The internet contains some dreadful design flaws. I will spare you the long list and cite just one here. You may instinctively think this flaw a good thing, I used to. Here goes:
That information is free on the net has resulted in what used to be an open system based on standards, becoming largely proprietary in particular through Web2.0 organisations among other aggregators of information. That is a bad thing.
All that free information is being concentrated into wealth for a very small number of organisations while destroying jobs and privacy for the vast majority who blithely give the information in the first place. History is littered with cycles like this. This cycle is extreme though, as the power is being concentrated in a tiny number of global organisations.
First, a Web 1.0 story, so I can start to explain why this is a bad thing:
In February 1998 our first child was born. From mid 1997, I wrote an online diary about the experience of getting ready to be a parent. It contained words, pictures and even some voice recordings from a bizarre incident in which our dog stole a frozen chicken. I added to the diary incrementally until Lydia was born. Then I used it to announce her arrival and post some pictures of everyone looking tired but happy. I remember the last post vividly. It was called, “Lydia Has Arrived!”.
I laboriously maintained the diary myself, in space provided by my ISP. I was still almost a techy at the time, and some of my colleagues also followed it just out of interest. It was of course, a blog, though according to Wikipedia, the term wasn’t coined until December 1997 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog).
It was a pain to manage. I wrote it in raw HTML at first, managed all the file structures manually, ensured it worked on both Netscape and IE, tested it so all the links worked and then published it via a clunky FTP interface. I then shared it via links pasted into emails to my parents and a very few connected friends. As I recall, the final version also got printed out and put into the post to “the unconnected” by way of announcement.
What a palaver!
It was interesting and enjoyable as a hobby, but to put it bluntly, once Lydia arrived, I quite simply didn’t have time. As for posting bits of paper about the place, well, really.
That I can now achieve all of that just by typing these words and pressing a button represents a huge leap forward. In addition, Web 2.0 features enrich the experience greatly. The comment streams here are often far more informative or at least more entertaining than an original post. The ability to easily and powerfully connect with numerous others was simply not there in 1997. I could go on, you get the point.
So what is my problem?
My diary in 1997/98 relied on open standards. Those standards were implemented by numerous providers of software (FTP tools, editors, WAV recorders, GIF editors), ISPs who provided storage and dial up IP connectivity and so on through the layers of the WWW and underlying internet.
The system, while excruciatingly clunky and lacking in all the features we now take for granted, limited the extent to which any one party could aggregate what I posted free (seemingly in return for some endorphins, Latin for, “magic beans”) for their own commercial benefit.
Here is the rub, the Web 2.0 features that make it all so much easier for millions of us to share our identity, location and preferences are not additions to the standards that can be implemented by many, they are unique to a small number of huge companies..
The availability of free information made it worthwhile to develop all those new features so as to harvest all that information we had got used to giving away. When there was no one aggregating it and it was all just fun that was fine. That the internet was open and standard spurred the explosive growth and huge benefits we have seen. That the Web 2.0 features that triggered the next wave of growth are closed, proprietary and owned by a handful of vast corporations is disastrous. It is an unintended consequence of the internet feature that sounds the most liberating, that information should be free.
The answer? Long, complicated and painful, I’ve cut a lot out of the following to keep it brief. Here are a couple of potential steps:
1.Charge microscopic amounts for certain actions, e.g. tweeting, reading a blog, sending an email, accessing my FaceBook profile; basically ascribing permanent ownership and value to information and events.
2 Standardise Web 2.0 features, e.g. decompose Twitter into its features (identity, location, followers, followees, #tag, search, interoperability, messaging etc.) and license it to multiple operators. A bit like how mobile works to standards so that SMS works anywhere in the world.
Basically create an environment in which a Web 2.0 operator has to compete to offer you the best value for your information, because it is yours, you just give it away at present.
I really could go on on and on…
For the 350 page version, try Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier which inspired this post. As ever with his stuff, it is too long, occasionally annoyingly conspiratorial and often mind meltingly complicated. However, it is a shocking and brilliant read that describes just how wrong we have got it and how we are being played on a massive scale. Bizarrely, in the main, this is by well meaning and clever people.
As ever, I’d love to know what you all think about this, as I am sure will Twitter and WordPress!