Internet Innovation Is History

The glory days of the Internet are finished. Kaput. In terms of raw excitement — the kind of pulse-racing thrill that comes with discovering something truly original, finding it has infinite possibilities and then actually making it work — the Internet has cashed in its stock options and gone fishing.

The multitudes who are wading deeply into e-commerce waters and thrilling to the possibility of global profit margins do not share this view, of course. But when it comes to true technological innovation and genius abstract thinking, the good times are gone. There will be some fancy new tinkering that may raise a few eyebrows, but the big stuff is already in the history books.

Brain Drain

There are no statistics for this sort of thing, but there are quite a few stories floating around about early Web pioneers taking permanent leave from the Internet and directing their creative energies elsewhere. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves.

Some are simply burned out from the hard work, the long hours, and the forfeiture of meaningful lives outside the office. Others are balking at the increasingly capitalistic path e-business has carved through the cyberspace wilderness. The road from information superhighway to e-commerce phenomenon has caused a cynical burnout all its own.

Modern Day Managers

Traditional businesspeople came late to the tech game, but they are now stepping in to fill the void. Their priorities are not the same as those of the Internet pioneers. Not even close. In place of the wild-eyed, who-cares-what-time-it-is, techno-rebels who started the whole deal, the Internet is now yielding to the control of modern day “managers” who think along very different lines.

Geeks are powerful abstract thinkers; contemplation of traditional business models either flummoxes them or bores them to distraction. Managers are excellent at applying sound principles, but not very inclined toward paradigm-shifting insights.

The Internet has become a staple of modern life for much of the world and, despite all those lofty company mottoes proclaiming their institutions as “cutting edge leaders on the vanguard of technological discoveries,” a great many companies are marching toward success in lock-step formation behind a few strong business leaders. Most of them are better equipped to win at “Simon Says” than at playing “Risk.”

This state of affairs was inevitable. Unless revolution is accepted by the masses, it amounts to nothing more than a failed coup. Even with success, there is always a letdown after the first flush of victory. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of money to be made, and for some, that is excitement enough.

Teacher and Student Drain

Another reason the e-commerce boom is causing a lull in invention is that it is raiding the computer science classes of the best instructors — many of whom are leaving the academic life for the rich promises that new startups offer. Because these new “corporate academics” are not called upon to function as instructors, their knowledge is not disseminated as widely as if they were teaching eager university students.

New graduates are also being lured away from the campus. Salaries are roughly the same for the new Ph.D. computer science graduate who opts to teach at MIT as for the one who goes to work for IBM — around $100,000 — but industry can offer the added attraction of stock options. All universities can offer is tenure. It is easy to see why many choose the comforts of a career in high-tech after years living the threadbare life of a serious student.

Shortage of Critical Thinking

Critics charge that even though computer science curricula have a problem of their own maintaining qualified faculties, traditional sciences including physics, chemistry, biology and the earth sciences are suffering even greater staffing deficits.

The number of undergraduates enrolling in computer engineering classes is at an all-time high, according to some studies, while the opposite is true for the traditional sciences, particularly physics.

Critics also say that computer engineering as a discipline does not require students to engage in critical thinking the way a traditional science such as physics does. It was a short-sighted approach to developing experts in a wide range of fields that caused the present dearth of qualified, high-tech workers in the United States, and made it necessary to change immigration laws to import skilled workers from other countries, they charge.

The Winner Is the Loser

Ultimately, while e-commerce may be coming out ahead of the information-driven ideal of the Web’s pioneers, a commercial Internet cannot sustain itself without the accompaniment of dynamic movers and shakers.

Accepted models do not drive innovation. Critical thinking does. That is what the top Internet priority should always be. E-commerce can always find a place on the coattails of purely scientific advances, but the same cannot be said of the reverse.

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