Sometime after World War I, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone conspired to replace the nation's trolleys and light rail systems with buses in all major metropolitan areas. They infiltrated city councils with their stooges and argued that buses were more versatile and a better idea than fixed tracks. Most towns succumbed and eliminated most if not all of their tracks.
The idea, of course, was to promote gas-guzzling GM buses that chewed up a lot of rubber tires. Marketing at its best -- or worst, depending on whether you're a shareholder. GM was the primary offender. It actually went out and bought small independent transportation companies then closed them down and ripped out the tracks. Much of the ultra-high-quality scrap metal, ironically enough, was sent to Japan in advance of its declaration of war against the U.S.
This situation worsened in the 1950s as the national rail system was under attack. Francis DuPont was a big supporter of developing the much-touted interstate highway system, which was credited to Dwight D. Eisenhower. DuPont was one of the leading shareholders of GM. Again: Who benefits by letting our rail system deteriorate while the roads get loaded up with trucks and cars?
Around the same time, a rail line ran over the San Francisco Bay Bridge. GM bought the transit system in 1946 and ripped out the rail in 1958. Nobody wanted to talk about this as it was happening. You have to wonder how much of this is going on today with the Information Superhighway nonsense. Who's getting duped? Undoubtedly, the public is.
Personally, I've never been impressed with the dreadful interstate highway system. It runs through the most depressing and boring farmlands in the country. Thousands of people are killed on it, and it exacerbates sprawl in urban areas. Yet we praise it without thinking about what it really means.
I fear that history is repeating itself with the Internet. The GM/Standard Oil/Firestone tale offers parallels that are interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the public interest isn't necessarily served in the name of profits; and second, the naive public tends stupidly to trust business. More disconcerting to me is the fact that the media, with their short attention spans, underreports these dreadful practices. To determine how this might be going on with the Internet as we speak, just look around for examples of inappropriate use of technology. Broadcasting over the Internet is high on my list. Having a camera send images over the Internet seems okay, but I wonder about NetAid and other bandwidth hogs using the Internet just to show off. Here's my list of inappropriate use of the Internet I'm going to ask readers for their ideas this week. See if you can top this list.
1. Broadcasting TV over the Internet. This is just silly. I know that a lot of people watch my show Silicon Spin on the Internet, but everyone would rather see it on a big TV from a broadcast source. TV over the Internet is laughable.
2. Running applications online. The idea of putting my calendar on some remote server on the Internet makes me roll my eyes. When you buy a 3Com Palm device, you get a free calendaring program. Microsoft Office also has a calendaring program. The Internet is too hacker-prone for me to store my calendar online. And why would I want to when I have a Palm? This is true for most online applications.
3. Chatting over the Web. This is a mixed complaint because a dedicated chat system that uses the Internet, such as IRC, actually provides a real-time chat experience, whereas Web-oriented systems don't.
4. Selling products online that require personal attention. In this category I include online shoe stores and other operations selling products that need to be fitted. Obviously this is stupid.
5. Selling groceries online. This is the silliest concept I've ever seen. Almost every smart venture capitalist will give you a half dozen reasons why it's a bad idea and has no potential. In case you haven't noticed, the days of the milkman are over. Why should they be reinstituted by the Web?
Your turn! Add some more to this list and I'll discuss them in a future column.