“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.
Big Tech’s Neoliberal Fantasy
Legendary ‘Wall Street Wide Boy turned Silicon Valley Savant’ and ‘Don’ of the PayPal Mafia, Thiel believes – as outlined early on in his much lauded book ‘Zero to One’ – that the rapid and profound innovation that came about in finance and technology in the late 20th and early 21st Century was brought about because these industries were ones where the government didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t regulate. He puts his money where his beliefs lie too, donating to a smorgasbord of out there causes that underline his extreme brand of individualism – life extension, Seasteading, the Singulairty – as well as a range of ultra-libertarian Republican candidates in the US. He also owns a doomsday ranch in New Zealand, just in case…
At least Peter Thiel doesn’t claim to be above ideology, which is more than can be said about many of the rest of the West’s greatest Tech evangelists. Whether forcing cities across the US to play beggar-my-neighbour to win vast tax breaks in return for pricing locals out of their homes with a new corporate HQ (Amazon), steamrollering over local employment laws and industry standards in the name of ‘disruption’ (Uber), or mocking local tax rules via complex and magical financial arbitrage (Apple, Google, Facebook, etc etc etc), Big Tech holds government in contempt – if they would just get out of the way the world will be a better place. Yet few would admit to what they are – Neoliberal Utopian Fantasists. Most instead claim to be above ideology, that what these companies are bringing about is, at its core, an unambiguous, value-neutral, vision of progress; ‘A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellas with compassion and vision’. The problem that this is itself an ideological choice.
Of course this belief has been tested, shaken even recently. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been used (as they are designed to be) to manipulate elections. This was not a glitch, this is exactly how they are designed to be – to serve you what you want to hear and sell you attention to the highest bidder. That time and again they have ducked the responsibility to admit that they are an accountable published reflects how they continue to have your cake and eat it. But just watch Zuckerberg in front of the House, struggling to suppress a smirk (“We sell ads, sir”), or how the reaction from the rest of the tech faithful praised his barely-veiled contempt and we see that the true zealot will never be swayed from the cause. Any changes made from the inside – voluntary tax payments, roundtables with regulators, hiring more content moderators are designed to cement the substructure by sugaring the superstructure.
Their greatest defence is that this is a golden era for democracy in its broadest sense. A world now open to all, a collapsing of vertical structures in favour of new lateral networks that allow everyone access to everything. Cat videos! Child porn! Earthquakes and disasters! Famine! Kardashians! Earthquake and disaster memes! Rape! Furries! Cat videos! What Joerg Kock, editor of the German independent magazine turned fashion brand 032c, calls ‘The Big Flat Now’. But the issue is that it is only so flat. There is a hierarchy still. An unaccountable one that sidelines government and places us all as equals, sitting below the industry leaders who constellate our firmament. At this point, I would like to add that I love technology. I am writing this using cloud-based word processing on computer that has more power than I know what to do with. I have worked in and for numerous technology firms, and I plan to again, if this doesn’t outrage them, but the naivety that sees what they create as neutral-positive progress is naive. Technology is a tool. It is highly adaptable, and like any other tool that went before in can be used in many ways. A hammer only becomes a murder weapon when applied to the skull, but all tools have implicit ‘best uses’ in their design. Its why some are more regulated than others; automatic weapons, gene editing, Morphine. And when it comes to Big Tech, we are faced not just with invention, but innovation – the commercial application of technology in the name of profit. To sideline government in order to give unregulated access to these new, highly profitable tools to the general population is not Democratic. It is techno-authoritarian move that fundamentally ignores, or perhaps does not believe in, the moral limitations of markets and the value of societal transactions that cant simply be priced. As I said, naive at best; wilfully maleficent at worst. And either way, a definitively idealogical stance against the un-privatised polis.
The worst part is that even Thiel is wrong. Technology companies may spend on innovation, but they do little invention. A lot of D, but not so much R. The Ur-technologies – the internet itself, microprocessors, GPS, telecoms networks – were all brought about if not by the state, then by heavy involvement. The foundational science comes from public institutions and government funding; ‘investment’ that is only fixated with furthering human knowledge. What the secondary innovation from Wall Street and the Valley have in common is not that they are highly profound so much as highly profitable…
Fear and Loathing and Facebook
The leading execs of Big Pharma, Big Oil and those managing payday lenders really ought to get themselves to the Googleplex for a crash-course in image management. Compared to these industries which are often burdened with toxic reputations (sometimes literally rather than figuratively) Google is seen as a benevolent public institution rather than publicly listed profit-generator. Tax issues ebb and flow across the foreshore of public consciousness, but ultimately fail to wash away the general positivity and goodwill.
