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September 6, 2010

The future of the internet: fragmentation and balkanisation?

In this week’s Economist, it expounded on the future of the internet. They argue that there is a virtual counter-revolution in the making, one that has powerful forces of fragmentation that are “threatening to balkanise it”. I don’t agree.

The  Economist’s article this week argues that the internet’s “very success” has given rise to forces that are pulling it apart, mostly visible along “geographical boundaries” where there’s an Orwellian edge to government interference and the enforcement of laws in the digital realm. It cites China’s “great firewall” and of governments increasingly asserting their sovereignty, with India threatening to cut off BlackBerry service and “going after other communication-service providers, notably Google and Skype”.

This sounds similar to Jonathan Zittrain, who attempted to define the internet’s future by that of the open, “generative” Net against “tethered, sterile appliances”, such as the proprietary devices of the iPhone. Andrew Keen is another willing disciple of the the olde media school of thought, who is loathe to tolerate a society where everyone has a voice.

In Keen’s book, “The Cult of the Amateur”, he describes how the internet is “killing our culture” and decries everything user-generated, which Adam Thierer of views as “unapologetically techno-conservative and culturally elitist”. At issue here is a generation of “fewer intermediaries minding the culture”. As a result,  Keen argues that “professional” media is giving way to “amateur” media.

It must be said that there is an awful abundance of narcissism that is both alarmingly self-referential and totally pointless in the arena of public discussion. But at least the internet is a great leveller that has given everyone the ability to broadcast.

On the one hand, this has given everyone an equal chance to be heard but on the other, disposable, inane crap such as this: OMGoodness what a great night…Even funnier was going to the toilet, getting talking to an old friend then going back out for the music to of been turned off and everyone gone.” Fascinating, absorbing commentary it is not. But on balance, I think we are a better society for the opportunity to say such things such as this in a public space.

In the late Neil Postman’s book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology”, he argues that “information has become a form of garbage…not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems” which, if left unchecked, will ultimately mean “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” which will destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation.”

In doing so, he argues, the Net is destroying the role of experts, authority, truth and traditional societal norms and institutions, such as The Economist, maybe? And that the personalisation and customisation of the internet has “spawned an unambiguously negative development for our society and culture.”

The Economist then goes on to talk about Net neutrality and proprietary platforms: the plumbing of the internet. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, has called this “the Tony Soprano vision of networking”, alluding to extortion from every website by setting up different levels of access so that consumers’ data can be transmitted quickly along the fastest lanes to speed up access to websites that pay for it.

The piece goes on to say that America’s broadband market operators argue that open-access requirements would “destroy their incentive to build fast, new networks” and that “it should come as no surprise that the internet is being pulled apart on every level” and provides an analogy that it is tantamount to world trade, which is that it “can collapse if there is too much protectionism”.

This counter-revolutionary idea of The Economist is not too far away from Jonathan Zittrain, who contrasts two paradigms on the Net’s future: “Today, the same qualities that led to the success of the internet and general-purpose PCs are causing them to falter. As ubiquitous as internet technologies are today, the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution.

“This counter-revolution would push mainstream users away from the “generative” internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancised network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity — and, for better or worse, heightening its regularbility. A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two. If the problems associated with the internet and PC are not addressed, a set of blunt solutions will likely be applied to solves problems at the expense of much of what we love about today’s information ecosystem.”

What he fears is that the “tethered appliance” paradigm, in a search for stability or security, will overtake innovation and that by its very nature will be regulated by large corporations and governments. I agree with Adam Thierer here that we should surely have the best of both worlds in which the “generative” works harmoniously with the “tethered”.

Social networking sites are a case in point in that there is generative activity mixed with the limitations of the tethered and that it works seamlessly to most users, however “imperfectly” this may appear to the purists.

If there is a danger of the internet becoming a collection of “proprietary islands accessed by devices controlled remotely by their vendors”, as The Economist seems persuasively to predict, and that  the internet loses much of its “generativity” where innovation slows down, it is not necessarily the case that it will denigrate and “dissolve quickly”.

I rather feel that The Economist has raised its hackles about the unfiltered Web 2.0 experience and that it views the surrender of culture to technology as alarming, one that shows contempt for the information age, despite its going to the toilet and finding everyone gone.

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