Futures of the Internet

Earlier this year the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University conducted research toward The Future of the Internet IV, the latest in their survey series, which began with Future of the Internet I – 2004. This latest report includes guided input from subjects such as myself (a “thoughtful analyst,” they kindly said) on subjects pertaining to the Net’s future. We were asked to choose between alternative outcomes — “tension pairs” — and to explain our views. Here’s the whole list:

  1. Will Google make us stupid?
  2. Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?
  3. Will social relations get better?
  4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?
  5. Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?
  6. Will our relationship to key institutions change?
  7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?
  8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?
  9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?
  10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

The results were published here at Pew and Elon’s Imagining the Internet site. Here’s the .pdf.

My own views are more than well represented in the 2010 report. One of my responses (to the last question) was even published in full. Still, I thought it would be worth sharing my full responses to all the questions. That’s why I’m posting them here.

Each question is followed by two statements — the “tension pair” — and in some cases by additional instruction. I’ve italicized those.

[Note... Much text here has been changed to .html from .pdf and .doc forms, and extracting all the old formatting jive has been kind of arduous. Bear with me while I finish that job, later today. (And some .html conventions don't work here in WordPress, so that's a hassle too.)]


1. Will Google make us smart or stupid?

1 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google).

2 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

1a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human intelligence in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in the way human intellect evolves?


Though I like and respect Nick Carr a great deal, my answer to the title question in his famous essay in The Atlantic — “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — is no. Nothing that informs us makes us stupid.

Nick says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Besides finding that a little hard to believe (I know Nick to be a deep diver, still), there is nothing about Google, or the Net, to keep anyone from diving — and to depths that were not reachable before the Net came along. Also, compare using the Net to TV viewing. There is clearly a massive move to the former from the latter. And this move, at the very least, requires being less of a potato.

But that’s all a separate matter from Google itself. There is no guarantee that Google will be around, or in the same form, in the year 2020.

First, there are natural limits to any form of bigness, and Google is no exception to those. Trees do not grow to the sky.

Second, nearly all of Google’s income is from advertising. There are two problems with this. One is that improving a pain in the ass does not make it a kiss — and advertising is, on the whole, still a pain in the user’s ass. The other is that advertising is a system of guesswork, which by nature makes it both speculative and inefficient. Google has greatly reduced both those variables, and made advertising accountable for the first time: advertisers pay only for click-throughs. Still, for every click-through there are hundreds or thousands of “impressions” that waste server cycles, bandwidth, pixels, rods and cones. The cure for this inefficiency can’t come from the sell side. It must come from the demand side. When customers have means for advertising their wants and needs (e.g. “I need a stroller for twins in downtown Boston in the next two hours. Who’s coming through and how”) — and to do this securely and out in the open marketplace (meaning not just in the walled gardens of Amazons and eBays) — much of advertising’s speculation and guesswork will be obsoleted. Look at it this way: we need means for demand to drive supply at least as well as supply drives demand. By 2020 we’ll have that. (Especially if we succeed at work we’re doing through ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center.) Google is well positioned to help with that shift. But it’s an open question whether or not they’ll get behind it.

Third, search itself is at risk. For the last fifteen years we have needed search because Web grew has lacked a directory other than DNS (which only deals with what comes between the // and the /.) Google has succeeded because it has proven especially good at helping users find needles in the Web’s vast haystack. But what happens if the Web ceases to be a haystack? What if the Web gets a real directory, like LANs had back in the 80s — or something like one? The UNIX file paths we call URLs (e.g. http://domain.org/folder/folder/file.htm…) presume a directory structure. This alone suggests that a solution to the haystack problem will eventually be found. When it is, search then will be more of a database lookup than the colossally complex thing it is today (requiring vast data centers that suck huge amounts of power off the grid, as Google constantly memorizes every damn thing it can find in the entire Web). Google is in the best position to lead the transition from the haystack Web to the directory-enabled one. But Google may remain married to the haystack model, just as the phone companies of today are still married to charging for minutes and cable companies are married to charging for channels — even though both concepts are fossils in an all-digital world.


2. Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?

1 By 2020, most people won’t do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

2 By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

Please explain your choice and share your view about how major programs and applications will be designed, how they will function, and the role of cloud computing by 2020.

The answer is both.

