How The Internet Turned Bad

Authored by Arnold King via HackerNoon.com,

The 1990s Vision Failed...

It has been 25 years since I formed my first impressions of the Internet. I thought that it would shift the balance of power away from large organizations. I thought that individuals and smaller entities would gain more autonomy. What we see today is not what I hoped for back then.

In 1993, I did not picture people having their online experience being “fed” to them by large corporations using mysterious algorithms. Instead, I envisioned individuals in control, creating and exploring on their own.

In hindsight, I think that four developments took place that changed the direction of the Internet.

  1. The masses came to the Internet. Many of the new arrivals were less technically savvy, were more interested in passively consuming entertainment than in contributing creatively, and were less able to handle uncensored content in a mature way. They have been willing to give up autonomy in exchange for convenience.

  2. At the same time, the capability of artificial intelligence grew rapidly. Better artificial intelligence made corporate control over the user experience more cost-effective than had been the case earlier.

  3. The winner-take-all mentality took over. Entrepreneurs and consultants were convinced that only one firm in each market segment would dominate. In recent years, this has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, as stock market investors poured money into leading firms, giving those firms the freedom to experiment with new business ventures, under-price competitors, and buy out rivals.

  4. The peer-to-peer structure of the Internet and the services provided over it did not scale gracefully. The idea of a “dumb network” of fully distributed computing gave way to caching servers and server farms. The personal blog or web site gave way to Facebook and YouTube.

Blogs vs. Facebook

To me, blogs symbolize the “old vision” of the Internet, and Facebook epitomizes the new trend.

When you read blogs, you make your own deliberate choices about which writers to follow. With Facebook, you rely on the “feed” provided by the artificial intelligence algorithm.

Blog writers put effort into their work. They develop a distinctive style. In general, there are two types of blog posts. One type is a collection of links that the blogger believes will be interesting. The other type is a single reference, for which the blogger will provide a quote and additional commentary. On Facebook, many posts are just mindless “shares” where the person doing the sharing adds nothing to what he or she is sharing.

Bloggers create “metadata.” They put their posts into categories, and they add keyword tags. This allows readers to filter what they read. It has the potential to allow for sophisticated searching of blog posts by topic. On Facebook, the artificial intelligence tries to infer our interests from our behavior. We do not select topics ourselves.

The most popular environment for reading and writing blogs is the personal computer, which allows a reader time to think and gives a writer a tool for composing and editing several paragraphs. The most popular environment for reading and posting to Facebook is the smart phone, which favors rapid scrolling and photos with just a few words included.

Catering to the mass market

Before August of 1995, ordinary households were kept off the World Wide Web by significant technical barriers. Until Microsoft released Windows 95, people with Windows computers could not access the Internet without installing additional software. And until America Online provided Web access, the users of the most popular networking service were limited to email and other more primitive Internet protocols.

The fall of 1995 began the period of mass-market adoption of the Internet. Another important leap occurred early in 2007, when Apple’s iPhone spurred the use of Internet-enabled smart phones.

As the masses immigrated to the Internet, the average character of the users changed. Early settlers were very focused on preserving anonymity and privacy. Recent arrivals seem more concerned with getting noticed. Although early settlers were intrigued by entertainment on the Internet, for the most part they valued its practical uses more highly. Recent arrivals demand much more entertainment. Early settlers wanted to be active participants in building the World Wide Web and to explore its various strands. Recent arrivals are more passive users of sites like Google and Wikipedia.

Hal Varian, a keen observer of technology who became the chief economist at Google, once wrote a paper that contrasted software that is easy to learn with software that is easy to use. Sometimes, software that is a bit harder to learn can be more powerful. But catering to the mass market can lead software developers to focus on making the software easy to learn rather than easy to use. This distinction may be useful for understanding how Facebook triumphed over blogging.

Big Data and Big Organizations

Back in the 1990s, many of us thought that since everyone could have their own web site, all web sites were created approximately equal. In Free Agent Nation, Dan Pink exuberantly proclaimed that the Internet fulfilled Marx’s vision of workers owning the means of production. We thought that the “means of production” were computers connected to the Internet, and they were accessible to individuals.

Instead, enormous advantages accrued to large companies that could amass vast stores of user data and then mine that data using artificial intelligence. If the “means of production” today are Big Data and the algorithms to exploit it, then the means of production are much more accessible to Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google than they are to ordinary individuals.

