Misunderstanding the Internet

 

I heard an interesting interview on the radio on Saturday last. Kim Hill was interviewing Jonathan Taplin. Taplin has written a book entitled Move Fast and Break Things about the Internet and what is currently wrong with it.

First, a confession. I haven’t read Move Fast and Break Things. What I know about Mr Taplin’s views are what I heard him say on the radio and a report of the interview on the RadioNZ website and what I have to say is based on what I heard on the radio rather than a reading of his book. But it does sound to me that Mr Taplin occupies a space along with a number of other disenchanted by the Digital Paradigm including Andrew Keen who wrote The Internet is Not the Answer, Nicholas Carr who wrote The Shallows and Mary Aiken who wrote The Cyber Effect. A common theme among these writers seems to be that for one reason or another the Internet has lost its way, failed to fulfil its promise or that it has been hi-jacked. This last view is that expressed by Mr Taplin.

I don’t have a problem if that is what he thinks. But I do have a problem with some of his assertions of fact which simply do not stand up to scrutiny. Mr Taplin seems to engage in sweeping generalisations to support his position and then argues from that point. In other cases he misinterprets facts in a way that cannot be supported. But his main problem is that he fails to understand the nature of paradigmatic change and that in such an environment things are not going to remain the same, and old models, ways of doing things, concepts and values are either going to be swept away or are gradually going to be eroded and replaced with something else.

Let us look at some of his early assertions that he made on the broadcast. He claims that the Internet originated as the “hipster” project of a group of people who wanted to decentralise control. “Stewart Brand (author of The Whole Earth Catalog, a book which anticipated the internet) was Ken Kesey’s partner in the acid tests, Steve Jobs acknowledges taking LSD. It was a bunch of hippies” – or so Mr Taplin asserts.

Anyone who has studied the history of the Internet will agree that decentralisation was one of the early goals of the development of the network that later became the Internet, originally undertaken by DARPA – the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the US Department of Defense. DARPA supported the evolution of the ARPANET (the first wide-area packet switching network), Packet Radio Network, Packet Satellite Network and ultimately, the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence fields of speech recognition and signal processing. Hardly a bunch of hippies. And were Brand, Kesey and Jobs involved in this early development. No they were not. Jobs involvement with the Internet came much later. In 1985 he suggested that the most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer would be to link it to a nationwide communications network. But it wasn’t until 1996 that he predicted the ubiquity of the Web. In 1996 Google was still a research project at Stanford and Amazon had only just begun selling books.

What Mr Taplin conveniently ignores is the enormous contribution made by computer engineers and developers to the development of the Internet – people like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, Ray Tomlinson who developed email – although that is contested by Shiva Ayyadurai – Jon Postel, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau.

Rather he focussed upon the high profile and very successful entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, Larry Page and Jeff Bezos. He suggested that they “all are libertarians. They were schooled on Ayn Rand’s work, in which the businessman hero architect is always impeded by the mob, by democracy, by government, by regulation, and he has to be free.”

My reading of Rand would suggest that there are aspects of libertarianism that are inconsistent with her objectivist views. In fact Ayn Rand has become a whipping girl for those who would condemn the forge ahead entrepreneurial spirit untroubled by regulatory systems or collectivist thinking. True, Rand has had an influence on the right and upon libertarianism although some of her views were atypical of rightwing conservative thought. For example she was pro-choice and an atheist. But Mr Taplin throws Ayn Rand into the mix for perjorative rather than evidential value.

Another interesting comment that Mr Taplin made had to do with data. Here is what the report from RadioNZ said

“The core business of Facebook is creating a giant database of information on 2 billion individual people, says Taplin.

“What is the raw material to manufacture a product? You – your desires. You’re willing to leave everything hanging out there and they’re willing to scrape it and sell it to advertisers. It’s called rent. They’re renting [Facebook’s] database.”

That is a degenerate form of capitalism if it’s capitalism at all, he says.