Resources and functions will operate where they make the most sense. As bandwidth goes up, and barriers to usage (such as high “roaming” charges for data use outside a carrier’s home turf) go down, and Bob Frankston’s “ambient connectivity” establishes itself, our files and processing power will locate themselves where they work best — and where we, as individuals, have the most control over them.

Since we are mobile animals by nature, it makes sense for us to connect with the world primarily through hand-held devices, rather than the ones that sit on our desks and laps. But these larger devices will not go away. We need large screens for much of our work, and we need at least some local storage for when we go off-grid, or need fast connections to large numbers of big files, or wish to keep matters private through physical disconnection.

Clouds are to personal data what banks are to personal money. They provide secure storage, and are in the best positions to perform certain intermediary and back-end services, such as hosting applications and storing data. This latter use has an importance that will only become more critical as each of us accumulates personal data by the terabyte. If your home drives crash or get stolen, or your house burns down, your data can still be recovered if you’ve backed it up in the cloud.

But most home users (at least in the U.S. and other under-developed countries) are still stuck at the far ends of asymmetrical connections with low upstream data rates, designed at a time when carriers thought the Net would mostly be a new system for distributing TV and other forms of “content.” Thus backing up terabytes of data online ranges from difficult to impossible.

This is why any serious consideration of cloud computing — especially over the long term — needs to take connectivity into account. Clouds are only as useful as connections permit. And right now the big cloud utilities (notably Google and Amazon) are way ahead of the carriers at imagining how connected computing needs to grow. For most carriers the Internet is still just the third act in a “triple play,” a tertiary service behind telephony and television. Worse, the mobile carriers show little evidence that they understand the need to morph from phone companies to data companies — even with Apple’s iPhone success screaming “this is the future” at them.

A core ideal for all Internet devices is what Jonathan Zittrain (in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It) calls generativity, which is maximized encouragement of innovation in both hardware and software. Today generativity in mobile devices varies a great deal. The iPhone, for example, is highly generative for software, but not for hardware (only Apple makes iPhones). And even the iPhone’s software market is sphinctered by Apple’s requirement that every app pass to market only through Apple’s “store,” which operates only through Apple’s iTunes, which runs only on Macs and PCs (no Linux or other OSes). On top of all that is Apple’s restrictive partnerships with AT&T (in the U.S.) and Rogers (in Canada). While AT&T allows unlimited data usage on the iPhone, Rogers still has a 6Gb limit.

Bottom line: Handhelds will no smarter than the systems built to contain them. The market will open widest — and devices will get smartest — when anybody can make a smartphone (or any other mobile device), and use it on any network they please, without worrying about data usage limits or getting hit with $1000+ bills because they forgot to turn off “push notifications” or “location services” when they roamed out of their primary carrier’s network footprint. In other words, the future will be brightest when mobile systems get Net-native.


3. Will social relations get better?

1 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

2 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

3a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 — what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?

Craig Burton describes the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero — comprised entirely of ends separated by an absence of distance in the middle. With a hollow sphere, every point is visible to every other point. Your screen and my keyboard have no distance between them. This is a vivid way to illustrate the Net’s “end-to-end” architecture and how we perceive it, even as we also respect the complex electronics and natural latencies involved in the movement of bits from point to point anywhere on the planet. It also helps make sense of the Net’s distance-free social space.

As the “live” or “real-time” aspects of the net evolve, opportunities to engage personally and socially are highly magnified beyond all the systems that came before. This cannot help but increase our abilities not only to connect with each other, but to understand each other. I don’t see how this hurts the world, and I can imagine countless ways it can make the world better.

Right now my own family is scattered between Boston, California, Baltimore and other places. Yet through email, voice, IM, SMS and other means we are in frequent touch, and able to help each other in many ways. The same goes for my connections with friends and co-workers.

We should also hope that the Net makes us more connected, more social, more engaged and involved with each other. The human diaspora, from one tribe in Africa to thousands of scattered tribes — and now countries — throughout the world, was driven to a high degree by misunderstandings and disagreements between groups. Hatred and distrust between groups have caused countless wars and suffering beyond measure. Anything that helps us bridge our differences and increase understanding is a good thing.

Clearly the Internet already does that.


4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

1 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

2 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

4a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, especially when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?

It is already clear in 2010 that the Net has greatly enhanced reading, writing, and knowledge held — and shared — by human beings. More people are reading and writing, and in more ways, for more readers and other writers, than ever before. And the sum of all of it goes up every day.

