It is 1793, and in Georgia, a young schoolteacher named Eli Whitney has just invented something called the cotton gin. It is a wondrous contraption: A battery of saws pulls raw cotton strands through a grid, separating seeds from fiber at a rate of hundreds of seeds per minute. Powered by hand, by water, or by horse, it does the work of as many as 50 men.
It is soon apparent that Whitney's creation will change the face of the cotton trade. With the cost of labor lowered so dramatically, farms will multiply across the South and the East. Everyone will grow cotton. Everyone will wear cotton. Cotton merchants will grow rich. Not incidentally, slavery will flourish.
What isn't apparent in 1793 is just how far-reaching the machine's economic impact will be. Whitney's gin, combined with the advent of steam-powered spinning machines from England, will open the way for the construction of the first modern-style factories. Row after row of spinning machines will feed room after room of weavers. Mass production will replace handmade piecework.
Entrepreneurs of that era will apply similar technologies to other, comparable manufacturing processes. In industry after industry, they will bring under one roof what had been a patchwork of cottage enterprises. Home-based proprietors will become employees. Managers and management systems will emerge to control these newly centralized operations. The world will witness the birth of entirely new organizational structures. Whitney's gin will spin out modern industry.
Throughout history, this is how technological revolutions have unfolded. The true import of an invention is rarely evident at its birth. Most of us simply lack the imagination to envision the full scope of potential change in our lives. We are too invested in the present to consider the possibility of a threatening — or even a promising — future.
The Internet, though, is different. As far as most people are concerned, the Net is still brand-new, unformed, just out of the gate. America Online made the transition from curiosity to legitimate phenomenon only about two years ago, and Amazon.com made that leap only last year. EBay mania is less than a year old. Yet we all recognize that the Net is something (in the insistent words of priceline.com pitchman William Shatner) "big — really big." We are staring discontinuity in the face, and this time we all know it.
The Internet is a new species of community, a new paradigm for communication, a new system for distribution. Because it is all three of these things at once, it is capable of destroying existing business models in dozens of industries — if not today, then very soon. Traditional retailing — poof. Banking — poof. Mutual funds — poof.
We know all of this not because we are any braver or smarter than people were in 1793, but because the evidence of rapid destruction is already before our eyes. Relationships between buyers and sellers are changing. The distinction between manufacturers and distributors is blurring. Starbucks is selling furniture online. Dell Computer is moving from selling only computers to offering all kinds of electronic products. Commodities such as steel and coal are finding new markets — complete with new relationships — in the dotcom world. No one professes to know where all of this is headed, but nearly everyone agrees that the coming change will be, well, big — really big.
This fundamental agreement underlies the responses to the latest Fast Company - Roper Starch Worldwide online survey. We set out to gauge the state of the Net — how people use it, and how much; what they like, and what they don't like, about its features; and how the technology serves, or doesn't serve, their needs. Here's what we learned.
The Net Is Big — Really ? Well, You Know
Survey respondents indicate that about 33% of their time online is dedicated to work activities; most of the time that they spend on the Net, they report, is dedicated to personal pursuits. In the workplace, men spend roughly 50% more time online (one and a half hours per day) than women do, while older workers spend about as much time surfing each day as their younger colleagues do. On the home front, there is not much of a gender difference in the amount of time that people spend online. Younger people, meanwhile, are far more likely than older people to spend two hours a day or more surfing at home.
Certainly, respondents to this survey do not form a cross-section of the U.S. population — since, by definition, everyone whom we surveyed is already online. But the survey's results do tell us why these people are online and why they're spending so much time there. The simple answer: The Internet adds real value to their lives. Presented with a series of statements, 94% of respondents agree that the Net makes communication easier, 96% agree that it "lets people get information quickly," and 82% agree that it "empowers consumers."
One key finding colors all of the survey's results: Respondents fall roughly into three groups. About 30% are aggressive Internet adopters. These are people who say that using the Net is critical to their success, or that communicating by email is more effective than relying on in-person conversation. These are the online power-shoppers. These are the true believers, the real fanatics, the hard-core citizens of the Net.
Another 15% of participants are skeptics. They tend to see less value in the Web than other people do. They go online, they use email, and they see some promise in Internet technology. But they also think that the Net will never live up to its hype, and they doubt that we'll ever do most of our work or most of our shopping online. They are willing to use the Net — but they will never embrace it.
