Friday, January 18, 2013

The Internet vs. Reality

CLW ponders the way technology promises a bright future for us if only we can overcome our human nature to make the worst of it.

Back in 1995 I was fortunate enough to be one of the executives in the room when Bill Gates introduced his landmark “Internet Tidal Wave” memo.  It changed the direction of the company instantly and led the way to the huge success Microsoft saw in the dot com era.

If you read that memo, it’s filled with a bunch of business-related content.  But in the chat we had with Bill that day, just the few dozen of us in a circle of chairs around the room, he talked much more as the visionary.  He saw the Internet changing the world, and it was a glorious vision.  Not all of it was right.

One thing I remember distinctly was how he was sure that addresses on the Internet would be SO much simpler.  At the time we had addresses for documents that were like \\mcp\intel\dev\user\files\userfile.doc and he was saying “it’ll all be so easy, they will all be simple, like just ‘'”  Well, all that really changed was the direction of the slashes (from “\” to “/”), they are all still just as long and silly, maybe even more so…

One thing he did say that day that was right about addresses was that soon everyone would have their internet address on their business cards, and they’d even be shown in TV advertising.  I remember the audible chuckle through the room.  He was right, within a year it was pretty common on TV ads.

But the thing that stuck with me the most from that day was how elegantly Bill talked about how the availability of nearly limitless information would make the world a better place.  With everyone able to get to all kinds of great information from anywhere, so many things would be better.

Commerce would be so much better because everyone would have “perfect information”.  No longer would I be limited to what I found on my local store shelves.  No longer would the little store in a tiny town be able to take advantage of people because they had no other options.  And sellers would have easy entry to the market that included the entire world.  What he didn’t see was people killing brick and mortar stores by using them as showrooms for Amazon.  Or the rampant scammers and phishing schemes.  In short, the dark side of e-commerce.  He didn’t realize that by removing the barriers to entry — whether those barriers were in starting a business or to your inbox — it made it easier for the bad guys and harder to tell them from the good guys.

He also said politics and elections would be much fairer with everyone’s voice able to be heard, people able to seek out great information, and it would be impossible for just a few people to own the information channels.  At the time, most people got their information from a very few sources: the major TV networks, a few major newspapers.  He was sure more information would make elections better.  He even waxed philosophically about these things called “weblogs” where people could easily post their thoughts, and that would make sure everyone’s voice got heard.

What he didn’t see was the way having two million sources to choose from wouldn’t expand people’s information, but drive them into the corners where they are most comfortable.  He didn’t see that having incredibly easy access to publishing would give voice to people who, frankly, were better off hidden.  The conspiracy theorists, the vile and degrading, the truly hateful, and the trolls.  And given human nature, we wouldn’t turn away from them, we’d be drawn to them like gawkers at a car wreck.  And he didn’t see that a huge number of people don’t want to have to figure things out, they want to be spoon-fed, and that there are plenty of people willing to do that.

Key to all of this is that he didn’t see that making information free also removed its value.  Gone is investigative journalism and the foreign bureau, replaced with TMZ.  Gone are literally all the good newspapers, replaced with a million news aggregator web sites each slanted in the direction you choose.  And gone is a world where people were likely to run into people or opinions they don’t want to.  Everyone is just hiding in their own silos.

Maybe this explains why Washington is broken.  Maybe it explains all the hate on both sides of every argument.  And maybe it’s hopeless, destined only to get worse as information flows at a faster and faster rate.

I hope not.

It’s very telling that with every advance in human communication – from the classic Greek theatre to the internet – the first thing that usually happens is that someone figures out a way to separate other people from their money; the second is to sell pornography.  For every “great big beautiful tomorrow” promised by GE and Walt Disney, there’s someone sending you an e-mail from Nigeria.

Technology can improve our lives immeasurably, but it also highlights the ying and yang of our very human nature.

3 barks and woofs on “The Internet vs. Reality

  1. Gates’ optimism probably helps explain why Windows – through Windows 2000 – was such a nightmare to secure. “Perfect information” assumes perfect users and perfect intentions, and the last two are DEFINITELY not true.

  2. Fairleigh Dickinson University just released results from a study on belief in conspiracy theories. The money quote: “Generally, the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories – but not among Republicans, where more knowledge leads to great belief in conspiracy theories.” (bolding is mine)So, the internet is causing the very problem it should be alleviating.

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