A web college, book break open tradition

March 23, 2000|By Matthew Miller

IF IT'S A CLICHE to say that the Internet is sparking a "revolution" in business and culture, two seminal events last week, involving author Stephen King and software giant Michael Saylor, nonetheless crystallized the magnitude of change that's coming. For once that awful phrase "paradigm shift" seems truly apt.

Mr. Saylor's move was the most spellbinding. A decade ago, the 35-year-old entrepreneur founded MicroStrategy, a software firm that helps companies better analyze their operations. This week his majority stake is worth more than $4 billion. So when Mr. Saylor puts out grand plans, he's more than your average dreamer sounding off.

Mr. Saylor stunned the philanthropic and educational worlds by announcing that he was giving $100 million as a "down payment" to launch an online university that would offer a Harvard-quality education to anyone for free.

Let that dream sink in. Mr. Saylor wants to recruit the best minds from every discipline to videotape lectures that would be available in perpetuity. Nobel laureates would teach their areas of expertise. The nation's top calculus, economics, history, biology and art professors would share their wisdom for the ages. Since Mr. Saylor reckons that 95 percent of the questions students ask in each course are the same each year, these questions would be asked and answered as well.

The idea of an online college is hardly new, of course. Hundreds of millions in venture capital dollars are now racing to lock up top teaching talent and take the concept to scale. But Mr. Saylor's innovation is to insist that Internet-enabled education should be free.

It's a staggering social vision. Michael Milken and other titans now pursuing the online learning market hope to make new fortunes in the process. Nothing wrong with that. But if Mr. Saylor can capture the imagination(and the philanthropic cash) of fellow New Age billionaires, he could leapfrog these for-profit efforts and permanently democratize access to learning in ways unimaginable until this moment in history.

The news last week that more than 400,000 people rushed to download Stephen King's new novella the first day it was offered online was similarly stunning. Until this touchstone event, conventional wisdom held that people wouldn't want to read longer works online or on newfangled e-books. It was all too weird or inconvenient. Now we know, at least for a brand-name author, that this presumption was rubbish. Publishing will never be the same.

When I was a management consultant a decade ago, one of our firm's sages had a newspaper client who was weighing whether to invest in a new printing plant. One day, my colleague told them, instead of building that plant, it'll be cheaper simply to give every subscriber a printer for free and then transmit a customized paper each morning for them to print at home. It seemed like one of those clever but crazy visions consultants sometimes use to make a point. Now, a blink in time later, as the King novella suggests, it's reality.

There's a common theme to the Saylor and King sagas: Technology is upending traditional modes of distribution and, with them, entire cultural institutions. The results are glorious or threatening, depending on where you sit. Before long, technology will kill the livelihoods of countless worthy souls trapped in a distribution chain that will have become intolerably inefficient.

As always, it's a morally ambiguous transition. You can weep for the bookseller or second-tier college professor who will eventually have to find other work. But only through their loss do we get a world where slum dwellers in Watts or Calcutta or Rio can get an approximation of an Ivy League-style education for free.

Thus does the creative destruction of capitalism work its impersonal magic. The radical revamping of distribution costs enabled by the Internet will leave us a different and, it is hoped, better culture. With what degree of wisdom we harness these benefits -- and also manage the moral dilemmas associated with high-tech breakthroughs in such areas as the human genome -- may be the defining narrative of global society over the next 50 years. Again, it's a cliche, but it's a fascinating time to be alive.

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist who writes from Los Angeles.

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