Dumb internet

14 minutes estimated reading time

Over the past 20 years has the modern web became a dumb internet? That’s essentially a less nuanced version of what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff proposed.

Douglas Rushkoff at WebVisions 2011
Douglas Rushkoff at WebVisions 2011 taken by webvisionevent

In his essay ‘The Internet Used to Make Us Smarter. No Not So Much” Rushkoff outlines the following points:

  • Too much focus and analysis has been put in the new, new thing. Novelty gets the attention over human impact
  • Consumer movements or subcultures become fads when they lose sight of their purpose
  • Rushkoff thinks that netizens let go of the social / intellectual power of the web. This provided the opportunity for them to become yet another large corporate business
  • Bulletin boards, messaging platforms and email lists facilitated non-real time or asynchronous communications. Asynchronous communications channels allowed people to be ‘smarter’ versions of themselves.
  • The move to an ‘always-on’ medium has been detrimental
    Going online went from an active choice to a constant state of being. The resulting disorientation is self-reinforcing.

Rushkoff’s commentary is interesting for a number of reasons. He had been a herald of how online culture would change society and consumer behaviour.

But his essay posits a simple storyline. It wasn’t people that ruined the internet, it was big business that did it when people weren’t looking. So I wanted to look at the different elements of his hypothesis stage-by-stage.

Too much focus and analysis has been put in the new, new thing

With most technologies we see the thing and realise that it has potential. But it is only when it reaches the consumer, that we truly see its power.

Different cultures tend to use technology in very different ways. Let’s think about examples to illustrate this. Technology research giants like Bell Labs and BT Research had science fiction writers onboard to try and provide inspirational scenarios for the researchers. So it was no surprise that mobile wireless based communications and computing was envisaged in Star Trek.

A replica of a Science Tricorder from Star Trek by Mike Seyfang

And yes looking back Star Trek saw that the computer was moving from something the size of a filing cabinet, to something that would be a personal device. They realised that there would be portable sensing capabilities and wireless communications. But Star Trek didn’t offer a lot in terms of use cases apart from science, exploration and telemedicine.

These weren’t games machines, instead the crew played more complex board games. Vulcan chess seemed to be chess crossed with a cake stand.

Yes, but that’s just the media, surely technolgists would have a better idea? Let’s go to a more recent time in cellphones.

Here’s Steve Ballmer, at the time the CEO of the world’s largest technology company. Microsoft Research poured large amounts of money into understanding consumer behaviour and tech developments. In hindsight the clip is laughable, but at the time Balmer was the voice of reason.

Nokia e90 and 6085
The Nokia E90 Communicator and Nokia 6085 that I used through a lot of 2007

I was using a Nokia E90 Communicator around about the time that Ballmer made these comments.

I was working in a PR agency at the time and the best selling phone amongst my friends in the media industry were:

  • The Nokia N73 I’d helped launch right before leaving Yahoo! (there was an integration with the Flickr photo sharing service)
  • The Nokia N95 with its highly tactile sliding cover and built in GPS

The Danger Sidekick was the must-have device for American teenagers. Japanese teens were clued to keitai phones that offered network-hosted ‘smartphone’ services. Korea had a similar eco-system to Japan with digital TV. Gran Vals, by Francisco Tárrega was commonplace as the Nokia ringtone, from Bradford to Beijing. Business people toted BlackBerry, Palm or Motorola devices which were half screen and half keyboard.

The iPhone was radical, but there was no certainty that it would stick as a product. Apple had managed to reinvent the Mac. It had inched back from the brink to become ‘cool’ in certain circles. The iPod had managed to get Apple products into mainstream households. But the iPhone wasn’t a dead cert.

The ideas behind the iPhone weren’t completely unfamiliar to me. I’d had a Palm Vx PDA, the first of several Palm touch screen devices I’ve owned. But I found that a Think Outside Stowaway collapsible keyboard was essential for productive work on the device. All of this meant I thought at the time that Ballmer seemed to be talking the most sense.

