How much is 'the culture of the internet' really the culture of connected PCs? As someone who has just started using a cellphone (for talking, not messaging, so far), I wonder about this a lot. Will the cellphone change how I interact with people, or will I simply use it on rare and urgent occasions?
It would be overgeneralizing to say that the net is American and the cellphone European (or Japanese), but interesting crosscurrents of techno and regional cultures are now being illuminated. Does technology enable tendencies that already exist, or does it create them? Why do Europeans adopt cellphones so readily, while Americans use e-mail more?
Net culture is already at least two cultures - that of the web and that of e-mail. These are closer to each other than to the m-culture of mobile phones. E-mail culture assumes you have a personal computer, and web culture assumes you are sitting at it, but m-culture assumes you stay online as you move about. All these cultures will change. Web culture will grow to encompass streaming video and video-conferencing; mobile culture will change from nuance-rich voice conversations to short messages and quick transactions. Some features will merge as mobile services encompass e-mail and the net offers video-conferencing. But the biggest change will be the transformation of unstructured communications media into structured applications. Instead of an 'unstructured' conversation, with rich information as in e-culture or rich emotion as with voice, there's a form of structured query-and-response messages that some business applications keep track of in the background.
To some extent, people will pick their medium according to their inclinations and the media will change how they interact. The challenge will be to use it to assist in communication rather than to deaden it. To do that we must understand the implications of the tools we use. M-culture is real-time and quick, whereas e-culture is store-and-forward, delayed gratification, and offers the opportunity to think before you respond. M-culture is great for making things happen quickly - if the people involved are available.
By contrast, e-culture makes it easier to work across time-zones and to share rich information across a wider set of people. When people talk by phone or message, they get instant responses and can make decisions, but the interaction vanishes: by e-mail, the record remains for all to see. E-culture is more inclusive, in the present and after the fact. Likewise, e-business is good for shopping, for browsing, for comparing product details, viewing photographs, whereas m-business is about quick price-checks and transactions.
I asked one start-up team about their use of communications media. 'Well, we use e-mail to send files around, but we never could have built our business as quickly without our cellphones,' they told me. The question is, when do you stop feeling you're interacting with other humans and start feeling you're interacting with a bureaucratic system? That's the moment start-ups should delay by using systems for communication rather than process. I hope to avoid it by being a better communicator, whether by voice, short messages or e-mail.
Esther Dyson will be chairing the UK Internet Summit 2000, supported by Management Today, WPP and the New Statesman on Wednesday 11 October.
For details contact Hugo Tagholm: firstname.lastname@example.org.