the company scored a major coup in February when it hired Citigroup's Heidi Miller as chief financial officer. Last week Ms. Miller resigned, and yesterday the stock closed at $4.28.
Does it matter? Sensible optimists about the new economy have always understood that most of its benefits will accrue not to producers but to consumers, that you can extol information technology without necessarily believing that its purveyors should be valued at infinite multiples of earnings. Conversely, you can accept that the era of exorbitant valuations is over, yet believe that the economic fruits of technology will continue to arrive in abundance.
And there is, in fact, growing evidence that the Internet really has contributed substantially to our recent prosperity. It's not as easy to prove as you might think; the great productivity boom of the last five years does roughly coincide with the rise of the Internet as a mass medium, but correlation isn't causation, and some well-regarded economists think the productivity surge has nothing to do with the Net. Bit by bit, though, studies are suggesting that the Net accounts for some though not all of our economic miracle.
So if the explosive growth of the Internet continues, we can expect substantial additional progress in the economy as a whole, even if naοve investors have lost their virtual shirts. But will that explosive growth continue?
Almost lost in the election clamor last week was a remarkable news item: PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has been surveying Internet use for the past four years, reported that over the past year the number of hours per week the average user spent online actually declined, from 5.3 to 4.2.
Clearly the Internet is not going to go the way of the CB radio craze of the late 1970's; even when the thrill of novelty is gone, there are a lot of useful things you can do online, and people will continue to do them. But the thrill, it seems, is going, if not entirely gone and the number of useful things to do has not grown enough to compensate.
For what it's worth, this matches my personal experience. From 1995 to about 1998 I made ever greater use of the Internet, as the range of things available, the ways I could use it, exploded. But since then I can't say there has been any dramatic improvement; and I, too, am probably spending less time online than I did a year ago.
Enthusiasts for the network economy like to invoke "Metcalfe's law," named after the inventor of the Ethernet. It says that the value of a network depends on the number of possible connections, and hence is proportional not to the number of people on the network, but to the square of that number. It's a recipe for explosive growth.
But not all connections are created equal and the more valuable connections tend to get established first. Most of the people I would like to hear from, or who would like to hear from me, are already on the Net; doubling the number of users would not add much to my incentive to spend time online. And what the PricewaterhouseCoopers study suggests is that my experience may be typical that the Internet is running into (gasp!) diminishing returns.
Maybe broadband, by allowing a whole new set of online activities, will generate a new burst of growth. Or maybe the boom of the last five years was a one-time event, and henceforth growth not just of the Internet but of the economy as a whole will slow to more normal levels.
And that's a scary thought. Soaring productivity is a miracle drug that cures many ills, economic and social. What will we do without it?
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.8.00