The dot.com layman, still in the majority even in the rich world, encounters the architects of our future with a touch of fear. These men and women, inevitably young and presumably gifted (but how can you measure the gifts?) are architects because, as one of them, Johnny LeRoy, who works for whatsonwhen.com, explains: 'When you construct a web site, you are making a structure like a completed building, and you have to pay attention to the details, like the taps and the doorknobs.' It is thus both visionary and finicky work, and for these builders of the future, the finicky is the most of it: lots of time hunched over a screen, making sure the thing works.
Above all, it must be scaleable - capable of handling from two to two million transactions, robust enough to grow and be hit endlessly. It grows, of course, with the market: the market is all in this world. It is the reason why nerds in a flat - which may not even be their own - become millionaires, or at least come to work in pleasant spaces in converted warehouses or churches, employing hundreds or even thousands hunched over screens. The market is closer, more intimately trackable than in any previous commerce - visible to the creators every hour, every minute, as consumers hit the site of their choice and interact with it.
These architects without materials are the shapers of the future. Not just of the technology, but of the society and of social relations, of employment patterns and states of mind. Their interaction with the market via the screen will determine how buying and selling is done; whether or not we reduce our shopping trips so dramatically that stores become warehouses with fleets of delivery trucks; whether or not we fragment office work into a hundred, a thousand, or a million satellites of little groups or individuals hunched over their screens in their own rooms; whether or not we so de-layer corporations that the bosses - whose position in the hierarchy was determined by access to and monopoly of knowledge - will be dethroned, because knowledge is available to all; and whether or not we surround people with access to knowledge and the ability to prepare, so that travelling will not so much be a surprise as a confirmation in a physical sense of something experienced in 3D on the screen before we depart.
These are the possibilities glimpsed by the architects. They know they are social engineers, but don't know how they will shape society because they are like fishermen casting lines on the water to test whether the bait is taken. If it is, then more lines are thrown and the fishing is rich - in what Ben Andradi, head of e-business at BT, calls 'sweet spots'. Capital rushes to these sweet spots and makes sure they are fished thoroughly - often overfished. More lines are cast, more bait is taken and more sweet spots appear.
It is only the beginning. Gilles Corre of Genient started designing web sites in 1995 for a firm called Spiral Links in Silicon Valley. It was mainly used by the Valley's corporate world for advertising its wares and services, and to allow people in the companies to share plans and information in a way they had not before. He explains: 'It was the phone and the fax and messages. This new technology allowed people to get into data banks that had not been available before, and to work co-operatively in a way they could not do before.
'For example, we built a system for Oracle which allowed sales people to access a master system in the warehouse that held information on prospective clients. It told them a lot about clients' preferences. It allowed them to approach people in different ways, to work out different selling strategies. They, in turn, would feed the information they gained back into the system. It allows people to pool information they glean. It's also anti-hierarchy: it gives knowledge to everyone who needs it.'
Corre is now Genient's chief technology officer and spends much of his time creating virtual offices for small businesses. 'It brings the tools that have been available only to big corporations within the reach of the small and medium-sized enterprises. Things like timesheets and invoicing; in a great many businesses these things are still paper-based; they need constant re-keying with the possibility of many mistakes. Bills get sent out later so they get paid later. These systems put the tools for doing these jobs online: a lot of back-office processes, relatively simple, can be dealt with.'
The spread of these techniques illustrates two contrary effects of the internet: its capacity to enhance the advantages of the advantaged, and its contradictory ability to level up. It is at once elitist - the rich get richer and the competent more competent - and yet, sooner or later, the marginalised share some of the fruits.
Andradi at BT sees the democratic potential of the internet as one of its greatest, and most unknowable, characteristics. He imagines a world - a year or two away - when the internet goes broadband and web cameras are widely available. 'It will allow people to capture and broadcast all kinds of things that were barely captured before: local football games, the kids' party, the school concert. All these things can be shot, and pumped out on the net. You'll still have Coronation Street, but it will be fighting with millions of local inputs.
'The web is moving to the personal: the infrastructure is personal, like the mobile phones and the much more they will be able to do; and the software is becoming more and more personalised. Value is migrating to the personal. All the great dot.com companies, like Yahoo and AOL and Amazon, have been tailored to the personal and have grown with the customer, have gone in the way the customers take them.'
The trick seems to be to follow, not to lead. Boo.com, a failure mentioned more than once to the layman, is seen as an example of over-sophistication. Boo allowed you to 'wear' clothes before you bought them, since they were modelled for you in 3D. It was, however, very slow: customers used to rapid response times on the web simply didn't have the patience to wait. It languished and died.
'You need a technologist to say you can do this or that,' says Angus Bankes, co-founder and CTO of moreover.com, 'but it's not realistic.' Bankes' latest project, which sorts and packages news for sale to other sites, is already attracting high sales. A previous venture, Origins, an internet genealogy company, was profitable within a year. 'You have to make it as simple and as open as possible. And it's interactive: it grows by trial and error, in a constant dialogue with the consumers Yahoo and others grew like that. That's what scaleability means: growing with your market.'