Walled Gardens vs. the Jungle

Although America Online was a powerful franchise in the mid-1990s, its glory soon faded. We thought that the reason for this was that AOL was a “walled garden,” as opposed to the open Internet. The pattern that we noticed was that closed systems tended to lose out. This was the explanation for the near-demise of Apple Computer, which was much less friendly to outside developers than its competitor, Microsoft.

Today, the iPhone is much closer to a walled garden than smart phones that use the Android operating system. Yet the iPhone has maintained a powerful market position.

Facebook is much closer to a walled garden than is the world of blogs. But Facebook grew rapidly in recent years, and blogs are getting less attention.

Push vs. Pull

Traditional mass media was “pushed” to the users. If you wanted to watch a TV program in 1970, you could not record it or stream it. You had to turn your set to the right channel at the right time.

The World Wide Web was designed as a “pull” technology. You would make the choice to visit a web site, often by following links from other web sites.

Big corporations and advertisers are more comfortable with “push” than with “pull.” But in the 1990s, it looked like “pull” was going to win. One of the first efforts at “push technology,” Pointcast Network, famously flopped.

Today, “push technology” is everywhere, in the form of “notifications.” 21st-century consumers, especially smart phone owners, seem to welcome it.

Fraying at the Edge

The traditional telephone system put a lot of intelligence in the middle of the network. Central switchboards did a lot of the connecting work. Sound pulses traveled over wires, and your phone, sitting on the edge of the network, did not have to be intelligent to make sound pulses intelligible. But by the same token, your phone could only respond to sound pulses, not to text or video.

With the Internet, all forms of content are reduced to small digital packets, and the routers in the middle of the network do not know what is in those packets. Only when the packets reach their destination are they re-assembled and then converted to text, sound, or video by an intelligent device located on the edge.

Hence, the Internet was described as a dumb network with intelligence on the edge. One of the characteristics of such a network is that it is difficult to censor. If you do not know the content of packets until they reach the edge, by then it is too late to censor them.

Today, governments are better able to meet the challenge of censoring the Internet. Part of the reason is that the Internet is less de-centralized than it once was. It turns out that in order to process today’s volume of content efficiently, the Internet needs more intelligence in the network itself.

The advent of “cloud computing” also changes the relationship between the edge and the network. The “cloud” is an intelligent center, and the many devices that rely on the “cloud” are in that respect somewhat less intelligent than the computers that used the Internet in the 1990s.

Another factor is the importance of major service providers, such as Google and Facebook. These mega-sites give government officials targets to attack when they are not pleased with what they see.

Governance

One of the aspects of the Internet that intrigued me the most in 1993 was its governance mechanism. You can get the flavor of it by reading this brief history of the Internet, written twenty years ago. In particular, note the role of Requests for Comments (RFCs) and Internet Engineering Task Force Working Groups, which I will refer to as IETFs.

I compare IETFs with government agencies this way:

— IETFs are staffed by part-time or limited-term volunteers, whose compensation comes from their regular employers (universities, corporations, government agencies). Agencies are staffed by full-time permanent employees, using taxpayer dollars.

— IETFs solve the problems that they work on. Agencies perpetuate the problems that they work on.

— A particular group of engineers in an IETF disbands once it has solved its problem. An agency never disbands.

When I hear calls for government regulation of the Internet, to me that sounds like a step backward. The IETF approach to regulation seems much better than the agency approach.

Things Could Change

Call me a snob or an old fogy, but I am not happy with where the Internet is today. I believe that things could change. I think that a lot of people are unhappy with the current state of the Internet. But I suspect that the enemy is us.

I am not sure what the solution will look like. I don’t think that regulating Facebook is the answer, especially if the main driver of regulation is that people are upset that Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

I don’t think that blockchain is the answer, even though it has some of the characteristics of the 1990s Internet. I have little confidence that blockchain can scale gracefully, given what we have seen so far and given the way that the Internet has evolved. And even if blockchain is able to overcome scaling problems, I think that the lesson of the last 25 years is that culture pushes on technology harder than technology pushes on culture.

I think that the challenge that we face on the Internet is the challenge that we face in society in general. In our modern world, we thrive by doing less ourselves and getting more from the services provided by others. But we seem tempted to become passive and careless in ceding power to governments and other large organizations.