Likewise, raising concerns about privacy feels like praising the latest Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook at a dinner party in Herne Hill; it’s one of those things that one is socially obligated to go through the motions of… Germany aside, (where frankly, there are some longer standing issues around ‘files’ and ‘secrets) – protests about data security sound generally anemic. I don’t know anyone using ‘Duck Duck Go’ and most privacy settings go mostly unchecked. Frankly, I am more worried about my bank than my browser. The reality is that this a company that could – and often, by our ‘consent by default’, does know everything about our online selves. Which in 2016 amounts to an awful lot of us. Probably more than our partners. I wouldn’t share my entire browsing data with mine. Would you?
I am writing this on Google Docs, in Chrome browser, at a cafe I searched for, or rather ‘Googled’ with their Search Engine and then found with Maps on my Android powered phone. If you have watch some content from YouTube or replied to an email through Gmail between these devices you are providing more and more cumulative understanding of who you are, so they can sell that ‘who’ to the highest bidder. Their argument is that they want people to be able to sell to you in a way that is more rewarding for us all. Whatever the reason is, most of us are okay with the Faustian pact we are entered into. We take the free stuff in return for becoming their product. At the same time, they want to cover the world with balloons in the sky the broadcast internet and they have just released an AI-powered device that will one day run your entire home through their systems. How you feel about that depends how dystopian/lazy you are feeling in any given moment. I have a sneaking suspicion that rather than this being the result of careful reputation management, it’s more like watching a horror film seated 6 inches away from a megaplex-sized IMAX screen; you never see anywhere near enough of the whole picture to realise how incredibly fucking scary it is.
By contrast, Facebook should be a big cuddly blue bear, right? It’s where all your friends are, your pictures, your contacts. You spend hours there, they know that, they have the data; you’ve been there swiping up, swiping up swiping up for the last four hours! You LOVE it! Or so that’s their pitch to advertisers. They are all about the love. And they are working on giving us more love. I woke up today and fired up Ol’ Blue to find it telling me “Good Morning Adam – Stay dry Today in Singapore – Rain is forecast”. THANKS Ol’ Blue. Great to know. Or sometimes it’s a message to tell me it’s International Peace Day, or Pizza Day, or whatever. I don’t know, but they were thinking of me!
Snark aside, Facebook, like the rest of the internet, trade on our attention. Just like Instagram (which they own) or Snapchat or Twitter, it is our engagement that they sell ( or fail to, if you’re Twitter). And Facebook feel threatened by lots of other social channels coming onstream that are growing and engaging users rapidly, including messaging services such as Line or the also-Facebook owned WhatsApp.
But online as well as off, Engagement comes in many different flavours. Websites may measure it quantitatively (time spent on page, Unique Monthly Visits etc.) but there is also a strong qualitative element to it. Why are they engaging; what is the mindset, mood and motivation at the moment? There was a time when Facebook was probably loved. Or at least liked. When it was small, when it was amusing, when it felt intimate. But it became a vast all-encompassing thing, and it aims eventually to include everyone. Somewhere along the way, it became so big that it became an institution. In fact, it became infrastructure. Having a Facebook account is akin to what having a phone line was in the late 20th century, or a mobile phone just a little before now in the 21st. It’s like running water and sanitation. No-one loves their toilet, but you are pretty angry when it doesn’t flush. But Facebook still wants to be loved and still wants attention – it’s like a 30 year old man who still acts like the overindulged toddler he once was (!). So it creeps me out with messages about the weather, about what’s happening in the world, about my ‘last year in review’. Confronted with myriad platforms that are more novel and more compelling, it tries even harder to make you love it.
The big problem is there is a massive disconnect in how it wants to be seen, and how people see it. And this comes from this quantitative measure of engagement. By looking at how long people are on their app, scrolling their feeds and equating this with how much people care, or even love your app, they are making a dangerous mistake. And from this dangerous mistake they are building an even more dangerous strategy’ trying to make their news feeds stickier and stickier, getting people to dwell longer and longer, making their messenger ever-more intrusive. Because this time does not equate to love. Simply put, people hate themselves for using it. And the more their functionality tries to encourage that, the more resentment and loathing it builds. To go back to the toilet, it would be as if it only allowed you to flush once you had sung a late 80s Madonna hit to it. You’d do it, but you’d really rather not…
Facebook, like Google is now a grown-up part of the internet. It is one of the foundational elements from which all the lovely, interesting, grotesque and surprising bits of the internet spring. Whether by accident, design, or simply the nature of the core products they are pushing, Google is acting like an elder statesman, whereas Facebook doesn’t want to grow up. But neither did Myspace or AOL.