But what are these markets? Johnny LeRoy designed and now maintains whatsonwhen.com, which allows people to find out ... what's on when, and where. A classical music buff who is a vegetarian and wants to visit Colorado should be able to have a richer holiday through LeRoy's site. But LeRoy sees other applications - such as the thinking fridge, which registers the fact (through the barcode) that you have commodities X, Y and Z inside it, registers the fact that they are lacking, links up with the local store to order replacements, talks to the microwave or oven about how X should be cooked and even, if the fridge is hooked up to other sources of information, displays the times of films at the local cinemas. This is possible now. The question is, will enough people want it?
For some pioneer-engineers, the market is not the general consumer, but the corporation: the B2B market is one of the liveliest and most dynamic. Bjarne Lie, co-founder and chief executive of PaperX.com, has created a company that offers to the world's 300 paper companies and their 3,000 main customers a system that significantly reduces transaction costs and makes more information available to buyers and sellers more quickly. 'It's the old marketplace idea,' says Lie. 'Cut costs and get out the information. But the internet hypercharges the process. It reduces the cost of information so dramatically that it raises questions about what a company really is. It means that every company has to become an internet company. And yet no-one knows where this is going.'
The most visionary among these visionaries the layman met was a British-Vietnamese named Khoi Tu, business development strategist at web design company Razorfish, which has grown rapidly into a company of 1,800 people. Tu thinks about his business, but also thinks constantly about the globe. He sees the two as integrally linked, the first shaping the second, the second the first. Like many others, he sees an inevitability about globalisation: it cannot be stopped. But he also sees it as open to adaptation and shaping.
'You could fight globalisation,' he says, during a conversation about the demonstrations against the process in the US, Britain, France and Italy. 'But only through greater creativity. Stopping it is not on. The Seattle demonstrators blinded people as to their real needs. Technology is not evil, as they suppose. It's bland and agnostic. Technology used to have a purpose - in production, for example. Now, it doesn't care what it enables. It enables these demonstrations to happen, through e-mail and the mobile phone.
'It liberates everything,' Tu continues. 'If there are constant desires to amass great sums and grab power, it liberates and enables these too. But it also equalizes. If we are all connected and able to share and connect, then we are all rendered equal, at least formally. For many millions now, there is no worry about what to eat. There is very large scope about how we eat, the style in which we eat. Physical need gives way to choice, producer power to consumer power. The most powerful idea today is capitalism - and with that, democracy. The internet didn't create that, but it doesn't challenge it either. It has no ideals in that sense; nevertheless, it carries and expands and challenges them.
'A lot of corporations I work with have some notion of human progress. They think in democratic terms, which are linked in with market terms. Choosing a Coke is seen as a vote for the Coca-Cola Corporation. The notion of freedom is behind the whole thing: the notion of increased choice and information. That's implicit in the industry. You could say, to be fanciful, it has achieved the highest state of Buddhism - the absence of desire because desire is always satisfied. And it achieves it without suffering. If you believe we are all nice people, then technology liberates us for the better.
'The internet is a huge breakthrough, a different system,' Tu concludes. 'But it's not like communism was. It doesn't have a programme and a goal. It has certain basic facts. One is: my wealth is what is in my head. Two is: distance is dead. Three is: you can now be specific, be individual, reach individuals on a huge scale. The old mass techniques have gone, to be replaced with millions of individual communications, going both ways. This generation of the internet doesn't have the grand narratives of the '60s - it takes the narratives already there and spreads them.'
If the common theme of these weightless architects is freedom and knowledge, the common belief is that the new world is only just beginning. If the layman is confused and a little fearful, he finds in the architects no certainties - except that the potential of the new technologies is infinite and probably benign, and that what is being released and experimented with is so powerful, so desirable, that resistance is futile. As Tu says, it can only be challenged by greater creativity: and what is being created now, above all, is the basis for new, and as yet barely imagined, creation.
Strategy director, Razorfish.
Aged 30, lives with partner and four-month-old daughter.
Born in UK, parents of Vietnamese origin.
Lived in Paris, Belgium, Holland, Kenya and Hong Kong, but is now a confirmed south Londoner.
Attended a range of international schools, where he 'could have done better'.
Modelled for Paul Smith.
Stacked shelves at Sainsbury's.
Has degree in international relations from LSE.
Dropped out of Insead MBA course.
Spent most of '90s with Shell (HR, communications).
Joined Conduit Communications in 1998, which then merged with razorfish.
Speaks four languages.
Aged 29, single.
Year off in France after A-levels.
Oxford Classics graduate.
Took one-year law conversion.
Eight months as a 'paralegal'.
Six months travel in Latin America.
Worked for two other IT consultancies before current job.
Speaks fluent French, conversational Spanish, and 'gets by' in Portuguese and German.
CTO and founder of moreover.com.
Aged 36, married, three children.
Biotechnology graduate of King's College, London University.
Two years database programming.
Founded Match Healthcare Services (now part of Sinclair Montrose).
Founded Origins, the internet genealogy company, with David Galbraith.
Founded moreover.com, with Galbraith and Nick Denton.
Likes antique maps of London.
Is a liveryman in the worshipful company of spectaclemakers.
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