I’m sixty-two years old, and have been a journalist since my teens. My byline has appeared in dozens of publications, and the sum of my writing runs — I can only guess — into millions of words. Today very little of what I wrote and published before 1995 is available outside of libraries, and a lot of it isn’t even there.

For example, in the Seventies and early Eighties I wrote regularly for an excellent little magazine called The Sun. (It’s still around, at http://thesunmagazine.org) But, not wanting to carry my huge collection of Suns from one house to another (I’ve lived in 9 places over the last ten years), I gave my entire collection (including rare early issues) to an otherwise excellent public library, and they lost or ditched it. Few items from those early issues are online. My own copies are buried in boxes in a garage, three thousand miles from where I live now. So are dozens of boxes of photos and photo albums. (I was also a newspaper photographer in the early days, and have never abandoned the practice.)

On the other hand, most of what I’ve written since the Web came along is still online. And most of that work — including 34,000 photographs on Flickr — is syndicated trough RSS (Really SimpleSyndication) or its derivatives. So is the work of millions of other people. If that work is interesting in some way, it tends to get inbound links, increasing its discoverability through search engines and its usefulness in general. The term syndication was once applied only to professional purposes. Now everybody can do it.

Look up RSS on Google. Today it brings in more than three billion results. Is it possible that this has decreased the quality and sum of reading, writing and human knowledge? No way.


5. Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?

1 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

2 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

5a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human lifestyles in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? Will the values and practices that characterize today’s
younger Internet users change over time?

Widespread information sharing is not a generational issue. It’s a technological one. Our means for controlling access to data, or its use — or even for asserting our “ownership” of it — are very primitive. (Logins and passwords alone are clunky as hell, extremely annoying, and will be seen a decade hence as a form of friction we were glad to eliminate.)

It’s still early. The Net and the Web as we know them have only been around for about fifteen years. Right now we’re still in the early stages of the Net’s Cambrian explosion. By that metaphor Google is a trilobyte. We have much left to work out.

For example, take “terms of use.” Sellers have them. Users do not — at least not ones that theycontrol. Wouldn’t it be good if you could tell Facebook or Twitter (or any other company using your data) that these are the terms on which they will do business with you, that these are the ways you will share data with them, that these are the ways this data can be used, and that this is what will happen if they break faith with you? Trust me: user-controlled terms of use are coming. (Work is going on right now on this very subject at Harvard’s Berkman Center, both at its Law Lab and ProjectVRM.)

Two current technical developments, “self-tracking” and “personal informatics,” are examples of ways that power is shifting from organizations to individuals — for the simple reason that individuals are the best points of integration for
their own data, and the best points of origination for what gets done with that data.

Digital natives will eventually become fully empowered by themselves, not by the organizations to which they belong, or the services they use. When that happens, they’ll probably be more careful and responsible than earlier generations, for the simpler reason that they will have the tools.


6. Will our relationship to institutions change?

1 By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and othe mainstream institutions.

2 By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.

6a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence upon the future of institutional relationships with their patrons and customers between now and 2020. We are eager to hear what you think of how social, political, and commercial endeavors will form and the way people will cooperate in the future.

Online cooperation will only increase. The means are already there, and will only become more numerous and functional. Institutions that adapt to the Net’s cooperation-encouraging technologies and functions will succeed. Those that don’t will have a hard time.

Having it hardest right now are media institutions, for the simple reason that the Internet subsumes their functions, while also giving to everybody the ability to communicate with everybody else, at little cost, and often with little or no intermediating system other than the Net itself.

Bob Garfield, a columnist for AdAge and a host of NPR’s “On The Media,” says the media have entered what he calls (in his book by the same title) The Chaos Scenario. In his introduction Garfield says he should have called the book “Listenomics,” because listening is the first requirement of survival for every industry that lives on digital bits — a sum that rounds to approximately every industry, period.

So, even where the shapes of institution persist, their internal functions must be ready to listen, and to participate in the market’s conversations, even when those take place outside the institution’s own frameworks.


7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

1 By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal – fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the Internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.

