It's probably just coincidence, but two commentators on economics have almost simultaneously published exasperated critiques of the current state of computer technology. Robert Samuelson's latest column complains that the "Internet century" turned out to be an "Internet nanosecond" that was followed by three years of failing to deliver on the hype-ridden promises thrown around at the peak of the bubble. "The obvious truth about the Internet", he claims, "is that it's not especially important....if the Internet collapsed tomorrow, most Americans would go on with their lives in a way that would not be true if, say, they could no longer drive their cars." Samuelson blames the Internet technology industry for (1) failing to innovate sufficiently quickly and (2) failing to engineer enough reliability into its products.
Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley's chief economist, Stephen Roach, took a break this week from his usual macro forecasting to launch into an uncharacteristic tirade on the unreliability of computer technology. "For years, we’ve all heard about the Promised Land of the New Economy," he writes, after recounting a litany of personal horror stories about computer and network failures. "A funny thing happened on the road to that revolution. First, the asset bubble popped. And then the technology disappoints."
What's striking about both essays is that they eloquently testify to the falsity of their own main premise. In fact, in the go-go days of the Internet bubble, computer and network technologies were enormously less reliable than they are today. Few noticed at the time, though, because the services they delivered were intriguing novelties, and users were impressed that they worked at all. Today, Samuelson thinks nothing at all of the Internet's everyday uses ("We e-mail. We buy from eBay. We get homework from the Net. We have access to vast stores of information."), and instead gripes about how people "want them to work -- all the time, not 88 percent of the time." Meanwhile, Roach whines about the failure of an overseas videoconferencing link, the unreliability of his laptop's operating system, and the proliferation of the passwords he needs to remember in order to access various resources over the network, as if these technologies have been working conveniently and flawlessly for decades, only to suddenly go awry all at once. In fact, what has happened is that they are now so commonplace that the likes of Roach and Samuelson can feel quite within their rights to get indignant when they fail to work perfectly. That's as clear a demonstration of the technology's spectacular progress as I can imagine.