Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Limit of Internet

Tim Barnes Lee warns that Internet is now threatened by the very beast it helped to create - virtual communities. He singles out Facebook, for its vast number of users and closed fence network, but this could be equally applied to the other darling of the Internet age, Apple. His points out that Facebook collects a vast amount of information which then is retained privately, which was not what Internet was created for. He calls upon everyone to 'defend' the Internet's Open standards and neutrality, and argues that this is essential for our liberty and continued progress.

There is a lot of concern about the future of the Internet now a days. Jonathan Zittrain has written an engaging book on this, and The Economist recently wondered whether the Internet will soon be breaking down into smaller national networks, each nation demanding control over what information is passed on.

This is a somewhat perfect antidote of the euphoria about the arrival of the network age. Call it by whichever name, we have surely overdone the revolution quite a bit. In fact, the revolution has been talked up so much that the real progress, which is quite astonishing by any measure, has somewhat failed to meet the expectations. A new type of Pundits, Futurists, has somewhat taken over the public discourse and predicted that everything that we know of, will change. Surely, some of it did: However, an astonishing amount of it did not, and life in these fault lines of age-shift can actually be extremely disconcerting.

For all the talk, take the IT Usage of any average SME in Britain: How much of it has fundamentally changed the way people work? Yes, we have the electronic clock-in system, and some electronic surveillance, but that is not the New Age enthusiasts' vision of changes in the workplace. In fact, what Internet has actually delivered many a times correspond to dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley than the rosy assertions of Alvin Toffler.

I am obviously not preaching that technology does not change life: Sure it does. But its social promise isn't fully delivered unless life starts following technology, rather than the other way around. For Facebook and Apple, the walled gardens of the past are now being recreated with new age regalia, but its essential themes, the walls, are the same. A better mousetrap still a mousetrap, though promises are being made for the arrival of a pied-piper.

I would theorize that the concerns for the future of the Internet is valid, but that stems from the current limits of the Internet and its evolution from a more academic, publicly maintained commons to a collection of privately owned walled gardens. Technology indeed can change the society, and it does; but the process is neither automatic nor straightforward. In a way, technology plants the seeds of self-destruction in a society as it gets consumed by it. A social system wins up to the point when it consumes all available and emerging technologies with the sole aim of maintaining itself, and in the process, creates possibilities for various actors within the society to over-optimize and over-consume the technologies, thus bringing down the edifice of social relationships with them. Internet is currently in a 'being consumed' phase, and the fights between its various private masters are peaking. One would hope this undoing of Internet is also the start of disseminating its broad goals, open standards, neutrality, information access, more universally.

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