Ballmer wasn’t the only person wrong-footed. So was Mike Lazaridis of Research In Motion (BlackBerry) repeatedly under-estimated the iPhone. Nokia also underestimated the iPhone too.

So often organisations have the future in their hands, they just don’t realise it yet; or don’t have the corporate patience to capitalise on it. A classic example is Wildfire Communications and Orange. Wildfire Communications was a start-up that built a natural language software-based assistance system.

In 1994 the launched an ‘electronic personal secretary’. The Wildfire assistant allowed users to use voice commands on their phone to route calls, handle messaging and reminders. The voice prompts and sound gave the assistant a personality.

Orange bought the business in 2000 and then closed it down five years later as it didn’t have enough users taking it up. Part of this is was that the product was orientated towards business users, like cellphones has been in the 1980s and early 1990s.

But growth took off when the cellphone bridged into consumer customer segments with the idea of a personal device. There wasn’t a horizon-scanning view taken on it, like what would be the impact of lower network latency from 3.5 and 4G networks.

Orange had been acquired by France Telecom and there were no longer executives advocating for it.

Demo of Wildfire’s assistant that I found on the web

In retrospect with the likes of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant; Wildfire was potential wasted. Orange weren’t sufficiently enamoured with the new, new thing to give it the time to shine. And the potential of the service wasn’t fully realised through further development.

The reason why the focus might be put on the new, new thing is that its hard to pick winners and even harder to see how those winners will be used.

Consumer movements or subcultures become fads when they lose sight of their purpose

I found this to be a particularly interesting statement. Subcultures don’t necessarily realise that they’re a subculture until the label is put on them. It’s more a variant of ‘our thing’.

  • The Z Boys of Dogtown realised that they were great skaters, but probably didn’t realise that they were a ‘subculture’.
  • Shawn Stüssy printed up some t-shirts to promote the surf boards he was shaping. He did business the only way he knew how. Did he really realise he was building the foundations of streetwear culture of roadmen and hype beasts?
  • Punks weren’t like the Situationists with a manifesto. They were doing their thing until it was labelled and the DIY nature of doing their thing became synonymous with it.
  • The Chicago-based producers making electronic disco music for their neighbourhood clubs didn’t envisage building a global dance music movement. Neither did the London set who decided they had such a good time in Ibiza; they’d like to keep partying between seasons at home.

Often a movement’s real purpose can only be seen in hindsight. What does become apparent is that scale dilutes, distorts or even kills a movement. When the movement becomes too big, it loses shape:

  • It becomes too loose a network
  • There are no longer common terms of reference and unspoken rules
  • The quality goes down

But if a community doesn’t grown it ossifies. A classic example of this is The WeLL. An online bulletin board with mix of public and private rooms that covered a wide range of interests. Since it was founded in 1985 (on dial-up), it has remained a disappointing small business that had an outsized influence on early net culture. It still is an interesting place. But its size and the long threads on there feel as if the 1990s have never left (and sometimes I don’t think that’s a bad thing).

When you bring in everyone into a medium that has an effect. The median in society is low brow. This idea of the low brow segment of society was well documented as a concept in the writing of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. Tabloid newspapers like The Sun or the National Inquirer write to a reading age of about 12 years old for the man in the street. Smart people do stupid things, but stupid people do stupid things more often.

It is why Hearst, Pulitzer and Beaverbrook built a media empire on yellow journalism. It is why radio and television were built on the back of long-running daytime dramas (or soap operas) that offer a largely-stable unchanging backdrop, in contrast to a fast-changing world.

Netizens let go of the social / intellectual power of the web

When I thought about this comment, I went back to earlier descriptions of netizens and the web. Early netizen culture sprang out of earlier subcultures. The WeLL came out of The Whole Earth Catalog:

  • A how too manual
  • A collection of essays
  • Product reviews – a tradition that Kevin Kelly keeps alive with this Cool Tools blog posts

The Whole Earth Catalog came out of the coalescence of the environmental lobby and the post-Altamont hippy movement to back to the land. Hippy culture didn’t die, but turned inwards. Across the world groups of hippies looked to carve out their own space. Some were more successful than others at it. The Whole Earth Catalog was designed as an aid for them.

