What’s the internet? Start here

It’s more than 16 years since I started writing about the economic and social effects of digital technologies, and some technical knowledge has stuck as well. It was always obvious to me that the internet was going to have – eventually – a revolutionary impact on society. But I do remember discussing my first or second book with a Very Eminent Economist who said that the internet was nothing more than a reduction in transactions costs, and as good economic models already included those, we didn’t need to bother thinking any further about it.

Anyway, despite knowing some things about matters digital, I’ve just devoured John Naughton’s What You Really Need to Know About the Internet: From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg. Although it covered some ground that I found familiar, there was plenty of new insight and information too, all written in his characteristically clear style. So for example, if you’re not sure about the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet (and that’s lots of people, no shame in it), you’ll learn loads from this book.

It gives a terrific overview of a wide range of the business, economic and social trends resulting from the internet and its uses (including the Web). There is both historical context and reflection about future trends. The chapter on the flaws of the copyright regime is excellent, a really useful short introduction to the main issues.

One quibble I would have is that John concludes that economics has little to offer as a perspective on the digital world because it is the science of allocating scarce resources. Apart from the fact that time and attention are the new scarce resources, economics has a lot to offer in thinking about the structure of network markets. (My Very Eminent Economist of the 1990s will have changed his mind by now.) Having said that, I agree with the book’s contention that ecosystem thinking is particularly fruitful.

There were also some lovely details. I enjoyed the quotation from George Miller of ‘The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two’ fame: “My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.” And I loved it that the reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was footnote 42. What else?

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet

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