Tony Blair pushing cautiously at a mouse and tapping one-fingered at the keyboard makes an icon of our times; an intelligent, successful and educated middle-aged man who has suddenly noticed the internet bearing down on him like a tidal wave, and all he has to ride it is a surfboard. But is it true that we will all have to adapt to the internet or be swept away by history and ground on to the rocks?
This is certainly what people who have just discovered the power of the web believe. And yes, in broad terms computer networks have turned the world upside down and will continue to do so. But this has been a revolution that devours its own buzz words quicker than any other; and today's buzz words about e-commerce and business on the internet may turn out to be profoundly misleading.
Most of the real and important changes encompassed within the umbrella term "the internet" are invisible, or else very diffuse in their effects. The internet is far more than the world wide web, and many of the most important computer networks in the world are not even part of the internet. Yet they have already changed politics and economics beyond all recognition.
Practically all the important symbols of the modern world are now digital, and the most important of all is money. "Cyberspace is where your money lives" remains one of the most powerful slogans of the modern age. Globalisation, which has constrained everything this government does, would be unthinkable without computer networks and the way that they have linked factories more tightly to shops while dissolving any need for geographical closeness.
To take an obvious example, the power of the big supermarket chains is entirely dependent on their internal computer networks, which make possible very precise stock control and very quick reactions to customer trends. These in turn have a huge effect on the farming industry all around the world, and so on the landscape and even the world's ecology. This is much more profound than Waitrose or Tesco handing out free e-mail addresses and web space. But it is also very much less visible.
It's a commonplace to talk about the decline of the manufacturing industry, and that is certainly very real. But the industries that have replaced manufacturing do have factories of a sort. It's just that their factories are their computer networks.
This newspaper, for instance, could be printed almost anywhere. The articles in it can be written anywhere, and edited anywhere else in the world. What's more, this can all be done collaboratively, and in real time. There seems to be a "factory" in Canary Wharf where it is all made but this is really an illusion. Providing the computers on which all the work is stored are backed up, the whole tower could vanish into a hole in the ground without disrupting production too much.
Similarly, a law firm, a stockbrokers', or even a government, are all now things which could be done on the internet and to a surprising extent already are. There are technical problems concerned with secrecy and reliability; and there is always the problem of finding software which makes collaborative working easy. But these can all be solved, and soon will be.
We will know this has happened when computers become as ubiquitous and as invisible as electric motors are. I couldn't tell you how many electric motors there are in my house, but I can still count the computers easily: I'm writing this in my study with two computers, two mobiles, an ISDN and a conventional phone line spread round on the desk and shelves in front of me, but at the moment, the only reliable connection between all these gadgets is me. …