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.