Internet Strata

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
10 July, 2018
Editorial: 217
Fecha de publicación original: 30 mayo, 2000

A lover moves faster than a hundred lawyers

Just as in palaeontology, there are many ways of interpreting Internet strata, particularly those layers accumulated over the last five years since the Web was popularised and the digital swamp was invaded by numerous active species. One of these is the “Tell me who was in the audience and I’ll tell you the year” method. A breakdown of the people attending courses, talks and seminars on the Internet in Spain, especially those that are not free, is a reliable indicator, perhaps the most reliable indicator, of the Net’s evolution. We are going through a particularly difficult stage at the moment. While in the past some other member of staff was sent to these courses by traditional companies, we now find heads of different departments in important decision-making positions within the company attending themselves. Along with them, together but not mixed, come the Internet company directors, or rather those with an Internet project in their pockets and a business strategy in mind. This is the year 2000.

But let’s go back to the beginning, say around about 1996. During that period which we shall name |A|, lots of courses and talks were free. Those that came were interested in this novelty called Internet (the concept of an Information Society had hardly been mooted), pioneers, techno-adventurers, potential entrepreneurs, researchers and inveterate innovators. There were very few companies from the real world and the virtual ones were busy making web pages or supplying access to the Net.

One year later, strata |B| began to fill up with those potential entrepreneurs already in the making of new and novice companies, plus the curious, innovators, and, of course, the techno-adventurers from the previous period. Somewhere down at the bottom of the room, technicians and computer specialists from some companies began to appear: someone had said, “We have to get into this Internet thing” and who better to go and find out about it than the technical staff. So, off they went to all kinds of courses, sitting through everything from HTML to “The advantages of user-friendliness in sewing the web together by crocheting on the bias with hemming, and no backstitching”. Fortunately for them, strata |C| didn’t take long to arrive, 1998 more or less. No sooner had e-commerce made its passionate entrance than pupils began to dilate. Money! There was money to be made on the Internet! But where? The computer specialists of the time were substituted by marketing staff who, generally, didn’t have the foggiest notion where the new digital companies with weird names came from or where they were going to.

In the meantime, within the companies themselves, things were beginning to change. In the |A| period some innovating technician had, perhaps, taken the trouble to design and upload a web poster on the Internet. The “we are in cyberspace” order had been fulfilled. In the |B| phase things got more serious and the web poster was contracted out, so the “we have to be there” thing became more “professionalised”. The web page did, in fact, become more attractive but it was just as inefficient as before. Uncertainty about the real profits to be made from the Net led either to complete inactivity or to commissioning a study conducted by some important consulting company. It goes without saying that the Internet formed no part of the company’s R+D, nor management nor human resources areas, it was something that floated around somewhere between the boiler room and the 3rd class cabins: it consumed energy, money and time but only that of “lesser beings”, as some inscriptions from this strata show us.

The |D| phase was fundamental, just like 60 million years ago. All of a sudden, without warning or anaesthesia, Terra hit the Stock Exchange. Nobody knew where that meteorite came from. Its impact was brutal. All the inhabitants of the swamp were taken by surprise only increasing the devastating effects of its fallout. The consequences were immediate and long-lasting, in fact, the dust has not completely settled yet and its hard to determine the number and type of victims. Companies of the real world had a fit. What’s happened? Where did we go wrong? What has Terra done to deserve this? The mushroom cloud made it hard for them to see that without Telefónica as a launching pad, the only tangible evidence for a public that was, on the whole, discovering the Internet off bus-stop billboards, Terra was no more than an irritating little stone in our sandals. But through the mist, just like in a James Cameron movie, a new breed of directors was rising up: Internet executives who would soon fill the halls as teachers or students. These mutants had discovered the importance of alliances with prestigious or established names (such as the big banks, consulting or venture capital companies), the need for some sort of plan of any kind whatsoever and the imperative for sharp, though empty, words saying just the right thing at the right time.

With these weapons, they took over the strata |E| and inhabited sections B2B, B2C and E=mc2. This new generation quickly discovered that the reflection bouncing off the stock market (speculum) meant that a single idea and three contacts created multi million dollar expectations. The market started to rock with explosions of nuclear proportions. Swarms of new young CEOs rose from under every bit as though an anthill had been uncovered. Things got so extreme that the managing director of Forrester Consulting himself, the company that constantly has its finger on Internet’s pulse, deigned to go down and take a walk around the swamp to find out just who these people were. “Empty-headed, uncouth, no business acumen, easy-money lovers, with no idea where they want to be in 5 or 10 years’ time, incapable of risking their own things for the companies they claim to represent…” Not a very edifying picture, especially for those who had discovered that on the Internet “the consumer is king”, when in fact they had had no dealings with this “consumer” (or any other) and had had no idea just how far their abilities as interactors would go.

Now, we find ourselves in strata |F| and it’s here, at last, that we find the management of traditional companies. They have been told so much about Internet and wasted so much money along the way as they delegated things they considered unimportant, that they have decided to find out for themselves what is going on. Just in case, large consulting firms and ideas manufacturers from the |E| period have been lying in wait with their Power Points idling. Nevertheless, these people are of another breed: they have products, distribution lines, markets, they are rough and ready, but they don’t have the culture of the Internet. The clash of managers of different breeds is almost inevitable. And the results could be fatal. The reason being that the idea which has spread through the swamp is that these people –“managers”, to give them a general name– are only interested in making easy money, wham bam thankyou ma’am. If the situation doesn’t sort itself out soon, the one will be paying for the other and the effect on the economy will be predictably negative. Ordinary people will find it difficult to sort the sheep from the goats and will simply lump them all together.

The new inhabitants of strata |F| have specific problems that are not really being heard in the auditoriums yet. More than just getting bright ideas about how to operate on the Internet –the “others” already cover this aspect– they need to inject new digital communication methods and processes into their companies in order to turn them into informational organisations able to deal with the challenges of the Information Society. And this does not mean just web pages. Their “new digital managers” can’t offer them solutions here –nor is it their job to– nor are the problems resolved by new methods for buying and selling on the Net although this might initially mean cutting costs. The impact of the Internet affects the company’s position in the economy, and the way the market is going to take shape. This entails substantial changes in the way the company itself is organised so that they can cope with new, hitherto unimagined situations.

In the latest El Pais/Arthur Andersen Company Barometer published in the “Negocios” supplement of this newspaper on 28/5/00, based on companies that together have a turnover of more than 18 billion pesetas, 94% of the companies consulted claimed that being on the Net was a strategic factor on a medium to long-term basis. 73% admitted that less than 5% of their income came from electronic operations (they didn’t specify exactly what they meant by this). But, undoubtedly the most significant piece of information was that 83% of the companies consulted said that they have undergone little change, nor plan any substantial cultural investment in the Internet (“e-culture”). For the moment, they are just spending their money on sending managers to courses, talks and seminars without constructing the proper channels for ensuring that this training is distributed throughout the company. Perhaps this is why 60% of these companies don’t think they are sufficiently prepared to compete on the Net.

One doesn’t need to be a Stephen Jay Gould or a Michael Crichton to predict what fauna will be joining strata |G|: company, organisation and administration presidents, sick of spending money and being buffeted by the winds of change created by the new CEO, the electronic banks and telephone operators united in a supranational spirit, will decide to find out for themselves what exactly this thing is that has their companies in an uproar although it doesn’t seem to be quite taking off. It won’t be long now before auditoriums advertise courses and seminars for the presidents of the big traditional companies. It will be a sign that a new sediment is starting to be deposited on the digital site. Or that 2001 has begun. Or at the very latest, 2002.

Translation: Bridget King