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How the Internet empowers

The trend is indisputable: The Internet is all about empowering the individual. Ubiquitous access to fast two-way communication will forever transform the way our society works.

My last few columns have focused on issues relating to stocks and the current unpredictable market for Internet stocks in particular. This time, for a change, the column will take several giant steps back and take a more global look at the Internet and how it is transforming not only our economic well-being but also many , many more mundane aspects of daily life.

The trend is indisputable: The Internet is all about empowering the individual. Ubiquitous access to fast two-way communication will forever transform the way our society works.

An easy example would be improved access to authority. Whereas in the old world, the individual employee had little or no way to communicate with anyone higher up the corporate chain of command than his or her direct supervisor, in the new world, anyone with e-mail--and enough courage--can email the CEO with a comment, suggestion or idea. Whereas once it was considered advanced to put suggestion boxes on each floor of the workplace, today, there is a virtual one with a direct link to the boss (or at least his/her administrative assistant) on every wired desktop.

Clearly some corporate entities make it easier to use that suggestion channel than others, but the fact is that the lines of communication from the executive suite to the front lines are stronger and better than ever before. Savvy chief honchos understand and embrace that new reality. Individual employees can actually try to make a real difference. The individual?s voice is louder than it has ever been since the Industrial Revolution.

That is just one example of the increased power of the individual. For another, look to Dell Computer. Do people buy PCs on line because it is fun or hip? I would argue for the most part, the answer is no. People buy on line because for some reason or other, they find it a better solution.

What did Dell really do right? It allowed customers to design their own PCs. Traditional dealers tried to sell what they had. Dell, an Internet company even before there was such a moniker, let customers purchase what they wanted. Compaq, IBM and Apple used to decide which configurations would be available for which customers in which markets. Today, Tom, Dick and Mary, the end-customers, make those decisions for themselves. Consumers, both individual and corporate, are designing their own PCs.

Tomorrow, we believe they will design their own cars, toys, radio stations, furniture, and probably a lot more items. The era of your local GM dealer telling you which features you really wanted on the car--as opposed to those you thought you wanted, a distinction generally based on that dealer?s inventory--are drawing to a close. No, we are not there yet, but we?ve started down the path. In the not too distant future we should expect to pick the options, color, and perhaps engine size of my new car from the comfort of our study rather than from the scenic back-lot of the dealer. GM, Ford and Chrysler won?t be choosing the final configurations; Curly, Larry, and Maureen will be making that call.

Want another example? Let?s go back to the stock market. Five years ago, the growth in the mutual fund business appeared unstoppable. Today, it seems a little anemic. The true growth rate is probably somewhere in the middle. However, as we all stand back in wonder about the rise and longevity of both the day trader and the individual as an absolute force in the marketplace, we ought to think about where those investment dollars would have gone in the pre-Internet days.

Several years ago, the ?fast? individual dollars went into higher risk/higher potential reward aggressive growth mutual funds. Today those same investors are looking askance at the load and service fees of those funds, and are dreamily eyeing their Quicken.com quote pages. While it remains to be seen what happens when the continuing Internet and IPO frenzy cools, for now, the individual has taken back the control previously ceded to the institution.

Obviously there are some generalizations here; these changes won?t be completed overnight. Nonetheless, once empowered in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in financial markets, individuals will be slow to let go of the reins. Enterprises which fail to grasp this change will live on, but probably only as case studies.