The Internet as Killer App

This is not my idea and I don't want to take credit for it, but I do believe it is insightful and true. It takes about fifty years for a new invention to bring about real change. To use the printing press and steam engine as examples:

When the printing press was first invented in Europe (it was invented in China earlier), it was primarily used to print Bibles. The same work monks had been doing for years by hand. It took about fifty years for people to start writing novels and plays to be published. In other words, for about fifty years, the printing press was just used to do the same thing faster. Then the printing press started to change the world: regular people became literate, people started to read to entertain themselves, to learn, to make the world a smaller place.

When the steam engine was first invented, it was used to run looms. It did the same work, faster, that had been done by hand for thousands of years. But that is all – the same work faster. It took about 50 years for people to put the steam engine and tracks (used much earlier in coal mines) together to form trains. When Ulysses S Grant was born, it was unusual for anybody to go further than they could ride a horse in a day. When he was a young man; he took his first train ride, hundreds of miles to Cincinnati. The first person in his family to do so. The north could not have won the Civil War without trains, the United States could not have become a continental empire in less than a generation without trains.

 When the computer was first invented, all it did was crunch numbers faster. And, now, fifty years later, I am sitting in a small village in China and I can read the New York Times or a neat article about graffiti on the Berlin wall. This has changed the world as powerfully and completely as the printing press or the train.

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