Published: Dec. 5, 1999

THEY don't write, they don't call and they certainly don't fill my hard drive with e-mail. But I know they're out there nonetheless -- those dour souls who secretly wish the Internet would just go away.

After years of watching one friend after another cross over to the wired side, even the most well-insulated among them is probably beginning to feel the chill of social isolation by now. Even their comfortable old media has betrayed them. Alas, there is no refuge for the lame, not when every other billboard, TV commercial and radio jingle seems to herald the arrival of yet another

I have some comforting news for these tormented individuals: The digital revolution will not be in your face for much longer. The  Internet will disappear, in a manner of speaking, within 10 years.

Of course there will still be a global network of digital devices exchanging information in the Net's lingua franca, TCP/IP. That network will almost certainly be many magnitudes larger than the one we know today. But will there be a distinct and separate cultural space called the Net in 10 years? Will we be thinking and talking incessantly about a destination called cyberspace?

The year 2010 may find your faithful correspondent still writing about some manifestation of digital culture -- but the Internet as the defining framework for that culture will be long gone. As the Net becomes an ubiquitous component of the economic and social landscape (or, to look at it another way, as economic and social affairs become part of the Net's landscape) all this technology will recede to the back of our consciousness and seem utterly unremarkable. To the digerati of 2010, phrases such as ''the Internet Generation'' and ''living at Net speed'' will seem as hopelessly quaint as ''23 skidoo.'' (Actually, ''digerati'' itself may need to be taken out and shot long before then.)

Consider for a moment the American West and the closing of the frontier. The West never went away, but once the land was partitioned, settled and cleared of those pesky natives the concept of a Western frontier was effectively dead.

Today, we are closer to the closing of the Net frontier than you may think.

For starters, the homesteading of cyberspace has been going on for many years now. When our communities and our careers moved online, the Net lost its sense of other-ness. It went from being a foreign space ''out there'' populated by faceless strangers to being a space where our friends and family were only an instant message away. (Say what you will about AOL, but it's lived up to its promise to democratize cyberspace. At some point just about everyone in your life will turn up

The next step in closing the Net frontier is currently taking place in the commercial arena, where again the Net is losing its aura of other-ness. Right now, we talk about the Internet as a distinct economic sector or an industry unto itself. We speak of e-commerce as a beast apart from regular commerce. This cannot last. Very soon it will become apparent that setting the Internet economy apart from the regular economy is as silly as referring to the ''electricity-using'' sector or the ''telephone-using'' economy.

A recent, well-publicized University of Texas study sponsored by Cisco Systems noted, among other things, that the Internet economy now rivals the airline industry in size and in three years will overtake the health-care sector. It doesn't take a doctorate in the dismal science to recognize that any airline or health-care company that intends to be around in three years is already, to some degree, in the Net business. The hazy distinctions between online and offline business will blur even more as so-called ''click-and-mortar'' giants such as perfect the art of using multiple channels (e-tailing, physical stores and direct mail) in a seamlessly integrated fashion.

The last step in the Net's disappearing act will involve the infrastructure. At some point in the not-too-distant future all the talk about embedded systems, Internet appliances, so-called ''thin clients'' and other manifestations of ubiquitous computing will come to fruition. It's gotta happen. There are just too many bright people around the world staying up all night for it to not happen. Once liberated from the confines of a personal computer on a desktop, the Internet becomes the common connective tissue between all the information in our lives.

There is not a doubt in my mind that one day soon the Internet will reside in your credit card, your refrigerator, your garden sprinkler system, your car's dashboard and your child's textbook. And on that day, at long last, the place we call the Net will cease to exist.


A new report by Forrester Research on the state of Net privacy controls paints a fairly bleak picture of the near-term future. The paper says online advertising networks that collect and aggregate user profiles and other data go about their business ''without the consent -- or even knowledge -- of most consumers.''

Forrester says advertising networks' attempts to clean up their act will not be enough to forestall government regulation of the industry. The firm believes we'll see new consumer-protection laws coming from Congress by the end of next year. ''Too many privacy stakeholders share too little common ground,'' says the report. ''Profiling concerns a broad range of constituents including advertisers, retailers, law enforcement and consumers. Asking this group to reach consensus is like expecting hospitals, insurers and patients to agree on a managed care plan.''

Forrester warns online retailers that in an environment where half of all Net consumers are ready to ask the government for enhanced privacy protections, their reputations are at stake. ''To avoid harm, stores should impose rigorous privacy practices now and err on the side of caution when buying, selling or sharing data.''


If we can set aside this unpleasantness about when the millennial odometer truly flips (yes, I know it's not for more than a year, but I'm not going to be a pill about it), let's give a nod to Deby Stewart, a Fort Lauderdale Web-design instructor who's planning to celebrate the New Year in a very artful fashion. As she explains it, some time back she heard a story about a photographer who'd taken a photograph of the last sunset of the 19th century and been quite well-paid for his labors. ''My aspirations are not so grand, but I did think it was a cool idea to see if I could get people to help me preserve some of the last sunsets of the last year of the century,'' she says. The result, very much an early work in progress, is

Stewart hopes the worldwide Net community at large will submit photos of sunsets from the waning days of this year (and particularly the last sunset of the year). But she's no marketing wizard. (''One of my worst traits is the inability to advertise myself,'' she says.) Consequently, just a half-dozen sunsets are currently linked to the global map on the site. Stewart says she's not sure if her demand for a release form to accompany each photo could be responsible for the underwhelming response. ''I feel that giving me the rights to the photos is fair trade for my putting them on the Web site,'' she says. If you agree, perhaps you'll consider sharing a sunset from your neck of the woods.


In other millennial miscellany, there's this question of a name. Unless there's a last-minute U.N. resolution I don't know about, it seems that the name of the first decade of the new century will be decided in the court of public opinion. If you care at all about such silliness, take a gander at You can nominate your own name for the years 2000-2009 (or is it 2010?) or choose from a vast selection of likely monikers, including:
- the Millies
- the nillies
- the millie-nillies
- the zeros
- the aughts
- the naughts
- the Two-K's
- the double-o's
- the zippies
- the zeds
- the double-aughts
- the deuces
- the zips

The Deuces? The Zips? Imagine telling our grandchildren we lived through a decade that sounded like a second-string gang from ''West Side Story.''

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