Once a year, we alter a single digit in the number we use to name the year we all live in – a change as slight, in the grand scheme of things, as it is arbitrary – and somehow it prompts a collective examination of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
As 2013 – a year in which the Internet became a much more pervasive presence in more and more lives – gave way to 2014, a new angst emerged over what the Internet was doing to us as it became a more integral part of our lives and identities. The streaming flow of new stuff that news feeds produced began to feel polluted. Several pundits named 2013 the year of the hoax. Esquire eloquently argued it was the year we broke the Internet.
Most notably, a grumpy piece by Christopher Mims on Quartz titled “2013 was a lost year for tech” stirred up a certain amount of tart dissent among veterans of the Internet industry. At Gigaom, Om Malik called Mims’ article “hyperbolic” and saw, from his viewpoint, “a technology landscape that is blooming.” John Gruber wasn’t as charitable Daring Fireball, calling the piece “a sad pile of piss-on-everything cynicism.”
The debate extended into the early days of 2014. Ben Horowitz, a highly respected venture capitalist, wrote a post on Re/code decrying “can’t do cultures” that focus too heavily on what’s going wrong and foster a culture of smug superiority. Horowitz cited examples of early technologies, like the telephone and the Internet, that were criticized for what they were at the beginning, without consideration of what they could become. His sensible conclusion: “Don’t hate, create.”
Malik, Gruber, Horowitz and the legion of others with deep experience in the Internet who cheered their comments on Twitter make good points. But there is an air of defensiveness running through their posts, and I wonder if it doesn’t come from the fact that there is some merit in the cynicism as well, even if it’s overplayed by Mims and others.
Mims points to the “arrogance of technology’s ruling class” and Horowitz sees the haters as smug. There are certainly instances where both are right, but as a rule the critics and the defenders are both well-intentioned. The disagreement seems to center on a paradox about the Internet: As a technology, it’s is working better than ever. For the people using it, however, it’s beginning to feel problematic.
Malik, for example, points to important innovations happening in areas like sensors and powerful smartphone processors that are created away from “a narrow lens of consumer tech.” That echoes a sentiment among investors and engineers that without a deep understanding of the technology behind the Internet and the Web, it’s hard to make a thoughtful criticism of what’s really happening with it.
That idea is certainly true as far as it goes. But as the Internet becomes more tightly enmeshed into everyday lives, it becomes less about pure technology and more about how its applied. The applications of new technology are notoriously unpredictable, they depend on how people use them. Most people scratched their heads when they first visited Twitter, but the company succeeded because it tailored its technology to the unpredictable ways that people eventually began using it.
What we call the consumer Web, for the lack of a better term, is not a narrow part of the Internet at all. It’s a crucial part of the Internet itself because it has the potential to change how we do many things we take for granted, how we interact with others, how we want others to see us, how we see ourselves. This is not a minor detail, it’s a big deal every day for billions of people. It’s only beginning to change our lives and identities, and so the things that are going wrong are worth worrying about. Even if the underlying software and networks are working better than ever.
Horowitz defines technology as “a better way of doing things.” I looked in a few dictionaries and couldn’t find that definition, or any definition that implies technology necessarily improves things. I’ve always thought technology broadly described the application of human understanding to alter the world we live in. The results of that application can be good or bad, and usually some mix of both. When the bad effects overwhelm the good, a technology can be considered a failure.
Pick a year during the past 20 years and you’ll find people celebrating and bemoaning the changes brought by the Internet. It made financial investments faster and cheaper than ever, and it also did the same for financial fraud. It connected us with friends old and new, and it also gave birth to legions of trolls. It made online shopping ridiculously cheap, and it also built vast warehouses of brutal working conditions. It made discovering new music and video easier, and it also enticed us to give up control of our personal data. It offered near instantaneous access to breaking news as well as viral hoaxes.
Year after year, the Internet made some things better and some things worse. That could be said of most technological innovations but it’s especially true of the Internet. Its open, decentralized nature encouraged positive and negative developments, but over time a self-correcting element emerged to, say, limit the spread of fraud or to discourage anonymous trolls in comments. And so on balance, in my opinion at least, the Internet has always progressed in a way that its positive applications significantly outnumbered the negative ones.
Looking back at 2013, I’m not so sure that was the case. Once again, the Internet made some things better and it made some thing worse. But speaking purely as someone who uses the Internet and doesn’t create anything more than random content – that is, like the majority of folks, an outsider to the Internet industry itself – a couple of things began to worry me more.
I didn’t worry about the amount of private data being collected on me, but I did worry about the potential for abuse. I didn’t worry about the supposed arrogance of tech companies, but I did worry about the growing consolidation of control by a handful of franchises like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. I may be annoyed by the ubiquity of the manipulative clickbait headline, but what really worries me is the quiet persistence of carriers to cripple Net neutrality.
The headline on this post may be seen as clickbait, but I see it as a valid if provocative question that deserves to be considered. Just as there was early and wrong criticism of new devices like the telephone, there have also been innovations that begin with great promise but end up doing more harm than good.
Some technologies can fail by never connecting to any kind of market. But others make for successful investments even though they end up being more destructive than useful to their consumers. A dramatic example is thalidomide, the drug prescribed for anxiety and morning sickness that led to birth defects. The cigarette is another innovation that continues to offer greater benefits to investors than customers. Some have argued television failed simply by never coming close to its potential for good.
Television endures, if not as a force of good than as an engine producing decent content and cultural metaphors. Observing the Internet evolve over the past two decades has been like watching Deadwoodmove into its later seasons. The freewheeling wild-west setting where the good intermingled with the bad gave way to civilization as the chaos settles into the control of the few. Those powerful interests may be indigenous or carpetbaggers, but what they want may not be in the interests of the general public.
The Internet won’t go away. And we will learn to filter out annoying trends like hoaxes. The big question is whether using the consumer Web will remain the engaging if sometimes risky pleasure it has been all along, or becomes a necessary evil where the price of admission is loss of control over your behavioral data, perhaps the most valuable asset that is given automatically to everyone online. The mentality of big carriers like AT&T and Verizon is already to extract maximum revenue in exchange for a minimal quality of service. That mentality may become more pervasive among big companies as the Internet becomes increasingly civilized.
It’s worth asking whether the Internet could emerge as a failure in one way or another. Not out of smugness or a perverse wish for it to fail, but because nobody wants it to fail. Considering thoughtfully what could weaken, hobble or undo a promising technology that is still relatively young can head off problems before they are too deeply ingrained. For me, that means preserving the open, democratic spirit of the early days, making sure that a few large companies don’t gain too much control, and giving people better and easier control over what personal they can share with others.
Without those things, you can have all the new sensors, chips and apps you want. And the Internet can still be seen by future generations if not as a failure than as something that could have been a lot better than it is.