Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
Hence the chuckle many of us had when we saw this trending piece suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to finally unhook from Facebook and – wait for it – get our own personal webpage, one we updated for any and all to peruse. You know, like a blog, only for now. I don’t know the author – the editor of the tech-site Motherboard – but it’s kind of fun to watch someone join the Old Timers Web Club in real time. Hey Facebook, get off my lawn!!!
That Golden Age
So as to not bury the lead, let me state something upfront: Of course the architecture of our current Internet is borked. It’s dumb. It’s a goddamn desert. It’s soil where seed don’t sprout. Innovation? On the web, that dog stopped hunting years ago.
And who or what’s to blame? No, no. It’s not Facebook. Facebook is merely a symptom. A convenient and easy stand in – an artifact of a larger failure of our cultural commons. Somewhere in the past decade we got something wrong, we lost our narrative – we allowed Facebook and its kin to run away with our culture.
Instead of focusing on Facebook, which is structurally borked and hurtling toward Yahoo-like irrelevance, it’s time to focus on that mistake we made, and how we might address it.
Just 10-15 years ago, things weren’t heading toward the our currently crippled version of the Internet. Back in the heady days of 2004 to 2010 – not very long ago – a riot of innovation had overtaken the technology and Internet world. We called this era “Web 2.0” – the Internet was becoming an open, distributed platform, in every meaning of the word. It was generative, it was Gates Line-compliant, and its increasingly muscular technical infrastructure promised wonder and magic and endless buckets of new. Bandwidth, responsive design, data storage, processing on demand, generously instrumented APIs; it was all coming together. Thousands of new projects and companies and ideas and hacks and services bloomed.
Sure, back then the giants were still giants – but they seemed genuinely friendly and aligned with an open, distributed philosophy. Google united the Internet, codifying (and sharing) a data structure that everyone could build upon. Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, and with the problem of storage and processing solved, tens of thousands of new services were launched in a matter of just a few years. Hell, even Facebook launched an open platform, though it quickly realized it had no business doing so. AJAX broke out, allowing for multi-state data-driven user interfaces, and just like that, the web broke out of flatland. Anyone with passable scripting skills could make interesting shit! The promise of Internet 1.0 – that open, connected, intelligence-at-the-node vision we all bought into back before any of it was really possible – by 2008 or so, that promise was damn near realized. Remember LivePlasma? Yeah, that was an amazing mashup. Too bad it’s been dormant for over a decade.
After 2010 or so, things went sideways. And then they got worse. I think in the end, our failure wasn’t that we let Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon get too big, or too powerful. No, I think instead we failed to consider the impact of the technologies and the companies we were building. We failed to play our hand forward, we failed to realize that these nascent technologies were fragile and ungoverned and liable to be exploited by people less idealistic than we were.
Our Shadow Constitution
Our lack of consideration deliberately aided and abetted the creation of a unratified shadow Constitution for the Internet – a governance architecture built on assumptions we have accepted, but are actively ignoring. All those Terms of Service that we clicked past, the EULAs we mocked but failed to challenge, those policies have built walls around our data and how it may be used. Massive platform companies have used those walls to create impenetrable business models. Their IPO filings explain in full how the monopolization and exploitation of data were central to their success – but we bought the stock anyway.
We failed to imagine that these new companies – these Facebooks, Ubers, Amazons and Googles – might one day become exactly what they were destined to become, should we leave them ungoverned and in the thrall of unbridled capitalism. We never imagined that should they win, the vision we had of a democratic Internet would end up losing.
It’s not that, at the very start at least, that tech companies were run by evil people in any larger sense. These were smart kids, almost always male, testing the limits of adolescence in their first years after high school or college. Timing mattered most: In the mid to late oughts, with the winds of Web 2 at their back, these companies had the right ideas at the right time, with an eager nexus of opportunistic capital urging them forward.
They built extraordinary companies. But again, they built a new architecture of governance over our economy and our culture – a brutalist ecosystem that repels innovation. Not on purpose – not at first. But protected by the walls of the Internet’s newly established shadow constitution and in the thrall of a new kind of technology-fused capitalism, they certainly got good at exploiting their data-driven leverage.
So here we are, at the end of 2018, with all our darlings, the leaders not only of the tech sector, but of our entire economy, bloodied by doubt, staggering from the weight of unconsidered externalities. What comes next?
2019: The Year of Internet Policy
Whether we like it or not, Policy with a capital P is coming to the Internet world next year. Our newly emboldened Congress is scrambling to introduce multiple pieces of legislation, from an Internet Bill of Rights to a federal privacy law modeled on – shudder – the EU’s GDPR. In the past month, I’ve read draft policy papers suggesting we tax the Internet’s advertising model, that we break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon, or that we back off and just let the market “do its work.”
And that’s a good thing, to my mind – it seems we’re finally coming to terms with the power of the companies we’ve created, and we’re ready to have a national dialog about a path forward. To that end, a spot of personal news: I’ve joined the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I’m working on a research project studying how data flows in US markets, with an emphasis on the major tech platforms. I’m also teaching a course on Internet business models and policy. In short, I’m leaning into this conversation, and you’ll likely be seeing a lot more writing on these topics here over the course of the next year or so.
Oh, and yeah, I’m also working on a new project, which remains in stealth for the time being. Yep, has to do with media and tech, but with a new focus: Our political dialog. More on that later in the year.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet this past month, but starting up new things requires a lot of work, and my writing has suffered as a result. But I’ve got quite a few pieces in the queue, starting with my annual roundup of how I did in my predictions for the year, and then of course my predictions for 2019. But I’ll spoil at least one of them now and just summarize the point of this post from the start: It’s time we figure out how to build a better Internet, and 2019 will be the year policymakers get deeply involved in this overdue and essential conversation.