The hippy back to the land movement mirrored earlier generations of Americans who had gone west in the 19th century. Emigrates who had sailed for America seeking a better life. Even post-war GIs and their families who headed out to California from the major east coast cities.

The early net offered a similar kind of open space to make your own, not bounded by geographic constraints. Underpinning that ethos was a certain amount of libertarianism. The early netizens cut a dash and created net culture. They also drew from academia. Software was seen as shareable knowledge just like the contents of The Whole Earth Catalog. Which gave us the open source software pinnings that this website and my laptop both rely on.

That virtual space that was attractive to netizens also meant boundless space for large corporates to move in. Since there was infinite land to stake out, the netizens didn’t let go of power.

To use the ‘wild west’ as an analogy; early netizens stuck with their early ‘ranch lands’, whilst the media conglomerates built cities that the mainstream netizens populated over time.

The netizens never had power over those previously unmade commercial lands which the media combines made.

Asynchronous communications channels allowed people to be ‘smarter’ versions of themselves

Asynchronous communications at best do allow people to be the smarter version of themselves. That is fair to a point. But it glosses over large chunks of the web that was about being dumb. Flame wars, classes in Klingon and sharing porn. Those are things that have happened on the net for a long long time.

In order to be a smarter version of yourself requires a desire to reflect that view to yourself; if not to others. I think that’s the key point here.

The tools haven’t changed that much. Some of my best discussions happen on private Facebook groups. Its about what you choose to do, and who you choose to associate with.

In some ways I feel like I am an anachronism. I try and read widely. I come from a family where reading was valued. My parents had grown up in rural Ireland.

I remember that my Dad brought home a real mix of secondhand books from Modern Petroleum Technology and US Army field manuals for mechanics to Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hammond Innes.

This blog is a direct result of that wider reading and the curiosity that it inspired. I am also acutely aware that I am atypical in this regards. Maybe it is because I come from a family of emigres, or that Irish culture prides education in the widest sense. My Mum was an academically gifted child; books offered her a way off the family farm.

My father had an interest in mechanical things. As the second son, so he had to think about a future beyond the family small holding that his older brother would eventually inherit.

Being erudite sets up a sense of ‘otherness’ between society at large and yourself. This shows up unintentionally in having a wider vocabulary to draw from and so being able to articulate with a greater degree of precision. This is often misconstrued as jargon or complexity.

I’d argue good deal of the general population doesn’t want to be smarter versions of themselves. They want to belong, to feel part of a continuum rather than a progression. And that makes sense, since we’re social animals and are hardwired to be concerned about difference as an evolutionary trait. Different could have got you killed – an enemy or an infectious disease.

The move to an ‘always-on’ medium has been detrimental

Rushkoff and I both agree that the ‘always-on’ media life has been detrimental. Where we disagree is that Rushkoff believes that it is the function of platforms such as Twitter. I see it more in terms of a continuum derived directly from network connectivity that drove immediacy.

Before social was a problem we had email bankruptcy and information overload. Before widespread web use – 24-hour news broadcasting drove a decline in editorial space required for analysis which changed news for the worse.

James Gleick’s book Faster alludes to a similar concept adversely affecting just about every aspect of life.

Dumb Internet

I propose that the dumb internet has come about as much from human factors as technological design. Yes technology has had its place; algorithms creating reductive personalised views of content based on what it thinks is the behaviour of people like you. It then vends adverts against that. Consumers are both the workers creating content and the product in the modern online advertising eco-system as Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget succinctly outlines.

The tools that we have like Facebook do provide a base path of least resistance to inform and entertain us. Although it ends up being primarily entertainment and content that causes the audience to emote.

But there is a larger non-technological pull at work as well. An aggregate human intellectual entropy that goes beyond our modern social platforms.

If we want a web that makes us smarter, complaining about technology or the online tools provided to us isn’t enough:

  • We need to want to be smarter
  • We need to get better at selecting the tools that work for us as individuals
  • We need to use those tools in a considered, deliberate way