The internet has held sway in society now for well over 16 years. As we plow through new standards and the latest fancy-pants streaming video, it might behoove us to think back about the general vision and direction the internet was supposedly going to take. Has it really led to a “global village”? Are we more connected now and better prepared than once we were?
The Good Ole Days (Enters Mist)
When I first ventured onto the net, there was a distinct sense of people writing and posting about subjects that mattered to them. It was difficult at times to determine what was a source that was “academic” enough, but in that there was a secret strength. I felt a sense of connection to the author. If I had to endure an occasionally horribly done animated .gif to obtain the information I needed, there was a feeling of such a thing being somewhat endearing. I was well aware I was dealing with a person, and likely one who was operating with passion and enthusiasm. I might also be dealing with someone manic and neurotic if they had written ten pages about the fine art of determining the exact angle produced by blood falling from five feet in the air, but at least I knew they REALLY cared about the subject, and that more than likely they were not operating with some financial agenda that I would need to be mindful concerning.
The Bad Ole Days (Corporate America Enters Stage Left)
Then, corporations gradually encroached on the net. At first, this was not so bad. Corporations have an advantage in that they tend to launch innovation more readily since they have budgets to do so. It became important, for example, for certain standards to be in place because money depended on the guts of the web working. It was not that money itself was the impetus per se, but rather the perceived importance thereof that was key. Google came along and made finding information much easier than journeying to places such as Hotbot and Excite. The first wave of corporate startups such as Google really helped make the internet a more connected place.
Google then became an example of the tail wagging the dog. With the power over information Google obtained, it was able to effectively corner the web in a way antithetical to the internet’s formulation. Other companies are now able to ask Google to help control the internet or make unavailable certain information.
Additional Google Inspired Flashback
When I first shipped off to college, Google had not yet made its big debut. It was a heady time where technology was concerned, and the general advice was that tech jobs were the way to go. It felt exciting to be a part of something that was coming into fruition, and I wanted to be a part of it. I picked computer science as my major. I changed from a business major in order to do so, mainly because I found the business classes mind-numbingly boring. I thought technology would be an area that was both innovative and practical. Not long afterwards, the dot.com bubble burst which created a mass exodus of people from computer-related fields. I found programming to be tedious. I was not necessarily adverse to learning it, but I was not thrilled with having assignments that related to “computing the hailstone function” and outputting it to the screen. As far as I was concerned, I would be doing as much to make the world a better place by drawing lovely pictures of unicorns. The practical application was lacking, and what sealed the deal was that the technologies keep mutating as quickly as I learned them. Tedious with a short self-life is a bad combination. I was not having much fun, and I felt like most of what I was doing was entirely a waste of time–a tribute to impermanence that would have absolutely no redeeming value in five years.
Maybe it was my burgeoning dissatisfaction with the field, I can’t say, but almost in tandem it seemed that the big corporations were busy locking down the internet and the technology that ran it simultaneously. I become extremely aware that websites were becoming a source that was not non-partisan in the sense that large corporate budgets were behind many of them. Even if a site said it was a non-profit, that was no guarantee that the taint of money was free from the content. Before, it was possible an author was a shill, but it is hard to be a shill when you authentically care about something. The enthusiasm people had acted as a sort of insulation against the corporate taint. Likewise, since there was such a diversity of sources that were not driven by huge corporate interests, it became possible to find the truth fairly easily. The shift from the internet as a potential to a reality was underway, and I found myself not particularly fond of the emerging form.
Before People Knew What a Google Was
When Google first hit, most people had never heard of the word other than a few math geeks locked in closets with calculators. Now it has become part of our normal lexicon. We can “google” something. We have a multitude of what I would call meta-content with sites where people up vote or down vote material or products or offer reviews. We still have a considerable amount of information, but that information is controlled by gatekeepers more readily. We have our Facebooks which allow us to keep in contact with our friends SO LONG AS we do not mind giving Facebook considerable information about ourselves so that it can target us with marketing. Likewise, Facebook inherits our usage patterns which it sells to other corporations after churning them through Bayesian inference sorts of algorithms that amount to probably some of the more sophisticated versions of artificial intelligence.
Perhaps more alarmingly, if we DO NOT have the internet, we are at a severe disadvantage in obtaining jobs and living our day to day lives. As more businesses have come to depend on the internet to run, the internet has become less of an option. How many people would have the jobs they have if they did not have access to their email from home or their smart phones? How would they fill out applications to go to work? What methods would they employ to determine job availability? The world I grew up in initially is fundamentally and radically gone. There are fewer paper trails. Phone books are not a given. Bills come by email–and it has been a long time since last I saw a credit card carbon copier device. It’s all digital now–databased. Cataloged. If you do NOT have the internet, well then, fuck you, buster. Who do you think you are anyway? Everyone has the net.
Except, they don’t, and the promised connectivity only works if the infrastructure is in place. The big cities have fast connections, and the small cities and rural areas are left behind in the dust. Previously, everyone was limited to a 14.4 connection over the phone lines. Since most everyone had phone lines, this meant most everyone could connect. Now it is fairly pointless to connect to the internet unless you have a high speed connection. A single video is enough to bog down any dial-up connection for hours.
I Cannot Trust You, Internet
The chief difference between the internet of today, though, and yesterday in my opinion can be distilled down to one thing. Trust. I do not TRUST the internet, because it has become so commercial. I do not trust Google to not use the data it gets from routers for instance when it is mapping streets. I do not trust websites to tell me the truth, as first and foremost I have to pay attention to who is paying for the site. The internet has become something that is more fundamentally alienating on average and when it is not doing that, it is busy selling your interactions with others for money such as with Facebook. More troubling, the internet is becoming a pay to play system. You need to live in the right city that makes the right amount of money in the right area if you want to enjoy privileged access. When countries like China make deals with Google to do their dirty work where content filtering is concerned, we have something that is just another medium to spew propaganda at the masses. The internet has lost something of its purity and innocence, and become something that instead of equalizing monetary disparity serves to highlight it even further.
The Wave of the Future?
So where might it be heading? Well, I think the two most likely directions are the Porous Garden Scenario described here, leading to the Moats and Drawbridge scenario of here. Why do I think that? Mainly because humanity responds readily to fear, and where large corporations and governments appear, fear based rationales are not far behind. No one is more fearful than they that there profits might slip, and their control might falter. As such, it is unlikely that the internet will suddenly reverse course and become MORE free, but more than likely a new internet will emerge similar to a darknet but without the ability to be controlled in a centralized way. Whatever this secondary net is will be more what the internet is supposed to be as opposed to what it has become.
Have we become a global village via the information super highway? I don’t think so. Like so many assets, those with the power and the money form the narrative, and everyone else has the job of coping.
What do YOU think? Has the internet helped you feel more connected? Are you good with having your information sold to others? Were you around in the 90’s on the net? Remember some stuff that you don’t see anymore? Comment!