The remaining 55% represent the critical mass — the Great Middle. They think that the Internet is important and useful, but it doesn't dominate their work or their lives, which are still rooted in real-world relationships and practices. Indeed, when asked about the Web's value, they equivocate. Does the Web actually help them? In effect, 55% of respondents say "sort of." They "agree somewhat," or they "disagree somewhat." Does the Internet merely add work to their day? Sort of, the Great Middle again replies. Is the Net critical to their success? Well, sort of. Clearly, these 55%ers hold the future of the Net in their hands. The rate at which they move from being tepid Net participants to being enthusiastic Web-heads will determine the rate at which the Net achieves dominant mind share — as well as dominant market share — in the new economy.
But Its Appeal Is Mostly Personal
Even for the converted, the Internet has not changed the face of work — yet. A scant 56% of respondents cite access to the Web as being at least "somewhat important" to their work. Only 20% "agree completely" that the Internet helps them to be more efficient at work, and only 15% "agree completely" that the Net is "critical to my success."
In the workplace, the Internet seems to breed indifference. Far more compelling than using the Net, people tell us, is doing business the old-fashioned way. All told, 78% describe telephone conversations as "very important" or "somewhat important," and 79% describe face-to-face meetings in such terms.
Most people expect that even five years from now, the Internet will not be a critical factor in business success. Our survey asks respondents to state which they think will be more important in 2004 — "skill at using the Internet" or "social skills." "Social skills" wins handily, with 72% of the vote. We offer a similar choice between Internet prowess and "an advanced degree" — and 67% of respondents say that a degree will be more important. They say the same about "having good business contacts," about "years of work experience," and about "passion for your work."
At the same time, as many as one-third of respondents say that Internet skills will soon be more important than traditional business attributes. This group roughly corresponds to the hard core of Internet fanatics — the 30%ers, those who view the Net as a critical technology. Somewhat strikingly, older workers are more likely than their younger peers to envision a Net-driven career track. (Perhaps they are unknowingly voicing their fears of a technology-driven future.)
But respondents generally do not see the Net as a pervasive element in the workplace — that is, as a way of getting things done, of making decisions, or of managing people. Rather, they view it mostly as a personal instrument, as a device that helps individuals do specific tasks. An impressive 93% of respondents, for example, say that they use the Internet "a lot" or "some" to do research — which confirms the Web's emerging status as the world's greatest library. Nearly 80% use the Web to catch up on current events, and 59% shop online for books, groceries, cars, clothes, or airline tickets.
Email, of course, is ubiquitous — and it remains the Net's killer app: 95% of respondents send and read it, and 65% call it "very important" or "somewhat important" to helping them feel "in the loop" at work. About the same proportion of respondents say that email helps them handle their work.
These more personal uses of the Net are enticing people online in breathtaking numbers. Given a choice between spending an hour in front of the television or an hour on the Web, three-quarters of respondents opt for the Web. Almost 60% say that they would choose Internet access over cable TV. And 77% say that they would rather have the latest personal-computer system than the latest home-entertainment system. On the whole, survey respondents seem to be saying that the Net offers them an opportunity to select and tailor their own experiences — and to do so in an environment that allows them to learn new things and to participate in a new space.
E-commerce: Love It, Hate It, Not Sure
In the survey, we also offer participants this choice: an hour of shopping on the Web, or an hour of shopping in a mall. Here, the response is almost evenly split: 48% go with the Web, but 52% head for the mall. Given that Web-based shopping for a wide variety of goods and services has become feasible only in the past year or two, a vote of nearly 50% represents an extraordinary endorsement of the Net — and sends up an enormous red flag for traditional retailers. People find e-shopping attractive and empowering. In many cases, they find it easier and more fun than going to an actual store.
In particular, 57% of respondents say that purchasing airline tickets online is better than buying them the old-fashioned way; only 4% say that it's worse. In the case of shopping for books, 38% find the online route better than the storefront option; only 12% say that it's worse. The next response should trigger loud warning bells for traditional bankers: 54% of respondents prefer banking online; only 24% opt for the brick-and-mortar approach. And look out brokerages: 49% of respondents prefer online investing; only 23% vote for doing business with a living, breathing broker.
