In 1999 America Online published a collection of Steve Case's speeches modestly titled "Looking Ahead to the Internet Century." It contained Case's musings on how the Internet would change education, democracy, philanthropy, public policy and international trade, as well as (of course) business and entertainment. Some of Case's prophecies have come to pass: Parents and students can check homework on the Net. But much of his vision remains unfulfilled, and it's doubtful that 100 years from now people will refer to the Internet Century. Probably they will simply call it the 21st century.
Case's resignation the other day as chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. is rightly regarded as a symbolic moment -- the fall from power of someone who pronounced the Internet the source of almost all power. The historians and social archaeologists of the future will surely find in his rhetoric ample evidence of the excesses of our era. No doubt they will heap much ridicule on some of his exaggerated predictions and, more to the point, identify in them the overconfidence and self-delusion that explained the period's stock market frenzy and vast overinvestment in new technologies (fiber-optic networks, for example).
It is in this vein that Case's eclipse is already being cast. The "old" economy has reasserted itself over the "new." The merchants of hype have now become its victims. But these obituaries really miss the important point about Case's failure and how it is a metaphor for a larger economic and social failure.
No one can see the future -- which, of course, doesn't stop anyone from trying. Case failed, but in this he is not especially different from anyone else. Indeed, his earnest optimism and boundless enthusiasm define the characteristics of countless Americans who, through the decades, have pioneered new products and technologies. If they are not all-knowing, who cares, as long as they continue to pioneer?
Here, unfortunately, is the true source of Case's failure and -- by extension -- the larger failure of the Internet's founders. They did not continue to pioneer and innovate.
The obvious truth about the Internet (though one rarely acknowledged) is that it's not especially important. Of course it has grown spectacularly. We e-mail. We buy from eBay. We get homework from the Net. We have access to vast stores of information. But 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. (The same might not be true of businesses.)
During the 1990s we were told that America's economic strength lay in its exceptional capacity to innovate. The "entrepreneurial spirit" was part of the culture: Americans took more risks than others. These boasts were partly true. Stupendous advances occurred in basic technology. The power of computer chips increased enormously; so did the carrying capacity of fiber-optic cables. But innovation faltered in two critical ways.
First, it did not create Internet products so valuable that consumers would buy them. People would pay for the basic connection -- but not much else. Thus, the Internet has become a giant white elephant. Its technological capabilities are dazzling; its commercial realities are depressing. There's huge excess capacity; many Internet services lose money. The ideal and desired solution of the Internet complex -- all the companies that depend on its success -- would be to let everyone freely download music, films, books and almost anything else. That would induce people to buy faster computers and faster connections. But this isn't innovation. It's saving one industry by ripping off many others.
The second failure involves simplicity and reliability. When personal computers and the Internet were techie toys, they could be complicated and quirky. Indeed, many techies enjoyed exploring the endless mysteries. But the requirements of a mass market are different. Ordinary consumers don't want to understand their appliances. They want to open the boxes and turn them on. They want them to work -- all the time, not 88 percent of the time. They don't want to discover that the Internet connection is "down" or that, suddenly and inexplicably, the printer won't print. Even now, this sort of dependability and simplicity remains elusive.
Case's undoing was not as a visionary but as a businessman, and his failure is mirrored widely throughout the Internet complex. What's now holding it back is insufficient innovation. People will not buy what they don't want or need. The scarcity of innovation has created a vacuum that is one cause of the economy's continuing lethargy. We should not be surprised. Innovation has never been easy, and -- one day -- it will again invigorate the Internet. Meanwhile, Case's story offers a useful lesson in national humility.