Fencing the internet prairie


Michael Hirschorn writes an interesting article at The Atlantic on what he perceives as a radical shift underway in how we access information. He postulates that we are moving away from the mantra of ‘Information wants to be free’.

Digital freedom, of the monetary and First Amendment varieties, may in retrospect have become our era’s version of Manifest Destiny, our Turner thesis. Embracing digital freedom was an exaltation, a kind of noble calling. In a smart essay in the journal Fast Capitalism in 2005, Jack Shuler shows how similar the rhetoric of the 1990s digital frontier was to that of the 19th-century frontier era. It’s a short jump from John L. O’Sullivan in 1839—“The far-reaching, the boundless will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles”—to Kevin Kelly, the pioneering conceptualizer of the “hive mind” and a founding editor of Wired, writing in Harper’s in 1994, “A recurring vision swirls in the shared mind of the Net, a vision that nearly every member glimpses, if only momentarily: of wiring human and artificial minds into one planetary soul.”

Somewhat purple in phrase, but not an inappropriate analogy.

Later he notes:-

The shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser ruled supreme, to the smart phone, where the app and the pricing plan now hold sway, signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995. In the U.S., there are only three major cell-phone networks, a handful of smart-phone makers, and just one Apple, a company that has spent the entire Internet era fighting the idea of open (as anyone who has tried to move legally purchased digital downloads among devices can attest). As far back as the ’80s, when Apple launched the desktop-publishing revolution, the company has always made the case that the bourgeois comforts of an artfully constructed end-to-end solution, despite its limits, were superior to the freedom and danger of the digital badlands.

Now there may yet be a backlash, but it is possible that in many respects the war may have been won, with the advent of the iPad, though battles will probably still be fought and we may in the end lapse into an uneasy stalemate much like that which exists today in the Korean penisula. Though in this case it may well be the case that the totaliterians have won against the forces of openess.

It is in many respects ironic that many of those who have fulminated for so long against for example Microsoft, have surrendered to the embrace of a far more insidious monopolist it might be argued in Apple. The combination of limited phone/data mobile networks and limited providers of hardware tends to suggest that we are moving to a new cyberworld, one which is much more regulated and probably more expensive. It is probable that we will look back on the 1990s and 2000s as the good old days.

That is unless consumers strike back and ensure that:-

1. Internet access is a right

2. Competitive markets are encouraged and enforced by governments

Hirschorn sees the end of browser dominance and notes how Google has for example changed its’ tune, for as he writes:-

Google still needs for the Web, however it’s accessed, to remain central—because without contextual search advertising, Google ceases to matter. Smart phones in general, and the iPad more pointedly, are not driven by search.

As Hirschorn concludes, returning to his frontier analogy, which I confess I like,:-

Now, instead of farmers versus ranchers, we have Apple versus Google. In retrospect, for all the talk of an unencumbered sphere, of a unified planetary soul, the colonization and exploitation of the Web was a foregone conclusion. The only question now is who will own it.

That indeed is the question. We need to take steps to ensure consumer rights are proteted and that we do not fall victims as collateral damage to the battle between the titans.

Hirschorn may well not be right, indeed there are a number of emphatic commentators disagreeing with him at The Atlantic. Yet his article provokes discussion and debate which is both good and timely. The fact is we live in a time of rapid change and we need to ensure that all of us can have access to the new sources of information and not have that limited by monopoly barriers. Otherwise the digital divide is magnified dramatically.

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2 responses to “Fencing the internet prairie

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