Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why You Think the Internet Stinks Now

I have been active on the Internet since 1990. In those days, we had Usenet at the university and moderated private bulletin board systems (FidoNet) for amateur fun. This makes me four Internet generations ago, if we assume that an Internet generation is about five years, rather than twenty-five.

Indulge with me in nostalgia. Before the FCC decided to sell bandwidth to the .com top level domain, the Internet was a place of low or no graphics, where users were almost exclusively .edu accounts (with a few .sys, .mil, and .gov), and most accounts were a first initial and last name (mine being misspelled by the IT people at my U, so I had anonymity even then). HTML sites were usually navigated by Lynx or one of the other text-only Unix based clients. Since the entire endeavor was text on slow dial up connections or fast connections on computers with monochrome displays, it was an empire of words subordinated to either a group's activity (e.g. rec.bicycle) or a group's academic research. University and government workers created massive amounts of free information, and the early HTML systems were ways to link information infinitely. People spoke of beginning with an interesting note in the newspaper, clicking on an odd term, following to a strange fact, seeing a strange name, and spending hours “surfing” from site to site, but all of this was via reading.

When America Online and CompuServe opened their closed systems to the Internet, everything changed. There were floods of new users who reflected average America. While many snobs thought that “killed” the Internet, it was, instead, the underlying decision to commercialize the Internet, combined with hypertext, that turned the Internet into today's creature of clicks and “eyeballs.

By 1996, and certainly by 2001, most “Internet” users only knew the world wide web, not Usenet, not discussion. The world wide web itself “was” a series of commercially profitable sites, with the last of the .edu created purchased (e.g., created by Columbia University library to make all of its Columbia UP reference works available for free, was sold, then resold) or forgotten. University server sites providing information became gradually invisible to average users because they went unadvertised, and “the web” was no longer a place where persons “surfed” on an adventure of information. Certainly by the time the "tech bubble" burst, each website invested in keeping visitors on sites, in sites, and preventing outside linkages. Websites became more pictographic, with an increase in sensationalism, as the same pressures that turned superabundant newspapers in 1900 into the Yellow Press created increasingly narrow and vertical forms of discourse (“vertical” refers to information that is recursive and closed, in this case). What had been peer groups in conversation became interest groups engaged in a tailored retail experience. 

“Friendster” and “MySpace” were non-profit simulacra of the older Internet. They succeeded, to the degree they did, by offering like-minded cultures and subcultures. (There have been other simulations since, including Reddit.) However, when their host/software companies offered stock, they were purchased by media corporations that, as early as 1998, had been imagining an Internet/cable vehicle whereby visitors would be captive, ordering television shows, movies, books, radio, and the rest on an a la carte basis by the Internet. '

Neither the websites nor the delivery technologies were in place for such visions to be realized. (This vision, and its failure, was paradoxically critical to the collapse of Enron. The Amazon Kindle/Fire is getting very close to its realization today, according to critics. If they can "own the pipeline" and the store and the production, then the consumer choice is finally completely eliminated -- or "business uncertainty is minimized," if you prefer.)

 I'm no Electronic Frontier Foundation warrior or GNU freak. I haven't the money to be the first or the skills to be the second. I did join Wikipedia in 2003, though. My frustrations with it were that it was not dedicated to a common project of construction as much as it was a "community." My criticisms of capital in technology are not propelled by idealism or ideology. They are directed solely at an analysis of the deterioration of academic freedom and investigation because of a capitalized web.

One thing I've noticed is that a genuine analysis of technology cannot be found under the title of "technology" writing. For about ten years, I noticed that the writing about computer technology, in particular, fell into one of two camps. Either a new device or program was the Swiss Army Knife of Heaven -- able to turn every student into a buddha and genius -- or the next device or program will free the Fenris wolf and extinguish the sun for once and all. "Tech" writers are either reviewers or advocates. Sometimes, even worse, they're salesmen.

Look, capitalized websites serve capital. I get it. That's just and right. But non-capitalized websites are now all but invisible, especially since Facebook learned from MyFace's failure and AOL's persistence and began to fold in a whole universe of outside websites into its "you're still on Facebook" experience. Regular people are beginning, just beginning, to realize one of the more cynical web "memes": If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product.

All of the commercial Internet is riding on public infrastructure. Ask AT&T how it feels about cable companies getting access to "their" infrastructure. Well, how should we feel, then, about commercialized Internet services working against the public's interests or the nation's constitution? EU investigators found out that a person who creates a Facebook account and immediately deletes it generations twenty thousand pages of data that Facebook does not delete. That, after all, is their data.

Windows 8.1 is roping all its users into Xbox Live accounts and beaming geo-location to Microsoft. Apple does that with iTunes. This is without even talking about a smart phone. Any person who owns such a thing is foolish, in my opinion (as a phone, it's a phone, but as a computer, is it equal to a laptop? as an mp3 player is it equal to even a Walkman? doesn't it offer imitations of a dozen functions but at inferior performance, and all with the solitary advantage of fitting in a pocket?). I'm sure you have already read that the new iPhone made news for not including a backdoor into user encrypted data for NSA and FBI. 

Going onto Google is a losing proposition. It geolocates the browser. After a few searches, Google begins to tailor results to "customize the web experience." It predicts the sorts of results this user wants. It discounts, for example, "old" web pages -- so if you're looking for a news story from 2004, you won't find it, because Google simply doesn't want that to show up, because "normal people" don't search for old information. A few more searches, and the results are "customized more." 

Google's search is used by Bing, by the way. Facebook will tailor search results and "help" the user extensively as well. 

Doesn't that scare you? Don't you see why that's the end of the world?

The limitations are being made, in the case of Amazon, Facebook, and others, on the basis of likely purchases, not what one wishes. In the case of Google, it's made on the basis of what you have been interested in before. In other words, these merchants are making decisions about the sorts of questions you can ask, and answers you can get, on the basis of likely sales, likely happiness, not answers, not knowledge, not growth.

As an academic, I have to have open searches, because the Internet has consumed the library. Once that library has then become a public library with card catalogs assembled by advertisers, whole floors of the stacks go missing. The only answer to it is yet more capital outlays in the form of JSTOR and EBSCO subscription services. 

Meanwhile, the Facebooking of conversation has pushed conversation into interest groups, where like meet like, the agreed hear from the confirmed. That is guaranteed to be sterile or frenetic.


The Geogre said...

So? I'm not right or wrong? Not even an interesting insight in the distinction between interest groups and hobby/professional groups?

Oscar D'Oslavah said...

Here's a reminder of the Fidonet days, pasted from the mailing list:

>> Anyway, Ray Hobin is another old alumni gone. Apparently passed away

I was never a great fan of Ray, but I did get a lot of laughs there in the Psycho Local days. He called me on the phone several times, mashed into a pulp on Manhattans, complaining to me that George was being disrespectful of the Pope. I was hurt at first, hurt that he didn't see that I was trying to be at least as disrespectful as George. :-)