Blog Post

The True Story of the Internet

Is the True Story of the Internet the idealistic open access"Information Wants to be Free" version of the W3C, Tim Berners-Lee, andthe most creative digital youth today? Or is the True Story of theInternet the overnight success of twenty-two year old billionaires who turn all that user-generatedcontent, all the information data-mined from social networking sites,and all those social graphs of interconnections (the social interconnections of Facebook friends graphed theworld over) into a vc'd globally-extended business with new targetedforms of advertising, coercion, and (always) ever new and fanciertoys--higher speed, better definition, more customizable, better looking, Kanye West/Daft Punk's harder, better, faster, stronger? That, my friends, is the issue . . .


These two ideologies of the Internet operate side-by-side, the Yin and Yang of our digital lives. No wonder university libraries, presses, and scholars can't figure out how to get along! It's the whole Internet and our digital culture that has a disconnect between its supply side and its output side, production and consumption, use and capitalization. Two basic ideologies of the Information Age are at direct odds with one another and the hype of one is virtually the antithesis of the other. You simply cannot support the utopic, communitarian, egalitarian model of an unregulated, free-flowing, user-generated internet of social networking, information sharing, communities of knowledge, and organization without organizations along side the equally utopic (for other people) model of voracious and rapacious unregulated capitalism where anyone who figures out the right software (whether legal or not) can swoop in and take all that content and turn it into a fat profit. Or you can operate with both models simultaneously but only if you happen to be the economic hyena chortling there, watching all that content being produced without you having to lift a finger. All you need to do is move in, stealthily, and capture the spoils. (Yes, that's a myth as well. Once the swooping happens, there's a lot of work turning it into a successful business where the spoils are not only captured but capitalized on a solid base. We all remember the Silicon Valley Titanic going down, on that all-too-symbolic day, April 14, 2002. We all know now--or we should--about start-ups and icebergs.)


I thoroughly enjoyed the four-part Discovery Channel series "Download:  The True Story of the Internet" but it was only afterward that I realized how much the "true story of the Internet" is really these two competing and incompatible narratives about freedom and against regulation.  But the concepts of freedom and regulation are based on contradictory assumptions, and neither term stays fixed. One model of anti-regulation is all about creativity, expression, communication. The other model of anti-regulation is about using whatever creativity, expression, and communication abounds as the data for new forms of target marketing (especially to the hot fourteen to thirty-year old hyper-consumer demographic).  In the second model, the Internet is the best possible access to world-wide spenders who, in essence, beta test and distribute your product even before you release it.


Let's take our favorite social networking site, Facebook. This week Facebook even started telling me who they thought should be my Friends based on one of those Zuckerbergian social graphs of the friends of my friends. And what's really annoying is that Facebook guessed right most of the time.


But why is Facebook so eager for me to add to my Friends? Is it because they love me, they have my best interest at heart, they want me to have a rich digital social life full of more and more joyful interactions? Maybe they read my blog posting about how dropping by Facebook every day is a little like stopping off at the local tavern for a little bit of easeful sociality and they want my pub as full and happy as possible (people who like people are, I know, the luckiest people in the world). Well, maybe. Or possibly, just possibly, they want to aggregate as much market research for free from my interactions with my friends, and your interactions with your friends, and their interactions with their friends, as they possibly can. More market data, more profit.


But isn't Facebook free? Sure. Free---and free market. Nothing wrong with that. But let's make sure we keep our stories straight. Information Wants to Be Free . . . so some digital entrepreneurs can capitalize it.


And that's the True Story of the Internet.


1 comment

JSB, pal and visionary, aka John Seely Brown, wrote a nice response to my blog post and also reminded me of something left out of the Ying/Yang of the contradictory Internet ideologies: public good. In the old days of NII, people talked about information highways and service grids, publicly subsidized to suppor the public good of this heady new communication and collaboration tool. Instead, we have the mess of an infrastructure that should make any country (never mind one as powerful as the US) blush. Cell phone coverage? Broadband? Interoperable systems? Terrible infrastructure. One of HASTAC's original motivations was to be an advocate for better cyberinfrastructure for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, all of which have complex and high bandwidth needs---but, truly, it is all of us, educators and citizens, who suffer from the lack of investment in this public good. Where's Al Gore when we need him?