In the past 250 years, technology has been at the centre of each of the three previous revolutions. In the 18th century, it was the steam engine which powered the Industrial Revolution. In the second half of the 19th century, the railways and telegraph bridged distances and opened up new markets. In the last part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, electricity was the first “e” in people’s lives. The automobile gave people the flexibility to cover large distances quickly by themselves, thus giving greater control on their lives. We are now in the midst of the Last Revolution, being brought about by Information Technology and the Internet.
It is still too early to pass judgment on the magnitude of change that will finally be brought about, but what we have seen so far has been amazing. Computers have become embedded in much of what we do. India’s economic resurgence in the last 10 years is as much due to the economic reforms as to the IT services that companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Satyam offer. The Internet has in the short timeframe of 8 years reached over 350 million people worldwide. In the next 3 years, it is expected that more than 1 billion people will be connected to the Internet. Nothing what we have seen so far has had as rapid a rate of acceptance. Writes Pam Woodall in The Economist (September 21, 2000):
- Thanks to rapidly falling prices, computers and the Internet are being adopted more quickly than previous general-purpose technologies, such as steam and electricity. It took more than a century after its invention before steam became the dominant source of power in Britain. Electricity achieved a 50% share of the power used by America’s manufacturing industry 90 years after the discovery of electromagnetic induction, and 40 years after the first power station was built. By contrast, half of all Americans already use a personal computer, 50 years after the invention of computers and only 30 years after the microprocessor was invented. The Internet is approaching 50% penetration in America 30 years after it was invented and only seven years since it was launched commercially in 1993.
The real power of the IT and the Internet lies in its ability to cut costs of processing and transmission of information. Email has become the killer application on the Internet, allowing us to communicate for almost nothing with people anywhere in the world. As information is digitised and the ability to store, process and transmit it goes up exponentially (computing power doubling every 18 months, bandwidth doubling every 9 months), new applications become possible. In the words of Brad DeLong, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley: “IT and the Internet amplify brain power in the same way that the technologies of the industrial revolution amplified muscle power.”