In short, how can we sustain an ethic of individual responsibility while enjoying the benefits of extreme interdependence?

Comments

zero_pussy RumpleShitzkin Fri, 04/27/2018 - 00:13 Permalink

tyler thinks he's a tech guru now.  i bet ivandjiiski was a decent programmer back at goldman before they canned his ass.

that alienware picture on the top of this article is badass though.  i need to ask my dad to buy me one.

oh, and suing facebook for fraud is the right answer if you are a small business advertiser (or a local cop overwhelmed with BS harassment cases.)  they guaranteed you that shit fo free yo.  they lied. 

In reply to by RumpleShitzkin

HopefulCynical zero_pussy Fri, 04/27/2018 - 09:42 Permalink

Well, the problem actually IS us, as in humanity in general. Decades of wealth redistribution have caused a population explosion of r-selected feebleminded drones. At the turn of the 20th Century, what constituted popular culture? Compare and contrast this with the turn of the 21st Century.

What changed, exactly? The welfare state, and the Rockefeller-funded socialist indoctrination via the educational system. TPTB quite purposefully bred intelligence and self-reliance out of humanity. Now we have a world full of idiots clamoring for cheap plastic bullshit with lots of flashing lights and cutesy sound effects. Anything which requires intelligence is not only "un-cool," it's now quite beyond the capacity of most people.

And until we hang the globalist parasites responsible for creating this situation, we have no hope of reversing it. None. 

In reply to by zero_pussy

mc225 Manthong Fri, 04/27/2018 - 06:07 Permalink

do you remember when everything went overnight, from the likes of compuserv/genie/aol/etc... to www with small internet providers? and then from there, the small providers fell out, and it were just the big companies like qwest/verizon, etc.   back in '97, worked briefly at a small provider...

 

those were the days... 33.6k or 56k modems... you could pretty much get photos, but videos and music were less common...

 

back in the day, compuserv had an enormous library of information. it was like $15 an hour to use it, and with 2400/9600/14.4 modems... tapcis was the only way to reasonably use compuserv, without paying a fortune. but yeah, they had data. suddenly, www came along and compuserv went obsolete...

In reply to by Manthong

JuliaS wee-weed up Fri, 04/27/2018 - 02:38 Permalink

Everything starts off in small packets and eventually gets centralized to optimize the use of energy. We could have water wells, grow our own food and generate electricity, but it's easier and cheaper to do so centrally.

Instead of us all buying supercomputers, that we're only going to use occasionally and marginally, it's much easier to have centralized mainframes that optimize redundant tasks and load-balance, like powerplants.It's a better use of resources, but providers are physical people and people are flawed. Anything good will be exploited, abused, misused. Internet is starting to resemble a service ran by a public sector union monopoly.

The internet is leaning so far left, it's going to loose a shoe.

In reply to by wee-weed up

css1971 VWAndy Fri, 04/27/2018 - 02:44 Permalink

The maths says not.

 

Networks form as hubs and spokes because the maths of the system makes it the cheapest most efficient.

Markets are information networks, they also form hub/spoke models.

The hub/spoke model is a Pareto distribution.  A few hubs and lots of spokes. The smart people arrange to be at the hubs.

 

Some clever programmer could i suppose arrange to make algorithms operate as the hubs and handle the complexity and cost so that the maths of other networks can function. But I doubt it.

 

So what this ultimately means is the greatest benefit is from larger numbers of smaller networks/markets and not smaller numbers of larger networks/markets.

What this might look like in the real world of networks is maybe some kind of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth app which passed data with other people in range. You ain't gonna be streaming video over it.

In reply to by VWAndy

ebworthen Bitchface-KILLAH Thu, 04/26/2018 - 23:19 Permalink

DARPA created the Internet, so don't think it is free safe ground.

I remember back in the day when Google was going to defeat the evil Microsoft.

I also remember when you paid for Cable T.V. because there were no commercials, zero.

Yes kids, you heard that right, no commercials on cable T.V. - but they changed that, eh?

It's the heroin dealer model, get you hooked then they have you by the balls. 

Amazon Prime going up 20% starting in June, so bleat at the sheep dog.

