Tag Archives: silicon valley

What is the Internet?, Part 1

Over at The Awl, Maria Bustillos struggles to define and defend “the internet” in her review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here:

“If the Internet were a world, Morozov blithely ignores whole continents, whole oceans, to make his criticisms of certain aspects of one small province—Silicon Valley—and then extrapolate from them to encompass the rest.”

This is a telling metaphor: it shows just how vaporous and indistinct the idea of a single, coherent “internet” really is, if the best description anyone can formulate is that it’s like a bunch of continents, among which Silicon Valley (itself hardly well-defined) is a province. However, the metaphor does prove the existence of “Internet-centrism”; what kind of person assigns the statehood and governmental responsibilities associated with a “province” to a bunch of California VCs and startups? But I do think that this is what many advocates of relentless technological “progress” want: their own country, their own rules, and the right to move “forward” without regard for general welfare or dissent.

A person living in the increasingly stratified, inequality-ravaged West should take note. The more one thinks about Bustillos’ (likely offhand) metaphor, the scarier it is: a world run not by democratic laws and the humane inefficiencies of the governments that make them, but by titans of industry focused not on public welfare or equality but on profits, masked as “efficiency” borne out of technological innovation. And their vehicle is “the internet,” spoken of in hushed terms as if it were an immutable force equivalent to “gravity,” when it is actually not even a physical space and not even remotely objective, with its primary inputs often coming from predominantly male demographics (Reddit, Wikipedia) or proprietary algorithms (Google).

Jaron Lanier has recently commented on the shortcomings of Internet-centrism (and for some reason earning a rebuke from like-minded Morozov), chiding it for decontextualizing information and acting as if truth can be dispensed from anonymous masses:

“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.”

I touched upon some similar points in my piece about the inherent non-objectivity (subjectivity?) of “the internet,” and the various contingencies that make it what it is. I’ll just add that I find it unsurprising that both Silicon Valley and “the internet” would do little to promote the integrity of books, music, and creative arts, as well as the people who create them. For every success story of Kickstarter star, there’s someone who is struggling because creative work is now assigned value via cultural capital and “likes” or “+1s,” rather than actual money or employment. But, hey, it’s all in the name of “open access” and “openness,” so it must represent real “progress” for mankind, no? What can one do when “the internet,” despite not being a real agent/actor, is relentlessly changing everything, as they say?

Lanier talks about the help that the middle-class needs to maintain its status:

“I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.”

These types of gatekeepers, protections, and institutions are exactly what many of the purveyors of technological “progress” want to destroy. Morozov himself has belabored this point using comparisons such as Uber (the quintessence of upper-crust Silicon Valley muscle eroding a purposefully inefficient public service in the name of “efficiency”) and taxis, and one can arguably see it even in seemingly populist drives like John McCain’s attempt to dismantle the bundled cable television package model (which actually saves money for consumers and gives them more choices without being priced out of the market), but I think an even better example is education.

Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker analysis of the effect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on higher education is balanced, with a nuanced look at how, on the one hand, online learning could solve classroom space issues and propagate knowledge and, on the other, shrink the academic job market and centralize all academic thought and opinion. I’ll take a look at this later, when I write part two.

Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.