2 By 2020, Internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the Internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for Internet users to
create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

7a. Please explain your choice and share your view about the future of anonymous activity
online by the year 2020

In the offline world, anonymity is the baseline. Unless burdened by celebrity, we are essentially anonymous when we wander through stores, drive down the road, or sit in the audience of a theater. We become less anonymous when we enter into conversation or transact business. Even there, however, social protocols do not require that we become any more identifiable than required for the level of interaction. Our “identity” might be “the woman in the plaid skirt,” “the tall guy who was in here this morning,? or “one of our students.”

We still lack means by which an individual can selectively and gracefully shift from fully to partially anonymous, and from unidentified to identified — yet in ways that can be controlled and minimized (or maximized) as much as the individual (and others with which he or she interacts) permit. In fact, we’re a long way off.

The main reason is that most of the “identity systems” we know put control on the side of sellers, governments, and other institutions, and not with the individual. In time systems that give users control will be developed. These will be native to users and not provided only by large organizations (such as Microsoft, Google or the government).

A number of development communities have been working on this challenge since early in the last decade, and eventually they will succeed. Hopefully this will be by 2020, but I figured we’d have it done by 2010, and it seems like we’ve barely started.


8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average Internet users.

2 By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

8a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the likelihood that the Semantic Web will have been implemented by 2020 and be a force for good in Internet users?

Tim’s World Wide Web was a very simple and usable idea that relied on very simple and usable new standards (e.g. HTML and HTTP), which were big reason why the Web succeeded. The Semantic Web is a very complex idea, and one that requires a lot of things to go right before it works. Or so it seems.

Tim Berners-Lee introduced the Semantic Web Roadmap (http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Semantic.html) in September 1998. Since then more than eleven years have passed. Some Semantic Web technologies have taken root: RDFa, for example, and microformats. But the concept itself has energized a relatively small number of people, and there is no “killer” tech or use yet.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Invention is the mother of necessity. The Semantic Web will take off when somebody invents something we all find we need. Maybe that something will be built out of some combination of code and protocols already laying around — either within the existing Semantic Web portfolio, or from some parallel effort such as XDI. Or maybe it will come out of the blue.

By whatever means, the ideals of the Semantic Web — a web based on meaning (semantics) rather than syntax (the Web’s current model) — will still drive development. And we’ll be a decade farther along in 2020 than we are in 2010.


9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

1 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today’s savviest innovators by surprise.

2 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come “out of the blue” and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovators.

9a. Please explain your choice and share your view of its implications for the future. What do you think will be the hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020?

“The blue” is the environment out of which most future innovation will come. And that blue is the Net.

Nearly every digital invention today was created by collaboration over the Net, between people working in different parts of the world. The ability to collaborate over distances, often in real time (or close to it), using devices that improve constantly, over connections that only get fatter and faster, guarantees that the number and variety of inventions will only go up. More imaginations will be captured more ways, more often. Products will be improved, and replaced, more often than ever, and in more ways than ever.

The hottest gadgets in 2020 will certainly involve extending one’s senses and one’s body. In fact, this has been the case for all inventions since humans first made stone tools and painted the walls of caves. That’s because humans are characterized not only by their intelligence and their ability to speak, but by their capacity to extend their senses, and their abilities, through their tools and technologies. Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, called this indwelling. It is through indwelling that the carpenter’s tool becomes an extension of his arm, and he has the power to pound nails through wood. It is also through indwelling that an instrument becomes an extension of the musician’s mouth and hands.

There is a reason why a pilot refers to “my wings” and “my tail,” or a driver to “my wheels” and “my engine.” By indwelling, the pilot’s senses extend outside herself to the whole plane, and the driver’s to his whole car.

The computers and smart phones of today are to some degree extensions of ourselves, but not to the extent that a hammer extends a carpenter, a car enlarges a driver or a plane enlarges a pilot. Something other than a computer or a smart phone will do that. Hopefully this will happen by 2020. If not, it will eventually.


10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

1 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the Internet’s founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

2 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

10a. Please explain your choice, note organizations you expect to be most likely to influence the future of the Internet and share your view of the effects of this between now and 2020.

There will always be a struggle to reconcile the Net’s end-to-end principle with the need for companies and technologies operating between those ends to innovate and make money. This tension will produce more progress than either the principle by itself or the narrow interests of network operators and other entities working between the Net’s countless ends.

Today these interests are seen as opposed — mostly because incumbent network operators want to protect businesses they see threatened by the Net’s end-to-end nature, which cares not a bit about who makes money or how. But in the future they will be seen as symbiotic, because both the principle and networks operating within it will be seen as essential infrastructure. So will what each of does to the help raise and renovate the Net’s vast barn.