Facebook’s function as a universal sign it, it’s role as the depository of contacts and personal photos and a whole bunch of other core functions it plays within people’s online lives are vital – it is somewhere between a filofax and a permanent scrapbook, a fixed social CV that means I can be found (like a sexier version of the Phone Book) are really useful. Much of the rest is not. And by trying to fight the ‘new’ at the periphery it obfuscates it’s core. How many party invites, events or groups have migrated to (mercifully for them, FB-owned) WhatsApp, whose utilitarian, user-driven structure seems ever more appealing. That should be a space they own. Why build chatbots for Messenger, when people are already querying businesses via WhatsApp?
So what is the result of all this? The eponymous Fear and Loathing. People hate themselves for using it and is seeing diminishing returns on the ‘useful’ parts, even if the headline ‘time on site’ show we still think it’s wonderful; other tools are getting a greater share of more meaningful interactions. It doesn’t help that their leadership is either sucking up to China, much to the derision of both the Chinese internet and the West, or patronising the developing world. The worse part is the fear – FB is the one that constantly suffers from privacy issues, from accusations about how it uses people’s data, it’s the one that ‘knows too much’ even though in truth it’s Google that probably has the deeper insights. But Google is the Elder Statesman and Facebook is the 30 year old man-child. Who would you rather trust with your all of your browsing and personal data? Me or Kofi Annan?
Wikipedia and the Ministry of Truth
There has been much attention in the press over a certain Wiki. The Wikileaks affair has raised questions over what counts as journalistic freedom, and what is simply sensationalism, revelation, or open-source espionage. I feel after such an expectant sentence, I should at least lay out my stall before I go on. I think the suppression of the website is outrageous, and gives America no leg to stand on when it turns round and tells China that it should allow greater journalistic freedom. I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky’s post and position myself on the side of free speech with some reservation. I also think that just dumping a database of leaked documents online isn’t really journalism.
Traditionally great journalists have decided when to use a leak and when to hold, what is of interest and what will not only make mediocre news, but be detrimental for a more general interest. Now before I head down some mystic, quasi-rousseauian route of the free press as diviner of the general will, I will admit that maybe that leaves too much responsibility with the journalists to shape thought. We should all be allowed to discover and express truth for ourselves. But we never consider that we leave to much responsibility with teachers to shape young minds. Let’s just hope our press isn’t like US schools on some things…
Wikileaks isn’t the Wiki that I am concerned with today, though editorial licence, journalistic controls, and potential monopolies on truth are on the agenda.
When Wikipedia came into being in 2001, it was arguably the first major application of crowdsourcing. Though a study by Nature reported that it was no more inaccurate than the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, vandalism of the site raises some interesting questions about the very nature of truth in these early years of a true time of ‘The internet:IRL’- when online and offline are distinctions that become less relevant. A growing number of university essays, professional presentations and knowledge in general circulation and parlance seems to spring forth from this miasma. When people want to find something out, about history, politics, companies, products or things, they google it, or look at wikipedia.
Even tools online that are there to make our world clearer could be manipulated. Looking to see where a street is on Google Maps, the image could be out of date or doctored or even removed. An chunk of Baghdad that was bombed could still look as it did only minutes earlier, with children playing in the street…
Okay, so that is perhaps a little far fetched, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to adjust an entry for your company or brand online, alter reality essentially. After all, celebrities have woken up to their own deaths as twitter trending topics. Especially as we rely more and more on living in the ‘The internet:IRL’ hybrid space that gradually encroaches more and more on our lives.
To understate the importance of the Internet would be churlish. It may the most important thing to happen to the written word since Gutenburg. But just as moveable type helped end an ecclesiastical monopoly on misinformation, the growth of the web starts a fire-sale on opinion. This doesn’t mean that there should be limits on what people can express whenever and however they like. It is one of the most liberating things about the web. But establishing some way to verify reality, remembering that ‘another website’ is not an attributable source may make sure that the digital layers of our lives aid and abet our IRL elements, rather than allowing a kind of crowd sourced version of Air Strip One’s Ministry of Truth.
A vision that is closer than we may imagine when we consider that 50% of edits are done by around 0.7% of users. Doubleplusungood, very doubleplusungood…