Skip to Content

Features

SPECTATOR CITY AND FINANCE

William H. Janeway explains that the dotcom madness has laid the foundation for prosperity ahead. It happened when railways and canals were superhighways

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

Since it has become clear that the Great Bubble of 1999–2000 is dead and not subject to resurrection, information technology has become boring. The limitless promise of a New Internet-Enabled Web-Architected Economy where Everything Is Different appears to have failed. In the United States, the voices that now command media attention range from that of Larry Ellison, founder and chairman of Oracle — who is acting out his stated belief that innovation in IT is over by threatening and launching hostile takeover bids to consolidate markets by liquidating competitors — to Nick Carr, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, whose May 2003 article summarised its message in its title: ‘IT Doesn’t Matter’.

The spectacular surge and collapse of ‘New Economy’ share prices in recent years does, indeed, represent a turning point, and one of enormous economic significance. But Ellison and Carr and the host of like-sounding commentators miss the point so thoroughly that their laments call to mind the legendary comment by the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli on a draft that he was asked to review: ‘This article is so bad, it isn’t even wrong.’

Of course, in the bubble that has celebrated every wave of transformational technology for 250 years, speculation funds too much infrastructure: during the 1880s, some 80,000 miles of railroad track were laid in the United States; in just the four years to 1897, about 40,000 went into bankruptcy. The stock market financed three railroad lines between New York and Chicago, enough to guarantee that none of them would ever make a profit. But the speculative insanity that has accompanied every wave of transformational technology finances more than physical infrastructure; it also finances a Darwinian frenzy of experimentation in what to do with the new networks.

To stay with the evolution of the American railway economy, by the end of the 1870s what had once been an adventure had been reduced to a predictable process: the standard gauge was established nationally, durable steel rails had replaced iron, telegraphic signalling systems marched alongside the tracks. Building railroads had become …boring. Which, of course, is why so many miles of them were built in the next decade. But it was just then — when the infrastructure could be taken for granted — that an innovative business genius named Theodore Vail constructed the first ‘virtual’ commercial network: Railway Express. By deploying an information network that crossed system boundaries on top of the rail line, Vail could ensure that a package shipped from a manufacturer in New York could reach a customer in San Francisco. The result, to simplify only a bit, was the invention of mail order by Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, and the creation of an integrated continental market.


Building the railroads generated demand for steel and wheels and braking systems and telegraph stations and innovation throughout the entire supply chain. But the real economic revolution came after the railways had been built.

Similarly, some 50 years later, networks of electric power lines were constructed to deliver lighting to residential neighbourhoods, demand for which alone could not deliver adequate return on investment. So local entrepreneurs established electrified amusement parks to consume power after the factories had closed and electric tramlines to bring in the customers. On a national scale, General Electric reinvented itself in part as a consumer-goods company to design and market refrigerators and washing-machines that would absorb the supply of electrons that its dynamos were generating. And mass consumer markets for electric-powered appliances redoubled the economics of mass production that the automobile industry was, in parallel, demonstrating and extending.

As in each of these previous periods, the Bubble of 1999–2000 marked the mid-point, not the end-point, of the wave. Since the mid-18th century there have been five of these great technology-driven waves of economic expansion that have successively transformed human existence. From the canals and turnpikes of the first Industrial Revolution through the construction of the car-and-oil economy that peaked in the West during the post-second-world-war golden age, by way of the railroad and electrification booms that successively drove economic growth during the 19th and early 20th centuries, each of these waves has stretched over two generations. The first phase has been devoted to building out the physical infrastructure that embodies the technology; the second phase is when businessmen learn how to make money by exploiting the new networks of commerce. (For a comprehensive and compelling analysis of these issues, I cannot recommend too highly the analytical framework and schematic account provided by Dr Carlota Perez in her recent book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.)

The title of Dr Perez’s book makes clear that the key to understanding the dynamics of technological transformation lies in the relationship between technological innovation and financial investment. As Schumpeter understood, but hardly explored in any depth, this is the crux of capitalism, where entrepreneurial initiative attracts sufficient funding to become economically meaningful. Yet at its inception, the story of how the modern economic world has been constructed begins with a paradox. For, by definition, it is not possible to specify the return on incremental investment in innovation when the innovation itself requires the deployment of a network of nodes for it to have any economic use at all. What is the value of a stand-alone canal gate or a single fax machine? And, unlike the garage-sheltered activities of lone inventors, building networks of water or steel or optical fibre costs staggering amounts of money. How is it that the most massive physical and financial investments in history have been funded in the face of fundamental ignorance?

The two components of the answer to the paradox could not be more different. First, again and again, the great transformations have been kick-started by state investment, variously rationalised by policies of national development and/or security (and often greased by bribery and fraud): examples are legion, from the building of the canals through the initial definition and deployment of the Internet. And, again and again, as deployment proceeds, stock-market investors have seen the promise — or the mirage — of commensurately staggering returns. From this point of view, stock-market speculators hijack programmes of infrastructure investment and turn them into vehicles for herd-following financial mania that can only, sooner or later, end in tears. But — when the bubble has burst — the canals have been dug, the tracks have been laid, the power plants have been built, the fibre is in the ground.

Where we stand today is, once again, in mid-passage. Not only have the networks been built and over-built, the alpha innovators have been sorted from the bubble-financed speculation. Three companies stand out as exemplars: Dell, Amazon and eBay. Dell has leveraged the Internet to create an assemble-and-ship-to-order model for capital and consumer goods that operates profitably at price levels that no competitor can touch. Amazon has integrated a branded Internet portal with efficient delivery of micro-shipments to millions of homes, progressively displacing the established distribution model of delivering many like goods to a small number of locations (known as ‘stores’). And eBay has created a new trading market for goods that exists literally within the Internet.

These pioneers innovated because they wanted to …and because, in the cases of Amazon and eBay, unsustainably speculative capital markets enabled them to do so. Their co
mpetitors, by contrast, have no choice: they must imitate the innovators in order to survive. This is why spending on information technology is bound to recover and why the economically relevant application of information technology will again drive economic growth throughout both the developed and the emerging markets. Once again, this second phase of our generation’s technological transformation will take some 20 years to play out. As before, it will also take continued technological innovation to make the new applications and business models easier and more cost-effective for the host of followers to emulate and adopt. But as they inevitably do so, we — or our children — will look out on a New Economy where, indeed, Everything Is Different.


Show comments
Close