PROGNOSTICATORS have a bad record when it comes to new technologies. Safety razors were supposed to produce a clean-shaven future. Cars were expected to take off and fly. Automation was meant to deliver a life of leisure. Yet beards flourish, cars remain earthbound and work yaps at our heels.
The internet is no exception. Anyone looking for mis-prognostications about it will find an embarrassment of riches. The internet was supposed to destroy big companies; now big companies rule the internet. It was supposed to give everyone a cloak of anonymity: “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Now Google and its like are surveillance machines that know not only that you’re a dog but whether you have fleas and which brand of meaty chunks you prefer. We can now add two more entries to the list of unreliable forecasts about the internet: that it would make location irrelevant and eliminate middlemen.
A decade or so ago pundits (ourselves included) said the internet would mean the “death of distance” and make the world “flat”, ie, eliminate geographical differences. Amazon and Infosys built global empires in bookselling and IT services respectively. But now it is harder to agree with Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist, who once said that by 2020, “retail guys are going to go out of business and e-commerce will become the place everyone buys.” The list of e-commerce firms turning Mr Andreessen on his head and opening shops is getting longer by the day: it ranges from Bonobos, a clothing retailer, to Screwfix, a builders’ merchant. Even Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, says it could follow suit.