“It doesn’t create anything, you’re renting. That’s the end of capitalism and the beginning of feudalism.”

And that indeed was how it came across on the broadcast. The problem is that Mr Taplin fails to understand the nature of the Digital Paradigm and how it disrupts current business models. He suggests that the user is the raw material – based upon data that has been left behind. I disagree. The data is the raw material of the new digital product and indeed it does create something – a more thoroughly refined and granular understanding the of the nature of markets. Raw materials are necessary for any product. It is just that the raw material now is data in digital format.

What distinguishes digital data from iron ore (another raw material) is that iron ore is sold by the mining company to the refinery or smelter. Iron ore is like any other traditional form of property. You own it by, among other things, exclusive possession. You sell it and by doing so part with exclusive possession. That vests it in someone else.

Now with digital material you can part with possession of a copy but retain the original. The Digital Paradigm turns the traditional property model on its head. Two people can possess the same item of property. And it is here that the “rent” argument advanced by Mr Taplin falls apart. The rent argument only works if there is one instantiation of the property. The “owner” leases the property – be it land or a car – to the tenant or lessee. The owner parts with possession for a period of time. At a later stage the owner retakes possession – when the tenancy or lease comes to an end. But the owner, during the term of the rental does not have possession of the property.

Remember what I said about digital property – two people can possess the same item. That concept is part of the disruptive effect that the Digital Paradigm has on property concepts. Now to say that data is “rented” is using a concept that does not hold up in the Digital Paradigm. To equate renting data with a form of feudalism – which was based upon an exchange of an interest in land for the rendering of a duty – is historically and legally incorrect. And to say that using data does not create anything ignores the fact that data is the raw material – not the individual – and the data goes to creating a profile for any one of a number of purposes of which market research may be one.

So Mr.Taplin’s analogy – like so many attempts to draw analogies between the digital and pre-digital world – fails.

But there is a bigger picture in that paradigm shifts bring paradigmatic change. The Internet and all those myriad platforms that are bolted on to the backbone have revolutionised communication and have opened up a market for digital products. But the content that the Internet enables is only a part of the story.

To understand the nature of the paradigm we need to look below the content layer and comprehend the medium. For, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message. I am sure Mr. Taplin understands this. But what I think he has difficulty in accepting is that the old ways of doing things are going to be swept away. There will be a period of co-existence of the digital and the pre-digital but that won’t last long. The paradigmatically different properties of exponential dissemination, dynamic information, information persistence, permissionless innovation and continuing disruptive change are all factors built in to the technology and cannot be changed. At the risk of sounding deterministic these and other underlying technological qualities are what will drive the inevitability of change.

The music market with which Mr Taplin was familiar has changed dramatically and part of the problems suffered by the industry and those associated with it involved an unwillingness to adapt. iTunes got the idea and now people buy by the song rather than by the album. Adaptation by content providers means that Netflix thrives – despite geoblocking – on-demand has replace appointment viewing and content providers have finally “got it” that consumer demand is for content now – not next week. Hence “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead” are advertised in New Zealand as screening on the same day as in the US. The reason for this – the Digital Paradigm provided alternatives – piracy and Bittorrent.

The reality is that many old business models will have to adapt to survive. Those that do not will fall by the wayside. The new paradigm will usher in new industries and new opportunities. But in the Digital Paradigm, business will be done on a global scale rather than from a local storefront. And the result of that scale is that many new digital businesses will do very well such as Google and Facebook and Amazon. Mr Taplin laments the advantages that these companies have, that their power is unaffected by who is in government. But should successful businesses be a matter of concern. For sure, conspiracy theories will abound; the spectre of rampant capitalism will be conjured up. But isn’t this just envy speaking?

I really think we should be embracing the opportunities that the new technologies bring and look for ways in which we can enhance our lives in the Digital Paradigm rather than moaning about it. Because it is not going away.

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