In reply to by Bitchface-KILLAH

lasvegaspersona VWAndy Fri, 04/27/2018 - 01:28 Permalink

The internet has become TV. Google search should be labeled google ads. Many sites have allowed their content to be crowded out by ads. I've taken up guitar and reloading. Screw the internet. ZH is soon to follow as I can only read on one browser even with ad block.

It's Ok I have other things to do.

Too bad someone doesn't put the latest news in a paper format and deliver it daily.

In reply to by VWAndy

toady Thu, 04/26/2018 - 23:03 Permalink

It's sad... I worked in IT back when the internet was just getting started...

You can access libraries around the world! You can link multiple computers together in remote locations! No more snail mail! All the information in the world at your fingertips!

Now it's just an advertising platform at best, mindnumbing soma at worst.

It's sad really... so much potential, so many bad actors.

Crazy Or Not toady Thu, 04/26/2018 - 23:13 Permalink

It reminds me of the Labor leader Eugene Debs, he famously said:

"... I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition."

He may have been wrong about many things but he was right about that!

In reply to by toady

a Smudge by an… toady Thu, 04/26/2018 - 23:24 Permalink

The entire new generation threw out all prior learning. Accessibility went out the window. Privacy and security concerns out the window. Semantic web and information architecture went out with spelling. Decentralization and open-source was traded for proprietary and "app centric" computing. Freeware was replaced by "me-ware". Trade your info to see a mustache on your face? No problem! Ha ha!

And we expect these to make decisions about the world. We have truly reached an information inflection-point. The more informative, the less credible and valuable.

In reply to by toady

OverTheHedge a Smudge by an… Fri, 04/27/2018 - 00:04 Permalink

On the other hand, I found Zerohedge through the comments section of a BBC article, during the early days of the Greek meltdown. Someone posted a comment about "the guys over at Zerohedge think....", and I was in like a ferret up a drainpipe. Without the internet, I could never have nurtured my need for conspiracy theories, paranoia and a delight for shiny (where is it? My precious!). The internet has turned propaganda and media on its head, to the extent that the leader of the free world now belittles their efforts. The internet did that. They are just playing catch-up, poorly.

Without the internet, how would we known that 73 missiles failed to reach their targets? How would we know that there was no chemical attack? I like the internet, but it can give you things you didn't want, or didn't need. It can also find me spare parts for my truck that are not available locally (need a new EGR control solenoid, apparently).

The price for all this good stuff is Facebook and millenials, apparently. Tramp stamps and photos of lunch, and endless home made ugly porn. Is it too high a price? No more pointless sheep, but no more freedom ?

I think stupid, passive people will always be stupid and passive, so it is nice for them to have something to keep them occupied, while we get on with saving the universe, one sarc comment at a time.

 

 

In reply to by a Smudge by an…

JuliaS toady Fri, 04/27/2018 - 02:47 Permalink

Tell me about it. Been doing IT work since 1989. Discovered the internet for myself in late 90's but was familiar with local area networks well ahead of that. The level of romanticism the early web offered was amazing. Truly a place with no rules. Around 1997-1999 was probably my favorite era, when you used to just browse the web looking for random things. No real search engines, no youtube, no social media, but plenty of demoscene on which I was hooked.

The web wasn't widely used for commerce, so there was no incentive for people to exploit it for monetary gain. It felt safer and truly anonymous. No static IP's.

IRC, FTP leeching on corporate servers back when nobody could afford to pay for distribution traffic, ahh, the good old days! How I miss 1999.

In reply to by toady

kellys_eye toady Fri, 04/27/2018 - 04:35 Permalink

I'm less concerned for the way the internet works (since I can be selective in my browsing and 'educated' in my reasoning) as concerned for the deliberate 'back doors' built into software and processors - both things I can do NOTHING about.  Ok, I could stop using them but that negates the whole issue.....

 

In reply to by toady

zob2020 Thu, 04/26/2018 - 23:04 Permalink

yeah nowadays internet no longer has any real information. Atbest the same halfbaked completely uniformative miniblurb in 320 different pages that have basically copypasted each other.
Try going beyond the blurb and nothing. Absolutely nothing.
fex, try locating east indian company historical share prices, dividends and the eventual liquidation terms. Nada. Net is empty as the void between galaxies.

Well nothing aside from sports, celebrities and similar bullshit pressed down your throat despite never having shown any interest.