The burden of education

The internet as a stock phenomenon may have had its day, but as a social and political phenomenon it has a huge future before it.

Reviewing the news of the year, we conclude that the prize for the sweetest irony goes to France. L'Hexagone claimed this honour back in May with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's announcement of the establishment of a new grande Ècole dedicated to, of all things, the internet. The goal of the high-end university, near Marseille, and that of a host of other costly high-tech government measures, was to help France "catch up" in the wired world.

The idea of a grande Ècole propelling France to the technical fore is ironic because it was the Ècoles that very likely caused France to lag the other "smart" nations in the first place. These elite institutions, envied and respected around the world, feature challenging world-class curricula and generate influential, hypereducated alumni. But they have also kept alive its old dirigisme. The sense of superiority they first gained at the grandes Ècoles sustained French policymakers for many decades in their conviction that technological innovation can only come from en haut.

Thus the nation's leaders envisioned that innovation would only come only through concentrated and centralised work by certified French geniuses (the nation's network of dedicated terminals, Minitel) or with the aid of government subsidy carefully planned by enarques (graduates of another grande Ècole, the ...cole Nationale d'Adminstration). In the arrogance of its education, France created an economy that often squelched or chased away random experimenters like Jim Clark or Steve Jobs, and therefore missed the internet boat.

But not to beat up on France too much. Being hobbled by one's own schooling is a global problem, common to elites in many countries. Older teachers, attorneys, judges, doctors - indeed all professionals of a certain age - have flailed around miserably in their efforts to come to terms with computers and the internet.

At first, most of these eminences adapted an ostrich attitude of "If I pretend I don't need it, it will go away". They even, in the manner of Marcel Proust, dismissed the innovation's importance: "It seems to me that I would never like to have a telephone at home. Once the initial amusement is over it's going to be a real pain in the neck." Underlying the ostrich attitude lay the fear of loss of stature, of being exposed as incompetent before mere techies, subordinates, or tradesmen.

But, to their credit, many of those challenged folk have tried again. Fumblingly, they learn to write emails, to download pictures of their grandchildren, to wire themselves faxes, and to order bread - even bread from France - over the internet. What success they enjoy in their new researches is often due to their willingness to seek help from much younger people. Some of these latecomers have even become internet masters, dotcom CFOs, and web site architects.

As a newsperson, I have, over the years, played both the roles of senior incompetent and youthful instructor in many such exchanges. And this month one of my erudite late-learning pals actually produced a book on the challenge the internet throws out to the professional elite.*

My buddy, Dennis Bark of Stanford, began his technological odyssey doubly handicapped. Not only was he a professor (of European history), he was also the son of a professor, the classicist William Carroll Bark. Like the French, Mr Bark discovered that education and erudition could be an impediment to advancement: after acquiring and shelving away Latin roots and German genitives, his brain was so organised and so rigid it resisted the sloppy logic and counterintuitive structure of Microsoft 3.1.

The same trouble plagued his colleagues, many of them prominent scholars at Stanford. Mr Bark's description of the anti-internet disdain of the Nobel Prize winners who inhabit certain university senior commons rooms is not to be missed. Spake one academic: "I don't have time to use e-mail".

Mr Bark, though, gets beyond his personal struggles to make an important point: the professionals who fear the internet are probably right to be afraid. Not because they are too old to learn to click a mouse-most aren't. But because they divine, quite rightly, that the internet is a genuine threat, perhaps not to the overall economy, but certainly to them, as individuals. It assaults their professional or political stature by challenging their "knowledge monopoly".

This is not a theoretical problem.

As Scotland has discovered, a multiple sclerosis patient who learns about beta interferon treatments online will no longer be satisfied with his doctor's assertion that "no help is currently available". An attorney whose specialty is property law will cease to command high fees once his clientele discovers that that special data about commercial rents is available on the internet.

The net threatens governments as well. Today, with "Thomas" and other wonderful search engines available to voters and constituents, US cabinet members or legislators can only dream of a day when knowledge was, as under France's ancien rÈgime, "published only with Permission of the King".

This last, essentially political, insight is of course not original: "The fax shall set you free" wrote the late military strategist Albert Wohlstetter of the facsimile machines that disseminated samizdat in East Europe or news of Tianamen Square in the China of the late 1980s. Viriginia Postrel, the California futurist, has also written about the erosion of hierarchy in the modern era.

Still, books like Dr Bark's are useful, if only because they help us to know what it is our leaders and professionals find threatening and liberating about wired life. The internet as a stock phenomenon may have had its day, but the internet as a social and political phenomenon has a giant future before it.

*"Professor Bark's Amazing Digital Adventure" by Dennis L Bark, Woodford Press.

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

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