The term infrastructure has traditionally been applied mostly to the public variety: roads, bridges, electrical systems, water systems, waste treatment and so on. But this tradition only goes back to the Seventies. Look up infrastructure in a dictionary from the 1960s or earlier and you won’t find it (except in the OED). Today are still no institutes or academic departments devoted to infrastructure. It’s a subject in many fields, yet not a field in itself.

But we do generally understand what infrastructure is. It’s something solid and common we can build on. It’s geology humans make for themselves.

Digital technology, and the Internet in particular, provide an interesting challenge for understanding infrastructure, because we rely on it, yet it is not solid in any physical sense. It is like physical structures, but not itself physical. We go on the Net, as if it were a road or a plane. We build on it too. Yet it is not a thing.

Inspired by Craig Burton’s description of the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero comprised entirely of ends
— David Weinberger and I wrote World of Ends in 2003 (http://worldofends.com). The purpose was to make the Net more understandable, especially to companies (such as phone and cable carriers) that had been misunderstanding it. Lots of people agreed with us, but none of those people ran the kinds of companies we addressed.

But, to be fair, most people still don’t understand the Net. Look up “The Internet is” on Google (with the quotes). After you get past the top entry (Wikipedia’s), here’s what they say:

  1. a Series of Tubes
  2. terrible
  3. really big
  4. for porn
  5. shit
  6. good
  7. wrong
  8. killing storytelling
  9. dead
  10. serious business
  11. for everyone
  12. underrated
  13. infected
  14. about to die
  15. broken
  16. Christmas all the time
  17. altering our brains
  18. changing health care
  19. laughing at NBC
  20. changing the way we watch TV
  21. changing the scientific method
  22. dead and boring
  23. not shit
  24. made of kittens
  25. alive and well
  26. blessed
  27. almost full
  28. distracting
  29. a brain
  30. cloudy

Do the same on Twitter, and you’ll get results just as confusing. At this moment (your search will vary; this is the Live Web here), the top results are:

  1. a weird, WEIRD place
  2. full of feel good lectures
  3. the Best Place to get best notebook computer deals
  4. Made of Cats
  5. Down
  6. For porn
  7. one of the best and worst things at the same time
  8. so small
  9. going slow
  10. not my friend at the moment
  11. blocked
  12. letting me down
  13. going off at 12
  14. not working
  15. magic
  16. still debatable
  17. like a jungle
  18. eleven years old
  19. worsening by the day
  20. extremely variable
  21. full of odd but exciting people
  22. becoming the Googlenet
  23. fixed
  24. forever
  25. a battlefield
  26. a great network for helping others around the world
  27. more than a global pornography network
  28. slow
  29. making you go nuts
  30. so much faster bc im like the only 1 on it

(I took out the duplicates. There were many involving cats and porn.)

Part of the problem is that we understand the Net in very different and conflicting ways. For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,”we are saying the Internet is a place. It’s real estate. But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers” who “download” it, we’re saying the Net is a shipping system. These metaphors are very different. They yield different approaches to business and lawmaking, to
name just two areas of conflict.

Bob Frankston, co-inventor (with Dan Bricklin) of spreadsheet software (Visicalc) and one of the fathers of home networking, says the end-state of the Net’s current development is ambient connectivity, which “gives us access to the oceans of copper, fiber and radios that surround us.” Within those are what Frankston calls a “sea of bits” to which all of us contribute. To help clarify the anti-scarce nature of bits, he explains, “Bits aren’t really like kernels of corn. They are more like words. You may run out of red paint but you don’t run out of the color red.”

Much has been written about the “economics of abundance,” but we have barely begun to understand what that means or what can be done with it. The threats are much easier to perceive than the opportunities. Google is one notable exception to that. Asked at a Harvard meeting to explain the company’s strategy of moving into businesses where it expects to make no money directly for the services it offers, a Google executive explained that the company looked for “second and third order effects.”

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist for BT (disclosure: I consult BT) describes these as “because effects.” You make money because of something rather than with it. Google makes money because of search, and because of Gmail. Not with them. Not directly.

