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Op-ed - Written by on Friday, September 17, 2010 15:12 - 1 Comment

Naumi Haque
Apple’s apps | Google’s web: What is the future of the internet?

It happened ever so sneakily-–just as we were celebrating the demise of old media companies and rejoicing in the new freedom of the web, it’s gone. While we were busy thinking the internet revolution would be about free downloads, peer-to-peer content, and enterprising grassroots innovations for all, “The Man” once again seized control. Wired’s recent article, “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, sparked my interest and brought to light the idea that maybe the “free web” as we know it was a mere adjustment period during which old empires died and new ones were being created. As the article notes, new vertically-integrated media oligopolies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and others are taking control:

“The control the Web took from the vertically integrated, top-down media world can, with a little rethinking of the nature and the use of the Internet, be taken back.”

The main way we’re seeing this happen is through pay walls and locked down services, mostly in the form of apps and specialty devices that emphasize convenience over control. Most users aren’t savvy enough to dig into the nuts and bolts of technology—geeky techno-details be damned, they want what they want, immediately. Unfortunately, the consequence of this apathy towards technology is a future where a select few companies will control a significant portion of the content we consume. Apple would be the key culprit here with sleek must-have devices that, although tremendously well-designed (full disclosure: I own an iPad myself), lock users into a convenient, ‘black box’ mentality of computing.  Powered by iTunes, the App Store, and iDevices Apple controls the flow of content (the new TV network), monetizes the media you consume (the new record company and music store), has final say over which apps you can use on your devices (a new software monopoly), and controls the end user experience via extremely inflexible devices (recall Ma Bell owned all the actual telephones at one point as well).

Mobility is also a big factor. With more people creating and accessing data via mobile devices (e.g. smart phones, Kindles, and iPod Touches), we see more niche uses of the net that don’t include browsing and the open distribution of content. As the Wired article notes:

“Within five years, Morgan Stanley projects, the number of users accessing the Net from mobile devices will surpass the number who access it from PCs. Because the screens are smaller, such mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty software, mostly apps, designed for a single purpose. For the sake of the optimized experience on mobile devices, users forgo the general-purpose browser. They use the Net, but not the Web. Fast beats flexible.”

The emphasis on convenience over control has built other media empires as well, including services that use templated experiences to simplify the web (think web presences on Facebook or even Blogger, as opposed to sites created by individuals and designers). Author and web pioneer Jaron Lanier derides many such efforts as dehumanizing and anti-intellectual, and cautions us against lock-in to design principles that were conceived by those more interested in advertising and data aggregation than people and intellectual property. His recent book, “You Are Not a Gadget” serves a manifesto for those unhappy with the current direction of most web 2.0 initiatives. He notes,

“Lock-in removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.”

It’s nice to think that lock-in and disempowerment is happening to help consumers and create better experiences, but it is also happening because it’s profitable. The ‘ease of access’ versus ‘freedom’ argument is a false dichotomy; you can have both, it’s just more work and more costly. But, it can (and should) be done. However, for companies, it’s easier to cite reliability and security concerns and far more profitable to keep things locked down. Lock-in allows for monetization via proprietary formats, advertizing, and device replacement. In a poignant, yet fairly targeted jab at Google, Lanier goes on to say:

“If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.”

Herein lies the problem. Apple is creating its own walled garden, but has effectively created a way to monetize content and distribute money to artists and application creators. Google on the other hand has taken a much more open approach, but monetizes content via advertizing, which is not distributed to content creators. In both cases, the individual consumer feels cheated.

I wrote about much of this before in a Wikinomics post about Jonathan Zitrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” The main issue: locked down appliances like the iPhone that could eliminate the PC, and with it the “test bed and distribution point of new, useful software from any corner of the globe,” and “the safety valve that keeps those information appliances honest.” The move towards appliances also dumbs-down the user experiences. When appliances break you don’t open them up yourself to fix them, you call the manufacturer. This is exactly how the Apple approach varies from the PC approach. The internet dystopia that Zittrain feared could be upon us, and most users (even tech savvy ones) don’t even perceive this as an issue. As one commenter to my Zittrain post mentioned:

“The death of the PC should not be an issue. It’s like caring about the death of the CD, who cares, something better has replaced it. There will probably always be PC’s for those who prefer optimal performance in certain hardware and want large visual displays. But the majority of the population makes a waste of all that good hardware just by only using a PC to go on Facebook or chat with friends. Let them have their mobile devices and gaming consoles.”

