by Malcolm Wheatley

Q & A | FRANCES CAIRNCROSS’s Predictions: Internet Will Change Global Law, Lines Between Home and Work Will Blur

Nov 01, 20012 mins

ACCORDING TO BRITISH author Frances Cairncross, a senior editor at The Economist, the world has yet to wake up to the implications of what she describes as “The Death of Distance.”

Intending to merely revise a book of that name that she authored in 1997, Cairncross instead found that a whole new volume, The Death of Distance 2.0 (Texere, May 2001), emerged as she surveyed the still-unfolding possibilities unlocked by the power, reach and changing economics of global telecommunications.

Q: What kind of revolution are you predicting?

A: The analogy I use is the automobile in 1910. By then, these were recognizable as cars, but it took most of the rest of the 20th century for their social consequences to emerge. In telecommunications terms, we’re still back in 1910. As a mass medium, the Internet is less than a decade old?yet already 385 million people around the world have been introduced to the idea that it costs no more to visit a bookstore in Seattle than one on their High Street. Similarly, wireless technology is killing location: You can work wherever you happen to be. Broadband will reduce the cost-per-bit to close to zero.

Q: And how prepared are we?

A: Companies?and investors?have yet to adjust to the slimmer margins brought about by greater price transparency and more competition. And also to the fact that they will become niche specialists rather than vertically integrated behemoths. Individuals have yet to recognize that the boundaries between their work and home will increasingly blur. And governments still think that within their national boundaries, their rule is law. But as content sweeps across national boundaries, enforcement becomes increasingly problematic.

Q: Is there any good news?

A: Oh, yes?there are positives as well as negatives. As individuals, we’ll lose a lot of our privacy, for example. But as our privacy disappears so will a lot of the crime that we fear, thanks to the pervasiveness of electronic surveillance, audit trails and the capture of biometric data such as fingerprints and retina patterns. There is a balance.