Digital Pet Rocks

“The challenge is to manage the Web in an open way-not too much bureaucracy, not subject to political or commercial pressures.
– Tim Berners Lee

The Internet was developed to communicate. It was not created to be a media tool. When we speak of “new media” that is not the Internet or the Web. That refers to the companies that populate the Web. And many of them seem superfluous. This  transmogrification from what the Web was in the beginning to what it is now, and the even more frightening thought of what it will be in the future, should be alarming to all of us.

I recently read an article comparing the Internet with the advent of the automobile. Both are revolutionary and  with them came the idea that they would free America. Cars were to be the thing that brought America together, made us one, yadda yadda yadda. The same pitch was given about the Internet.

One hundred years later, no one can deny the importance of the automobile but at what price? The automobile business, and its ancillary industries, has killed millions of people, oil has been the source of countless wars, both covert and overt, toppled democracies and propped up dictatorships and on and on. What will they say about the Internet in 100 years?

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the internet was created by hippies. Free thinking and idealistic individuals who didn’t, and still don’t, want the legacy of their creation to be in hands of soulless individuals, also known as corporations. Its original purpose, to serve as a free and open source communication tool, is being hacked away at by corporate monoliths who have no intention of keeping the Web free and open. They want to strangle and subjugate it. The corporations have but one goal, to capitalize on it and reap the most revenue to boost that line item on their quarterly reports. We’re not there yet and we can’t end up there.

We all know the internet is huge. How huge? Tough to say for sure but one could easily make the argument that it represents Moore’s Law…on steroids. For those of us that happen to believe in democracy AND capitalism (and yes, those things are, or should be, completely independent of one another but lately they seem to be one and the same), as big as the Web keeps getting, the smaller it seems to become. You see, corporations are beginning to realize how to strangle the Web and monetize it and we are letting them. For example, the top 10 web sites account for 75% of all pageviews in the United States(1) and of the top 10 web sites only one (Wikipedia) is not built off a profit driven model.(2)

Because of the Internets rapid expansion and the myopic pace of government and partisan politicking, lawmakers couldn’t figure out how to regulate it. Actually, they still can’t. So, in the words of famed free market economist Milton Friedman, the government chose to “Let the market decide.” Given more and more media consolidation and the corporate expansion into “new media” coupled with their powerful lobbying arm, who do you think benefits, at this point, from any potential regulation of the Internet?

I have nothing against making money. In fact, I quite like it. What I take umbrage with is the Internet turning into a place where the sole purpose of creating an Internet business is to be bought out by one of the bigger Internet companies (we all recall the Internet bubble bursting, so IPO’s are out and Acquisitions are in). In and of itself, I firmly believe access to that creative freedom of the Web is awesome. The one simple and great truth about the Internet is that it completely democratizes creativity and if you can make a buck at it, great. But I see so many start ups and think “Why is this necessary?” And, more often than not, they are not necessary. They’re nothing more than digital pet rocks.

In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, they highlight some of the start ups that are located around the Wired SF offices. Among them are Wcities (spent some time on the site and while I consider myself pretty Internet smart, I can not determine what they do but they have some blue chip partners/clients), Cloud Prime (A cloud messaging service, which marries big buzz “cloud” with instant messaging…yea, don’t see the relevance of that, but I do see an acquisition in their future – SalesForce anyone?), Grockit (online test preparation…um, how did the more established companies miss the boat on this one?). Frankly, it’s worrisome that some of the best minds today are creating these types of companies. Wouldn’t it be a lot cooler if some of these minds put some of that intelligence to helping keep the Internet open by building services and/or tools that benefit all of us? For free?

Franco Berardi writes “At a certain point in the development of the application of intelligence to production, the capitalist model becomes a paradigmatic cage, constraining intelligence in the form of wages, discipline and dependence.”(3) The creation of many of these digital pet rocks were to gain entry into the Internets “capitalistic paradigmatic cage”. More simply, the Internet is slowly turning into one giant free market Pac Man game where start ups are built for the sole purpose of being gobbled up by Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook or Microsoft.

Can the Internet be saved? Yes, but only if we want to save it. The Web is big enough that it can house both corporate concerns and serve as a model of democracy. That’s on us as users to make happen. Admittedly, saving the Internet requires work. Every last one of us is stretched so thin on time, energy and patience (thanks to being slaves to feed corporatism…and ourselves), it then becomes how to fit the necessary work into our schedules. Allow me to submit a few ideas:

  • Be more discreet with the tools you use.
  • Share less. Please.You are only hurting yourself and helping them.
  • Spend less time on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Don’t be so quick to hop on the latest digital trend or social media application.
  • Create your own web site using a free service (yes, like WordPress. Yes, they gather data on usage but are transparent.)
  • Read a book.

To the entrepreneurial minded, instead of looking to the short game for a quick pay day, why not play the long game and create to change? We’re right around the corner from a day when the monolithic corporations simply won’t let you create business’ as easily as you can now. Soon, very soon, unless we change direction, that low barrier to entry we all love about the Web won’t be there. It will be too costly for any Tom, Dick or Harriet to start a business. But also, wouldn’t it be a lot cooler to think about how to make things better for everyone and not just how can to create something Google will buy from me?

Stop making digital pet rocks.

In and of themselves, these simple tactics independently won’t crush or alter the growing corporatization of the Web. However, cumulatively, they will have an impact on the two things corporations are most concerned about with the Internet, data and revenue.

Look, I understand this is a gross over simplification of a very complex concern, but unless we change the direction of the Internet it will become just another media outlet for multinational corporations to repress and retard our thinking. From where I sit, there is already way too much of that.

A sledgehammer is to the totalitarian government as media is to a democracy.  The Internet is the last bastion of democracy. Let’s make sure it stays that way.