Yet money can still be made with goods and services — even totally commodified ones. Amazon makes money with back-end Web services such as EC2 (computing) and S3 (data storage). Phone, cable and other carriers can make money with “dumb pipes” too. They are also in perfect positions to offer low-latency services directly to their many customers at homes and in businesses. All the carriers need to do is realize that there are benefits to incumbency other than charging monopoly rents.

The biggest danger for the Net and its use comes not from carriers, but from copyright absolutists in what we have recently come to call the “content” industry. For example, in the U.S. the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), passed in 1998, was built to protect the interests of copyright holders and served as a model for similar lawmaking in other countries. What it did was little to protect the industries that lobbied its passing, while at the same time hurting or preventing a variety of other industries. Most notable (at least for me) was the embryonic Internet radio industry, which was just starting to take off when the DMCA came along. The saga that followed is woefully complex, and the story is far from over, but the result in the meantime is a still-infant industry that suffers many more restrictions in respect to “content” than over-the-air radio stations. Usage fees for music are much higher than those faced by broadcasters — so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is also essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to “clear rights” for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That’s why, except for “podsafe” music, podcasting today is almost all talk.

I’ll give the last words here to Cory Doctorow, who publishes them freely in his new book Content:

… there is an information economy. You don’t even need a computer to participate. My barber, an avowed technophobe who rebuilds antique motorcycles and doesn’t own a PC, benefited from the information economy when I found him by googling for barbershops in my neighborhood.

Teachers benefit from the information economy when they share lesson plans with their colleagues around the world by email. Doctors benefit from the information economy when they move their patient files to efficient digital formats. Insurance companies benefit from the information economy through better access to fresh data used in the preparation of actuarial tables. Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves look up the weekend’s weather online and decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store Western Union terminal.

This stuff generates wealth for those who practice it. It enriches the country and improves our lives.

And it can peacefully co-exist with movies, music and microcode, but not if Hollywood gets to call the shots. Where IT managers are expected to police their networks and systems for unauthorized copying — no matter what that does to productivity — they cannot co-exist. Where our operating systems are rendered inoperable by “copy protection,” they cannot co-exist. Where our educational institutions are turned into conscript enforcers for the record industry, they cannot co-exist.

The information economy is all around us. The countries that embrace it will emerge as global economic superpowers. The countries that stubbornly hold to the simplistic idea that the information economy is about selling information will end up at the bottom of the pile.


But all that is just me (and my sources, such as Cory). There are 894 others compiled by the project, and I invite you to visit those there.

I’ll also put in a plug for FutureWeb in Raleigh, April 28-30, where I look forward to seeing many old friends and relatives as well. (I lived in North Carolina for most of the 20 years from 1965-1985, and miss it still.) Hope to see some of ya’ll there.

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20 comments

  1. Brett Glass’s avatar

    IMHO, this was a bogus, unscientific poll. The questions were all either leading or biased.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    You may have noticed that I went in my own directions with most of my answers. fwiw.

  3. Frank Paynter’s avatar

    I always enjoy the work that Pew puts forward on our Internet. And I’m grateful to you for such a thoughtful, well informed, and informative set of answers.

    Over the last ten years I’ve had a chance to see how hard you work and the impressive results of that focused effort. I’ve also observed a little about what I’d have to call your schtick, no offense intended. You’d probably call it schtick too. Your presentation of ideas as they form, as you work them into “the act,” and finally as you present them formally as work product, whether it’s a presentation or an essay or less formal but as important collegial networking with your peers.

    Here’s where the quibble comes in… It’s a minor point, a trivial issue really, but I’ve been chewing on it for a year or so since I grasped that you were appropriating “infrastructure” as a vehicle to carry a number of your important ideas forward.

    Here’s the deal. “Infrastructure” has led a long and useful life in the English lexicon of structural engineering terms. Your assertion that it didn’t come into common usage until the seventies is flat out wrong and a tad solipsistic.

    You’re attached to the idea of infrastructure as a neologism. You say, “Look up infrastructure in a dictionary from the 1960s or earlier and you won’t find it (except in the OED).” Well, tonight at my own desk that was an easy one to fact check. I just hauled out the first superannuated dictionary that was at hand here, “Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language – College Edition” (Copyrights from 1953 to 1968, the year my copy was printed.

    Here’s what it says,
    “Infrastructure – a substructure or underlying foundation; especially, the basic economic, social, or military facilities and installations of a community, state, etc.”

