“Internet” is an Empty Word

I had thought about calling this ‘Why I am no longer talking to marketing people about digital’ but thought that, though it was clever, it missed the point as this is bigger than ‘Growth Hackers’ and ‘Executive Digital Prophets’. With 5G services launching, voice control going mainstream, the cloud enabling real time translation and genuinely powerful augmented reality applications, it would be easy to assume that we are living in the age of The Internet, heralded by seamless services and near-zero data costs; when was the last time you paid for WiFi in a public place?

It all feels like magic…

Which is exactly the point.

To turn Arthur C. Clarke’s third law on its head, ‘Magic’ is the marker of a fully mature technology. ARPAnet turned 50 last year, and TCP/IP – which remains the internet’s underlying protocol today – was rolled out in 1983, almost 4 decades ago. To give you a comparison, forty years years after all, mesmerising, 2.1 seconds of the Roundhay Garden Scene was created, all 89 minutes of Al Jolson’s all-singing ‘The Jazz Singer’ had already been in cinemas for a year.

When I think back to the dial up of my youth or the WAP of my university years, the current ubiquity of connection is breathtaking. ‘The Internet’ used to be something slow, cumbersome but ultimately useful. It had an off switch. You ‘connected’ to it. The area described by the overlap at the centre of the Venn diagram of ‘life’ and ‘online’ was a fragile ‘quenelle’. Now the reality is the two circles sit atop each other. To make a distinction is pointless. Devices are ‘always online’ by default if not by design. Mobile computing has become a key mediator between us and the world. Rather than an obfuscation, we must acknowledge it as an augmentation. Whether we want to embrace Luddism or champion ‘Postalgia’, like the Stoics, we must accept our ‘wired’ future as neutral (both I and the magazine show our age with this digitally anachronistic term); connectivity is neither good nor bad, but simply more material for virtue to act upon.

This finger-pointing over internet addiction is as pointless as accusing me of oxygen addiction. Yes, I do breath a lot, and no, I am not willing to give it up. But the harmful part – the addictions – may be my compulsive and deviant sexual exploits or enthusiastic Fentanyl habit. The whole ‘respiring’ thing is just a platform for these hobbies. The same can be said of harmful behaviours and the internet.

Life online is now just ‘life’ now. It is just another layer of society settling on the numerous strata that came before. Online dating is just dating, cyberbullying is really just bullying, and digital marketing is just marketing. Sorry Growth Hackers. These verbal distinctions were markers of a transitional phase when you could still see the strings, could figure out how the trick was done.

So if internet is life and life is internet, what are the consequences of this?

Digital marketing is dead; long live digital marketing.

I still struggle every time I see the word to digital in a brief. Shareability, virality, even simply how photogenic an execution is crucial, regardless of channel. We live in an age of ubiquitous photography too. There are some AdTech staples to take care of for sure, but the digital display work that is making so many people so much money off the back of dubious metrics will go one of two ways; either it becomes a hygiene factor, like your website or an obsolescence. It’s up to the same evangelists to decide. Do they want to be IBM, or Microsoft?

Balkanisation will be the norm, not the exception

Yes, few places are likely to be as heavily restricted as China, but regulation, and ultimately limitations, on certain kinds of traffic and locations will become widespread. We will be in a world of many overlapping internets, just as we are in a world of many interlinked, interdependent, but ultimately independent sovereign states. Alternatively we end up in a post-national utopian supra-state powered by limitless clean fusion energy. But I am not sure that will happen in a decade likely to be shaped by continuing Populism and Nationalism.

Alternative spaces will proliferate

Potentially physically as well as digitally. Underground internets will continue to mature and offer an alternative much closer to the original intention of the early pioneers. But this will also become a more and more extreme choice, involving going fully off grid – potentially even identity erasure – in a world of biometrics and facial recognition. 

Mass platforms will be regulated

This is not a question of if, but when. Lobby dollars can only go so far when lack of regulation poses and existential threat to liberal democracy. Capitalism and Democracy have never been coterminous. Companies must ultimately be subservient to states and to citizens. Like banks or supermarkets or newspapers or any other businesses that constantly touch people’s lives, it is not sustainable for them to act like they’re outside of the law. Sorry Facebook.

Blockchain will change the world, but Crypto will remain niche

Decentralised ledgers will increase trust and transparency in moribund democracies and bring greater oversight to dysfunctional one. However Bitcoin and others will remain a volatile and profitable curiosity. They can’t be shut down, but they can’t replace the state. And so long as the polis endures, so will its fiat currency. Sometimes Hobbes is a little bit right about us as humans.