Ah, but PCs do matter and here’s why: Without PCs we lose control over how we experience media. Media that is streamed at us through apps and gamining consoles treats us as passive recipients in a similar way that TV or radio did; it hosts purely sanitized content, it is controlled by companies not individuals, and it’s infused with advertising. The reason we don’t notice (or don’t care) is that it is social and so gives us the perception of control and creation. But what we perceive as control is data entry into predefined fields and forms that limit our expression. We need PCs to truly create new content.

Social media has debased intellectual engagement and self representation by making it effort-free. The cognitive load required to type something on Facebook, comment on a blog post, or even post a video on YouTube is small because these sites are designed to mimic a stream of consciousness. Although little creative energy is expended to interact, time is still spent, and information is still created and consumed. Much of the content includes off-the-cuff remarks that would traditionally have dissolved the way idle chatter does; however, repurposed using social media they are often compared in the same light as actual article writing or high-quality productions. Most apps don’t encourage the thoughtful creation of content, whereas using a full blown desktop is all about creative freedom. In a fairly balanced response to the Wired piece, Shane Tilton from the Center for Society and Cyberstudies Journal says:

“Creation vs consumption: Most of the promoters of the death of the open web are looking at it from the viewpoint that we go online to get our information, check in with our friends and maybe post a picture or video. If this was the case, the closed web would have won years ago. However, we like the ability to do create works from time to time and love having a way to share it with a larger community. The app based system of uploading content is relatively simple, which is the good and the bad point about the system. You can share content as it is in the real world, however it is moderately hard to edit it and add a creative mark to the content. An open web system gives access to online editors and content creation tools. The close system, for the most part, lacks these qualities.”

The multi-billion dollar question is, are locked-down devices, apps, and internet pay walls the future? Or, will it be open devices powered by the likes of Android and Symbian, and supplied with open content via web search and peer-to-peer networks? As long as the web is free and open and accessible to all, companies like Google can index it and derive value from it. And, with the launch of Google Instant, it seems that Google is trying to move people away from integrated search bars back to the home page (where it can better monetize its ads). Whether it’s Google’s web or Apple’s apps, one thing is clear, the next phase of the internet will be monetized by a few key players and far less free than it used to be.

1 Comment

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Jeff DeChambeau
Sep 20, 2010 11:31

There are a lot of very important issues addressed here, thanks for taking them on with care and thoughtfulness. Some comments/thoughts/responses:

I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that the man seized control, instead, what’s happening online is mirroring what happened in the real world: people are preoccupied or disinterested in having agency in the world, and rationally self-interested companies have stepped in where private citizens did not. The path is well traveled for offline democracy and capitalism. Users care mostly about ease of use, and not learning the ins and outs of a system–in a way that would be required to fully understand the implications of trading software rights for ease of use (which as you rightly point out, is a completely unnecessary trade).

This dovetails nicely into Lanier’s point about cookie cutter profiles: they’re easier, much easier. It’s at the point now on facebook where to compose a list of your interests all you have to do is scroll through a series of icons and click on the ones you like, there’s no push on users to express themselves creatively in writing–exactly for the reasons you say: complex essays are harder to process than binary displays of affinity.

Much has been written about how language and thoughts are deeply interrelated, but most of it is around having words to describe specific contexts. I think that’s casting the net too small, there’s a language and grammar to everything we do, and how we interact. By facebook/appleing our interpersonal relationships, that is to say modifying them so that they are easily understood by the system and others using the system, I think we forfeit a lot. I realize that social networking is seen as a social supplement, but increasingly services like facebook and bbm are the central channels of communication, what’s this doing to our ability to critically interact with one another?

As for the death of the PC, there was a great interview between Walt Mossberg (in his non-puppet form) and Steve Balmer where Balmer said that the PC was here to stay. Much of the blogosphere sneered at him for saying this, but his point was that people are always going to want computers that do it all, and the ipad/android tablet operating system doesn’t really allow for that. The actual form factor of the PC doesn’t matter, but its freedom to let you compute how you want does, and is crucial.

The direction in which we’re headed is great for business, it’s up to consumer-citizens to decide if this shift is in their best interests, and if they want to use their agency to yank the steering wheel in another direction as best they can. There will always be devices and networks that allow people to create and communicate freely, without hand-holding, but I fear that in the future they’ll exits only in the margins, and society as a whole will be diminished by our digital complacency.

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