Kevin Kelly’s helped me make sense of the internet for as long as I can remember. One of his best blog posts, from 2008, is “Better Than Free.”
The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free…
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
Kelly suggests eight “generative” values that can’t be easily copied by the internet: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment,
Patronage, and Findability. This list holds up pretty well: digital tech has handled some of these things better than others (we can get our digital files from the cloud almost anywhere; embodiment is still mostly analog). And most of these things we do pay for, if only in the form of being locked in to one company’s ecosystem that manages these things for us. It also ties in clearly to 1000 True Fans and other essays of Kelly’s that have turned out to be prescient and/or influential.
But is the internet really best characterized as a copy machine? This has always bothered me. Unlimited free copies of digital objects proliferating everywhere is a problem because of the internet. But the other things that the internet does pose thorny problems too.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that “the internet is a fax machine.” Most of what we do on the internet is zip digital documents back and forth from one machine to the other. It would be nice to think of that process as simply copying. But we need channels and tubes and signals and protocols to move those docs back and forth, and all of that we pay for. And at a more abstract level, we need distribution channels so the docs reach who they’re supposed to. TCP/IP is a distribution channel, but so are Facebook and Google and Snapchat and Twitter. Somebody ends up paying for all of them.
The other two parts of the all-in-one machine are more complicated. If we’re just copying things backwards and forwards, we never add anything new. And if you look at a lot of internet media, it’s mostly just recycled content from some other part of the internet. A Reddit thread becomes a Twitter meme becomes a web story becomes a TV story, which becomes 20 web stories. Copying is getting pretty tired. We need to do more scanning — literally and figuratively. We need to think harder about how to make the offline and online worlds meet. The internet companies spending real money right now are spending it on this problem.
Printing is just the other side of the same thing. How can we translate online activity to offline action? Or, even if it stays digital, how do we produce a work that people can recognized as a finished object? How can we move a digital thing from one physical experience to another? If we used to print digital documents or photos from our PCs to get a better look at them, maybe now we move videos and games from our smartphones to bigger screens in our offices and living rooms. It’s still the same kind of process, and we need to solve similar kinds of problems to the ones when we were first figuring out how to establish a WYSIWYG relationship between software and a printed page. All of that takes work, and all of that takes money.
In other words, we don’t pay for the copies — we pay for the toner. Same as it ever was.
Opened in 1995 on St. Marks in the East Village, the @ Cafe was one of the first (and coolest) internet cafes in the US.1 They had a bunch of computers, a T1 line (at $9000/mo!), a hip menu including alcoholic beverages, and no idea what they were doing. They didn’t plan for ventilation for all the hardware, so they cooled the server room with a garbage can full of ice!
And I was glad to hear the CU-SeeMe shout out at the very end of the video. I think about that app every time I hear about something “new” like Facebook Live, Periscope, or Snapchat. Talk about being ahead of its time…CU-SeeMe was video chat that predated the popularity of the web.
At the time, very few people even knew what the “@” symbol was. One article featured in the video described it like so: “that @ is pronounced ‘at’ in case you were curious, and it’s often used in e-mails, the way most hackers and computer freaks communicate with one another”. LOL.↩
The North Koreans apparently had seen quite a few of my films. I established a trust with them. It’s very strange because you’re accompanied by people who would look after what you were doing, who would politely tell you you cannot film this, or cannot film that, and at one point I filmed something which I was not allowed to do, so I wanted to have it edited or deleted. But since they are filming in 4K or 5K or so, very complicated data management, we were unable to delete it, and they wanted to take the entire memory hard drive. And I said, “But it contains two days worth of shooting, that would be terrible.” So I said, “You know what, I can guarantee to you that I’m not going to use this material.” And they said, “Guarantee, what do you mean by that?” I said, “Just look me in the eye, what I offer is my honor, my face, and my handshake.” And they said “ok” and they trusted me. And of course I’m not going to use this moment of filming that I was not supposed to film.
Herzog grins as he takes a seat in a conference room at UCLA, which has been set up for an event later this evening. His eyes droop, but his skin is remarkably smooth, like the surface of a slightly underinflated balloon. And then there’s that voice-silky, portentous-you can imagine it coming out of a GPS system giving driving directions to Valhalla. “I like to look back at the evolution of modern human beings,” he says of his interest in the Internet. “Using fire or electricity was an enormous step for civilization, and this is one of those. And I think the poet must not avert his eyes.”
What is interesting about Lo and Behold is that it’s technically branded content. No, really:
It’s a bonafide film that premiered at Sundance in January and has been generating lots of buzz heading toward its wider release. It also happens to be one giant ad, half in disguise, for POD New York client Netscout. The whole thing started out as an agency idea to produce short videos about the internet as part of a online Netscout campaign. But after they roped in Herzog, the vision for the project soon changed-for the better.
“I come from a digital background, and I’ve talked about the internet for my entire career. My first job was as the internet guy at DDB in Brazil,” Pereira said. “When we hired Werner to do content about the internet, I felt like, OK, I know it’s going to be awesome, but I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to see. But actually, it’s mind-blowing. We gave him the beginning of the idea and told him, ‘This is where it starts.’ He took it from there and owned it. It’s a mind-blowing documentary.”
