The Nasty Bargain We've Made with the Internet


I've been mulling over Jaron Lanier's "The Local-Global Flip", a rather long piece in Edge about the stated intent of the creation of the Internet versus the actual shape of it, 50 years later. The crux of his argument is that the Internet has contributed to the downfall of the middle class, because it has failed to monetize content creation, and doesn't reward us for the products of our minds.

I'm not yet sure how much I agree with the bulk of his argument, but two things really stuck out to me:

1. The Loss of Provenance

Did you know that the original design of the Internet didn't have a copy function? Seems mind-boggling now, doesn't it?

But, as Lanier points out, copying should be unnecessary in a functional network. The original content goes up, and then you link to it.

Now, because you can copy, copy, copy (or share, share, share), you lose provenance. Ideally, people link back to the original when they copy content, but of course they don't always.

The result is that new information or different information is lost in the vast repetition of content sharing, where you get a million articles saying exactly the same thing, because there is no copyright of creation on the internet.

If you produce a video for Youtube, your reward is that it's shared a million times. If you write a thoughtful analysis of a film or a book, same thing. The worst thing is, even traditional print media can still your work with impunity, and get paid for it.

2. We are not the consumers, we are the creators

Follow the money.

We are providing the data to Facebook or Google, and they sell our data to advertisers. Which basically means we aren't even selling ourselves, we're giving ourselves away to these data aggegators, who package us and sell us on without even our knowledge in many cases. What's more insidious is that we have, in fact, consented to this. It's right there in the terms of privacy in Facebook and Google+. We agree to give them the rights to everything we share about ourselves.

And we're not getting anything in return, apart from a great time-suck.

Youtube makes money off of selling to advertisers. We spend hours on mashups and supercuts and we give it to Youtube for free. Again, we're providing the content to make someone else rich, and without pay.

I'll conclude with Lanier's own words, but you really ought to go read the article and come back:

But in this case we have this idea that we put all this stuff out there and what we get back are intangible or abstract benefits of reputation, or ego-boosting. Since we're used to that bargain, we're impoverished compared to the world that could have been and should have been when the Internet was initially conceived. The world that would create a strengthened middle class through what people do, by monetizing more and more instead of less and less. It's possible that that world could have never come about, but that was never tested. If we are absolutely convinced that this third way is impossible, and that we have to choose between "The Matrix" or Marx, if those are our only two choices, it makes the future dismal, and so I hope that a third way is possible, and I'm certainly going to do everything possible to try to push it.

We're not going to be able to test tomorrow because we've gone down this path so far that it will be a decade's long project to begin to explore it, but we must find our way back. I wouldn't be surprised if it's a century after Ted Nelson first proposed this thought in 1960 that this is how the Internet should be. It might be a century before we even start to seriously try to do it, but that's how things go sometimes in history. Sometimes it just takes a while to sort things out.

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5 Responses to “ The Nasty Bargain We've Made with the Internet ”

  1. The original purpose of the internet was not for people to make money; it was for the Defense Department to be able to link their computers together.  The internet didn't start in the 1990s. 

    Even in the the 1980s when civilians started using it, there was an overriding philosophy that information was to be freely shared by everyone.  Someone who tried to make money off of it was basically shunned.  It wasn't until the "internet millionaire", and later "billionaire" effect started getting discussed in the media in the mid to late 1990s that people started seeing the Internet as a way to make money.

  2. Actually, if you look at Ted Nelson's original conception for how the internet would be used by civilians, it absolutely included a monetised element.

  3. I honestly had never heard of Ted Nelson.  When I looked him up I understood why.  It appears he coined a few terms, but didn't actually develop anything.  I was referring to the people who actually built the thing.  The U.S. Defense Department linked computers together in the late 1960s.  (The first image ever transmitted was a Playboy centerfold, so you could say this predicted one of the future uses of the internet.)  These links eventually became Darpanet, which started to get used by civilians in the 70s and in the 80s it became primarily for civilians and was known as the internet.  The World Wide Web came along in the early 90s and this is when commercial interest in the network of computers really took off.  As someone who was actually on the internet before there was a WWW, I can tell you there were not a ton of links out there that were about making money.

  4. Thanks for clarifying Chip! I would love to read more about this topic, do you have any books you'd recommend?

  5. None that I have personally read, unfortunately.  I came of age in the 80s, so I have lived that part of internet history.  I have not read any books on it.  At various times during the 90s I read articles with points along the lines of "think the World Wide Web was the start of the internet?" that went into the history some.  I was surprised to learn from those articles that interconnectivity started in the late 60s, but it made sense that it was a military project because they had the money and the desire to do it.  In fact, "arpanet" stood for "[Defense Department] Advanced Research Projects Agency network".  It was split between military and civilian uses in the early 80s.  If you ever saw the movie Wargames, the way that Broderick's character gets online WAS the way computers connected at that time.  (Technically, it was dialing into a computer, not the internet, but it conveys the idea.)  The response times were not that fast, though.  I worked in my college's computer center in the mid 80s.  We would get calls from off campus students who would ask us to switch the modem speed for the computer from 300 baud to the screamingly fast 2400 baud.  ("Baud" is pulses/bits per second; 8 bits is one character; so in other words, really really slow vs. really slow.)


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