    The Internet is quite solid and comprises infrastructure. The ephemera of information and communication that the infrastructure enables is a little slippery. The uses we make of the infrastructure, from data storage to end-to-end real-time communication, these are not infrastructure in any real sense. It would be good for us to maintain the distinction. The top tweets or the top Google responses for what “the Internet is” aren’t really too relevant. They represent some kind of opinion polling of folks who will be the first to tell you that they’re really not qualified to hold an opinion (except maybe for the “series of tubes” guy).

    Anyway, all quibbling aside, thanks for a well informed rundown on the latest Pew report. Mostly I liked your answers.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Frank.

    I’m not wedded to any of my ideas about infrastructure, and I’m glad to be corrected on matters of its etymology. (I still stand by my assertion that the word did not come into common use until the Seventies. But hey, prove me wrong. Or go cite a solid source when you correct this solipsism in Wikipedia: “The term came to prominence in the United States in the 1980s following the publication of America in Ruins (Choate and Walter, 1981)[1] , which initiated a public-policy discussion of the nation’s “infrastructure crisis”, purported to be caused by decades of inadequate investment and poor maintenance of public works.”)

    My goal here is to get a conversation going about infrastructure. It’s a rock I’ve been pushing up a very steep hill, for years. Rethinking out loud about Infrastructure, from December 2008, has a long list of earlier efforts. That one directs special attention to Stephen Lewis’ The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet. I consider that the best rundown on the topic to date.

    Thinking outside the Internet’s box is a later one.

    I am a bit encouraged, now that we’ve got an infrastructure group going here at Berkman, thanks to the noble and persistent efforts of my colleague Christian Sandvig (blog here). Look for more to show up here, including pointage to and contributions from Stephen Lewis. (Oh, we have a Flickr site too.) If you’re interested, join in.

    Meanwhile, let’s say we draw a sharp distinction between the hard and soft parts of the Net. Hardware on one side and ephemera on the other. Are you content with the owners of that infrastructure telling you what the Internet is and what you can do with it? Because those guys right now want to turn it into TV 2.0: a content delivery system. The Net is at best a secondary service for them: just a way to “access” the stuff called “content” that they deliver like Fedex, only electronically.

    In other words, if we insist that the Net is nothing more than ephemera accessed by phone and cable systems alone, we are at serious risk of losing it — and much of what we might otherwise build on it, were it not an exclusive grace of telco and cableco carriage.

  5. Brett Glass’s avatar

    I’m all for talking about “infrastructure” — so long as that term is not taken to imply a resource which must be owned and operated by government. I’ve put 18 years into building my ISP’s private infrastructure, and resent attempts by lawyers such as Susan Crawford to nationalize it.

  6. Frank Paynter’s avatar

    Sometimes the conversation builds up like tartar on a tooth. Let me interrupt the accretion for a moment (although I do have something further to add regarding “infrastructure”). I just received Peter d’Epiro’s, “The Book of Firsts.” (Ironically not the first book by that name….) The book is a series of questions treating 150 “firsts” spread across 2000 years of global experience, a cleverly disguised volume of world history. Each essay has a hook, like Number 100: “Who was the first modern man?” (Hint: Petrarch). The last chapter, written by Tom Matrullo, is called “What was the first Internet?” The layering of infrastructure and intention that spawned the Internet and eventually Berners-Lee’s W3 hack is a pleasure to read about. (Tom is a major contributor to the book, the author of a dozen or so of the “firsts,” each as good or better than the next).

    For ten bucks you can get it on your Kindle. The paperback is sold out at Amazon, but more are on order.

  7. Andrew Swenson’s avatar

    Regardless of the science behind the survey, I think there’s value in a qualitative analysis of the responses, and the added context of your full answers is very helpful.

    I work for a publishing company, and today I suggested that our industry may be fundamentally misunderstanding the internet in a meeting. It caused a bit of stir.

    So for someone who is advocating for a Cory Doctorow-esque vision from inside the beast, thank you.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Frank. I’m glad to hear that Tom’s writing gifts have been put to such excellent use. I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ll order the book anyway and look forward to getting a copy.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Andrew, glad to help any way I can.

  10. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I believe that Google will affect our language, because search engines don’t like semantic forks.

    Here’s my first version of that idea… I expect I could rewrite it again. How does one get an editor for one’s blogs, anyway? ;-)

    http://mikewarot.blogspot.com/2010/03/google-and-language-version-1.html

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