Despite its dry title, Kevin Kelly’s book isn’t just another self-styled business bible for the information age. Instead, it’s an overview of what he terms the “network economy”, which is not only superseding the old paradigms of the industrial economy but transforming how we live.
The network economy has been brought about by the ever-increasing connectivity between machines, most obviously demonstrated by the Internet. But Kelly argues that such connectivity goes much deeper. The continually decreasing cost of silicon chips means that there will soon be one embedded in every object that we make, from computers to clothes to chocolate bars.
These “dots of intelligence”, as Kelly terms them, bring about the connection of everything to everything and with it, the flow of information required for commerce to make ever more informed decisions about satisfying the demands of the consumer, wherever they are in the world. It’s those businesses which react fastest to the changing need of their customers who will prosper from the network economy.
While one might expect visionary hyperbole from the executive editor of Wired magazine, Kelly skilfully avoids falling into the trap of proclaiming technological utopia. He acknowledges that the idea of a silicon chip in every item may seem sinister to some and emphasises that technology is not a global panacea.
But his arguments about the rise of the network economy are made all the more convincing by his continual reference to real-world examples, such as corporate behemoths General Motors and IBM struggling to adapt to new demands precisely because of their size. What was once their big advantage has now become a disadvantage. Kelly is not so much interested in speculation about the future as to what is happening at the moment.
For the consumer in the street, this flow of information should mean that they increasingly get exactly what they want, as companies stop producing for mass markets and start catering for sizeable minority markets. This extends from tangible products to information itself. The way in which the Net is beginning to overshadow television as a news source is one such example.
The only subject which Kelly doesn’t address is the glib use of the phase “global economy”, which in reality misses out most of Africa and Asia, where many have never made a phonecall, let alone encountered a silicon chip.
For a book which discusses the new opportunities that technology is bringing both to consumers and businesses, it seems strange that a huge section of the world’s inhabitants appear to have been ignored. New Rules For The New Economy does an excellent job of articulating the realities of the network economy, but it also begs the question about those outside it.