In other online segments, retailers haven't cracked the code — yet. Nearly one-quarter of respondents say that they prefer shopping online for a car to visiting a real-world dealer. But 17% say that they would rather go to a dealer, and an additional 32% say that they will never buy an auto online. In the case of clothing, 17% say that they enjoy the online experience more than the traditional retailing experience. Another 30% say that online shopping is at least comparable to in-store shopping. But 25% see online clothes shopping as inferior to visiting a traditional clothing retailer, and 28% say that they would never shop for clothes on the Web. Another 44% say that they would never shop for groceries online.
On the Net, Gender Matters
It's not surprising that men and women approach the online world in different ways. What is striking is just where the fault lines appear. Women, for example, voice more skepticism than men do about using the Net in the workplace: They are less likely than men to say that Internet technology makes them more efficient. And only 39% of women, compared with 53% of men, "agree completely" or "agree somewhat" that the Net is critical to their success. Women agree more often than men that "The Internet sounds great, but it doesn't help me in practice." Women tend to place a higher value on face-to-face conversations and on phone calls than they do on over-the-Net communication.
When it comes to assessing the future of the Net, though, women take a more aggressive view. They are more likely than men to agree that the Internet will — someday — fundamentally change the way we work. Nearly 58% of women, compared with just 47% of men, say that someday we will do most of our work on the Net. And women are more likely than men to say that, five years from now, the Net will be more essential to business success than good contacts, experience, or an advanced degree.
Women also voice strong and startling opinions about the role of the Net in the home. Almost 80% say that they prefer an hour on the Web to an hour of watching TV (72% of men agree with that view). More women than men opt for Internet access over cable-TV access, and substantially more women say that they would take the latest home PC over the latest home-entertainment system.
Gender differences also emerge in response to questions about e-commerce. In general, women are more inclined than men are to favor in-store shopping: 57% of women say that they would rather spend an hour at the mall than an hour online, compared with 48% of men. Once they are online, though, women are more likely than men to buy books and clothes. Men, on the other hand, are more likely than women to view the Web as a comfortable tool for handling personal finance. By a wide margin, they are more likely to spend time investing or banking online: 38% of them say that they spend at least some time investing in stocks or mutual funds on the Web, while only 19% of women use the Web to perform those financial functions.
The Net Has Its Faults ...
The ability to do things that we otherwise couldn't do, things that we didn't even know could be done — ultimately, that's what we demand of the Internet. We expect it to be an electronic panacea that will increase our effectiveness at work, make our lives easier and better, and, by the way, give us lower prices.
In some ways, the Net meets this tall order. In others, it shows huge promise but then falls short of that promise. For now, at least, it just doesn't blow us away — not enough to keep us from doing things the way we've always done them. To test both the promise and the shortcomings of the Web, we asked people to finish this sentence: "I would spend a lot more time on the Net if . . ." For 40% of respondents, the end of that sentence is "it allowed me to do more things that I couldn't do otherwise."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, most Net denizens don't focus on problems of accessibility or ease of use. Just 14% say that they would spend more time online if the Net "were dramatically easier to use." The biggest barrier has to do with privacy: 46% of respondents say that they would spend more time online if "security and privacy were guaranteed."
Security and privacy also present the largest impediment to e-commerce activity. Some 32% say that they would spend more money on the Internet if security were guaranteed. That's slightly more than the number (29%) who say that they would buy more stuff via the Web if "prices were lower." Another 13% say that they would spend more if "there were explicit standards for ethical commerce" on the Web. Are there explicit ethical standards for real-world commerce? Not that we know of. Would we alter our purchasing decisions if Sears, for example, posted ethical guidelines in its stores? Probably not. But we hold the Web to different standards — because it is a new medium, and it makes different promises.
... But We'll Love It Anyway
Can we imagine what the Internet will be like in five years? Not with any hope of precision. But we can foresee this: It will be more pervasive, more powerful, and more deeply ingrained in our lives.
To confirm — and then to move past — those truisms, we asked people to judge our vision of where the Internet will be in 2004. We also asked them to paint some pictures of their own. Here is where their recognition of the revolution at hand becomes clear. Here is where the online crowd says, "Wow! I get it."
