Creativity and the Internet

Have you ever noticed that computers never get to be the good guys?

From "Dr. Who" to "The Matrix," mythic history is filled with computer villains giant machines that take over the universe, World Wide Webs that ensnare the brains of all human kind, artificially intelligent computers that cause nuclear holocausts.

Even outside of the world of science fiction, we're constantly bombarded with stories of computer evils e-mail that says it loves you, then wipes out your entire hard drive, hackers who track down your credit card numbers and use them to make phone calls to Hong Kong, spammers that send you 312 consecutive e-mails entitled "xgmwssyz!"

Is it any wonder, then, that even in a universe where nine-year-olds have Web sites, many of us remain wary of the little box on our desk, and the giant cyber void beyond?

Although I use my computer for practically everything I do, I still get the occasional cyber jitters when my computer goes beep in the night despite the fact that, in 17 years of owning a computer, I've never encountered anything more evil than one cyberprince turned wart-ridden frog after being released from the anonymity of the box.

Clearly, I'm not alone in this. For many years, the kitchen and bath industry seemed more computer-wary than most. But times are a-changing, if the most recent K&BDN survey on Internet usage is any indication (see related story, Page 48), as the Internet slowly but surely infiltrates our lives and our businesses in the same insidious way fax machines and cell phones did before them.

Still, the misconceptions, like the Hollywood fantasies, remain. Give the cyber universe too much power, we secretly fear, and its true nature will take over. Our businesses will become so automated, creativity will go the way of the typewriter. Our carefully built relationships will dissolve in a sea of computer-generated e-mails. The machines really will take over the world if not quite as dramatically as portrayed in the movies.

But, in truth, the Internet is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Nor, for that matter, is it the antithesis of art. Rather, it's a tool that can serve a multitude of purposes, from the practical to the highly creative.

On the practical side, kitchen and bath professionals are becoming increasingly comfortable using the Internet for a variety of purposes, from communication and product research to marketing and online ordering. The majority do a fair amount of 'Net surfing, and have Web sites of their own. Many are pre-qualifying their customers via online sites, and a large number are increasing their speed and efficiency thanks to the immediate nature of the medium.

Others are still struggling with the best way to maximize the 'Net's lead generating power but in doing so, they are discovering new and creative ways to personalize their Internet experience.

Like the dealer who posts in-progress photos of projects on his Web site updated as the jobs progress, paired with testimonials from the clients who are having the work done in order to build trust with prospective customers.

Or the high-end dealer who regularly surfs the Web to find off-the beaten-path products that nobody else has heard of yet, then markets himself as "the showroom for those who want the path less taken."

Or the designer who created an online networking group where designers can share project insights with their peers, ask questions about design challenges, compare product notes or just vent about job-related frustrations.

In truth, one of the greatest misconceptions about the Internet is that it hinders creativity.

With its vast resources and nearly limitless destinations, the Internet is a tool that can serve any number of functions. And, as with any tool, the trick to making the most of it is in figuring out how to make it work for your individual needs or even coming up with creative new uses for it in order to help your business thrive.

Of course, like most tools, it's a learn-as-you-go thing. Finding and fine tuning the most effective cyber paths for your business takes time and practice, and you may discover a few frogs along the way. But frogs are sometimes necessary stepping stones on the path to jumpstarting princely ideasand isn't that worth dealing with a few warts?