Not content or superhighways, but bridges
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #72

Hundreds of big companies are dying to build the vast infrastructure that has come to be called - a misleading term - the information superhighway. Even more companies are dreaming of unlimited riches to be gained from churning out the content for which the rest of us, or so they believe, have an infinite appetite. In fact, the big winners in the knowledge economy will be neither the producers of content nor its carriers, but a new breed of niche developers who bridge the gap between, and are much closer to, "the rest of us".

A knowledge economy thrives on variety. It encourages not large volumes of single products, but small ones that offer considerable diversity - over time, with frequent changes, as well as over concept-space, by addressing several small markets with slightly different needs. The knowledge economy is actually a collection of niche markets - where consumers may demand, and should get, individual attention.

This economy is unusually equitable - it tends to disperse rather than concentrate power. It is almost impossible for a single company to control the flow of goods by virtue of being the only source, since there is a diminishing number of things that everyone wants to keep buying. On the other hand, it is easy for anyone to add to this flow by becoming a producer. This results in an explosion of choice for consumers, often between products created by themselves, and so more suited to their needs. Such diversity is difficult to come by in a relatively small number of large, organised producers - and it is such diversity that will be the major cause for growth in a knowledge economy.

This growth comes from something new - the narrowing or elimination of the gap between producer and consumer. Usually, though, the gaps will need to be bridged. If mammoth producers set the standard - a mediocre compromise for every consumer - someone will have to get it right. Someone will have to satisfy each of a million niche markets. This could, of course, be niche development, starting from scratch in every market. Or it could imply bridge development - building above, or around, the products of the mammoths, to make customized solutions for each market, or even each consumer.

Building bridges may mean anything from creating an interface to the Internet specifically for doctors, to dubbing films (such as Jurassic Park) into a dozen languages. The revenues in any single niche market do not compare with those of the mammoths, who sell everywhere. However, the costs are minimal, particularly where customization - and not complete creation - is involved. The combined profits for the niche markets that together make the world, will be huge.

If bridges between markets, rather than simply content production or transportation, is where the new opportunities lie, there may be no more instant billionaires of the knowledge economy. But with thousands of multi-millionaires instead, the economy would fare no worse. And the millions of consumers who receive closer attention from people like them will probably feel better.

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