Respondents agree: The hype that's engulfing the Internet these days isn't just hype. In fact, only 5% think that it's "very likely" that the Net won't live up to its hype; another 18% say that this is "somewhat likely." On the other hand, 68% say that it's "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that the Internet "will improve and change to a point where we won't recognize it." And 70% say that we will change — by becoming better at using the Net.
In all, slightly more than half of respondents (52%) think that it's "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that we'll do most of our work on the Internet by 2004. An even larger number (59%) think that we'll do most of our shopping online within five years. Yes, stores will still be around in five years: Only 29% of respondents say that it is "certain" or "likely" that "retail businesses will focus all of their resources" on Web sites, making physical outlets "relics of the past." Yet here's the intriguing kicker: Another 48% consider that outcome to be possible (though "not likely") within the next five years. More to the point, a sizable portion of respondents (41%) see such an outcome as a positive development!
Looking ahead to 2004, 56% of respondents expect to do more of their investing on the Web, 64% think that they'll do more of their banking on the Web, and 53% say that they'll use the Web more often to buy airline tickets. (And, in a nod to gender differences — and to the "some things never change" department — we asked about future use of the Web to view pornography: 38% of men say that in five years, they'll be viewing as much or more pornography online as they do now.)
Respondents also appreciate how the Net might change their lives beyond e-commerce. To make that kind of change seem a little more human, we created a scenario starring Pat, who telecommutes full-time from home: Pat stays in visual contact with coworkers via a camera linked to a PC, and shares electronic documents via the company intranet. Then we invited respondents to take stock of Pat's work life. Is it possible? Will it be possible in the future? And, even if it is possible, is it desirable?
Not surprisingly, 70% of respondents say that Pat's work life is possible now, and another 17% believe that it will be possible in five years. More important, 73% say that Pat's work life appeals to them "a lot" or "some" — even though 38% believe that telecommuting will hurt Pat's career prospects.
In another scenario, we introduced the Johnsons. Because their home has walls that are also computer screens, they can digitally wallpaper the house with museum-quality paintings or with real-time video feeds of the ocean. Intranets control all of the house's heating, lighting, and security systems. The Johnsons' children attend school remotely, watching lectures on a big computer screen. A lot of this technology has yet to arrive — but, according to our respondents, it's not too far off: 40% say that the Johnsons' life is already possible or will be possible by 2004. Another 30% believe that it will be possible within 10 years, and 27% agree with a time frame of 20 years or more. What's more, this is a snapshot of the future that most people like: Nearly two-thirds of respondents say that the Johnsons' life appeals to them "a lot" or "somewhat."
We Want It to Happen
Such is the state of the Internet in 1999. Not unlike the cotton gin, it's a wondrous contraption: Even now, in its raw youth, its potential to reorder our lives is undeniable. The story of the Internet over the next five years will be the story of the Great Middle — of those who, like 55% of our respondents, comprehend the Net's significance but don't yet completely buy into its promise. Centered still in the real world, these 55%ers see the online experience as ancillary rather than crucial.
So the question of questions is, What will it take to convert the people who make up this Great Middle? How will the Net change to accommodate their desires and needs? How will it prove itself to be truly valuable?
What people really want from the Internet is something that they can't explain all that well: They want to be able to do stuff that they couldn't do otherwise — but what? They imagine that the Net will improve and change dramatically — but how? We're starting to witness how online transactions will revolutionize our personal lives. But how the Net might do the same in our work lives remains a mystery.
Yet for all of this uncertainty — the kind of uncertainty that comes with the territory of any technological disruption — what is most remarkable is how convinced we are that solutions will soon appear. The Internet, say 85% of respondents, will fundamentally change the way we live and the way we work — an overwhelming endorsement of the view that the Web changes everything. We will send more email, do more online research, and get more news from the Web — all because the Net allows us to do these things faster, cheaper, better. At a profound level of acceptance, we believe that the Net will allow us to do many other things faster, cheaper, and better as well.
That is why the Internet is so threatening to the existing order. It addresses inefficiencies in traditional business models. It rids us of unnecessary intermediaries. It lowers prices. It operates at an unprecedented speed. Its most threatening feature is this: We want all of this to happen. And that is the most powerful force for change that there is.
Visit Roper Starch Worldwide on the Web (http://www.roper.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.