Online Gravity book review: The Web of life

By: | Published: August 2, 2015 12:08 AM

Online Gravity breaks down the working of the online world in simple, yet interesting terms, explaining how it attracts each and every one of us

Online Gravity
Paul X McCarthy
Simon & Schuster
Rs 599

Online gravity? Now, what is that? Certainly not a new concept of physics. But author Paul X McCarthy illustrates in his new book how the concept of ‘gravity’ works in the online solar system, and how it is one of the most defining forces that shapes how the online world operates.

McCarthy’s Online Gravity breaks down the working of the online world in simple, yet interesting terms. In the online solar system, the market leaders are the bigger planets (read Google, Amazon and Alibaba), whereas their competitors and customers become the smaller planets. Just like the planets in our solar system, these big planets in the online world have their own gravitational fields, which attract customers: “The larger their network of users, the stronger their gravitational pull, so their growth rate starts to accelerate.”

Online Gravity is essentially divided into three parts—the phenomenon of online gravity, which looks at its origin, characteristics and implications; the laws of online gravity, what they are and how they work; and the future of online gravity, which lists out the “optimistic and pessimistic predictions for the outcomes of the digital economy”.

But what leads to online gravity? McCarthy cites three reasons—the democratic and social nature of knowledge, the digitisation of that knowledge and the astounding global connectivity of the Web. One interesting observation the author makes about ‘information’ is that it is now ‘verging on free’. But he also says while the cost of information has gone down drastically, its value has not decreased. In fact, it has ‘skyrocketed’. Free information and the Web’s capacity “to transcend physical boundaries” have made our learning potential immense. The Web, McCarthy feels, is the best medium we have ever created for sharing and distributing ideas.

Online gravity has some peculiar characteristics. In the online world, it is not necessary that companies, operating in the same segment share equal amount of returns. Then there’s “long-tail trading”—the ability to sell less of more. Online companies are a prime example here. “Without the limitations of brick and mortar stores, online companies are perfectly positioned to benefit from long-tail trading. They can stock collections so extensive that even the ‘niche’ categories outnumber the products available in the largest of high-street stores.”

The functioning of online gravity can be summed up in three words—knowledge, ecosystem and expansion. Online gravity builds on traditional knowledge systems. The bulk of the information is available online and can be shared easily. Moreover, it’s credible and relevant. One of the most detailed expositions in the book is ‘the online solar system’, with Apple, Google and Amazon being Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, respectively, of this world. As a part of this ecosystem, McCarthy mentions gravity giants from every sector—Softbank in online investments, Baidu in Chinese search, Apple in mobile devices and apps, Google in search engines and so on. Then there are the dwarf planets, “each of which is the largest but not the only such body in its particular orbit”. Some of them include Twitter, eBay, Yahoo!, Uber, LinkedIn, Netflix, Airbnb, etc. Even Indian e-commerce player Flipkart finds a mention among these 15 planets.

And although online gravity can be felt the strongest in areas such as online services, self-service, platforms and knowledge, and information conveyance, its reach and influence are expanding. As McCarthy writes: “…the effect of Online Gravity will one day be universal”.

Along the way, as McCarthy sheds some light on the different life stages of online gravity—infancy, adolescence and maturity—he talks about the early 1990s when the Web grew and there were a host of information directories. One of these was Virtual Library, which was set up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who had established World Wide Web in Switzerland. Other directories included Best of the Web Directory, LookSmart and Open Directory Project.

One of the most repetitive statements in the online world is that the “first company to do something is the leader”. In a way, McCarthy dispels this piece of fact, or fiction rather. “In the world of Online Gravity, being first is overrated.” In other words, being late to the online party has its benefits. Take these examples—when it comes to smartphones, Palm was ahead in the race, but then Apple launched the iPhone in 2007. Look at search engines. WebCrawler was the first in 1994, followed by AltaVista in December 1995. But then in 1998, a search engine by the name of Google entered the fray. The rest, as they say, is online history.

Online gravity has seven sacrosanct laws. Among them are a few important ones. It is fundamentally global in nature, helping not only individuals, but companies and governments the world over. It applies to intangible goods since they have a low transaction cost. Digital goods, online video games, online cash and services are a few examples. Next up, online gravity not only pertains to knowledge growth, but it accelerates growth in emerging nation economies, global trade, commerce and small business as well.

The book also has some excellent tips for small businesses to use the force of online gravity to their advantage. The one common thread that runs through all of these suggestions is taking the business online since much of the business needs (accounting, IT and foreign exchange services) can be met via online services.

The concluding chapters focus on the marriage between computers and humans, and next-generation interaction: metavision (the ability to look further and see things in a new way); invocation (the ability to use our voice to carry out an action); and telekinesis (the ability to move things at a distance using your mind). And as McCarthy states: “With the power of Online Gravity, it won’t be long before it’s within our reach”.

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