I saw the film last week,1 and from what I remember, there’s nothing about Netscout in the film. They financed the film but according to Tanz, Herzog had final cut:
Herzog retained final cut while granting McNiel veto power, a privilege McNiel used only once, to excise some of the more horrifying troll comments, a decision Herzog now says he agrees with.
It was interesting in spots, but I felt like splitting the narrative into 10 parts was not the right way to go. I would guess, however, the less you know about the technical aspects of technology, the more interesting Lo and Behold will be to you.↩
More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. And here’s a big reason we’ve seen such incredible growth and innovation: Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. That’s a principle known as “net neutrality” — and it says that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.
That’s what President Obama believes, and what he means when he says there should be no gatekeepers between you and your favorite online sites and services.
With another compromise looming, the President today released a video that suggests, in short, that he’s had it. In unusually explicit terms, he has told the agency exactly what it should do. Enough with the preëmptive compromises, the efforts to appease the carriers, and other forms of wiggle and wobble. Instead, the President said, enact a clear, bright-line ban on slow lanes, and fire up the agency’s strongest legal authority, Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the “main guns” of the battleship F.C.C.
Motherboard notes that the classification of the internet as a utility would not include rate regulations.
To do this, Obama said the FCC should reclassify internet services as a utility, but should do it in a way that has slightly different rules than say, an electric company. Obama’s suggested rules focus specifically on net neutrality and service interruption, not prices, a concession to big telecom companies.
“I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services,” he said.
In a series of tweets, historian Yoni Appelbaum connects the dots between net neutrality and the Affordable Care Act a bit more elegantly than Ted Cruz did:
Obama’s call for net neutrality his latest effort to grow the economy by defending equality of opportunity. The ACA is the biggest boon for entrepreneurs in generations, allowing individuals to take economic risks without risking their health. The common thread here is a policy framework giving individuals the same access to essential resources as enormous institutions. Obama prefers to stress commonalities than to define his policies in such oppositional terms. But still, that’s what he’s doing here.
It wouldn’t be so bad, if the line still moved. But it doesn’t. It stops, every time a group of people with Flash Passes cut to the front. You used to be able to go on, say, three or four rides an hour, even on the most crowded days. Now you go on one or two. After four hours at Whitewater the other day, my daughter and I had gone on five. And so it’s not just that some people can afford to pay for an enhanced experience. It’s that your experience — what you’ve paid full price for — has been devalued. The experience of the line becomes an infernal humiliation; and the experience of avoiding the line becomes the only way to enjoy the water park. You used to pay for equal access; now you have to pay for access that’s more equal than the access afforded others. The commonality of experience is lost, and the lines are striated not simply by who can pay for a Flash Pass and who can’t; they’re also striated by race and class. The people sporting the Flash Passes are almost exclusively white, and they tend to be in better shape than those stuck on line. They tend to have fewer tattoos, and to look less, well, pagan. And by the end of the day, they start cutting lines where Flash Passes don’t even apply — because they feel entitled to — and none of them, not even their kids, will so much as look at you.
I think 2008 and 2012 Obama voters are nodding their heads here at Appelbaum’s and Junod’s thoughts…Obama’s statement on net neutrality and the rationale behind it is what they voted for. If you watched any of Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts on PBS, you’ll recognize this is right out of TR’s and FDR’s playbooks. Worth noting also that Teddy was a Republican and FDR a Democrat.
Researchers at Stanford have observed that foraging harvester ants act like TCP/IP packets, so much so that they’re calling the ants’ behavior “the anternet”.
Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here’s how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.
This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.
It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants — which forage for seeds as individuals — leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.
A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are on the Internet or not. For example you are almost always typing into a box on a series of screens on your computer. Because of this, there are whole sections of the Internet that are pretty sure they are not on the Internet, because, they are just boxes, right? You could be typing into anything, who knows if it’s public. This was true about LiveJournal for a long time. When you would link to a posting on LiveJournal, back in the day, you would get outraged emails about invasion of privacy. Because in their minds, they were just typing in their diary.
At the Web 2.0 conference, Clay Shirky gave a talk called Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. In it, he argues that the “social surplus” soaked up in the latter half of the 20th century by television is now being put to better use on the internet.
For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before—free time. And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV. We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.
But maybe it’s possible that the internet is a slightly more sophisticated (or slightly more cognitive) cognitive heat sink?
Mr. Gupta said about half of his sales take place without the presence of the buyer. “Being in Chicago, without the walk-in traffic of a gallery in New York or even L.A., I can’t imagine working without digital images,” he said. “We have a ton of European collectors, and we reach them through art fairs and digital images, a combined effort.”
Could global warming kill the internet? “The internet is a big network of servers, and servers are hot. They devour electricity, they run hot and they mainline air conditioning. When the global thermostat goes up, the servers start going down.” (via migurski)
If public parks (like NYC’s Bryant Park) offer free wifi, why don’t expensive hotels? I can’t find the link right now, but I remember reading something awhile ago (possibly on Boing Boing) arguing that free wifi was easier and cheaper for businesses to offer than a paid option because you don’t need the ecommerce bit (sort of like a free grocery store not needing cashiers, etc.) and the free internet will bring people in.
Update: Here’s that Boing Boing post: “Operating a WiFi hotspot that you charge money for costs $30 a day. Operating a free WiFi hotspot costs $6.” (thx alex)