The natural logistics of life: The Internet really changes almost nothing

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Cover of "You've Got Mail"

Cover of You've Got Mail

This is a post that has been germinating for a long time. But it was most immediately inspired by Marshall Poe‘s article claiming that “The Internet Changes Nothing“. And as it turns out, I mostly agree.

OK, this may sound a bit paradoxical. Twelve years ago, when I submitted my first column to be published, I delivered the text to my editor on a diskette. Now, I don’t even have an editor (or at least not for this kind of writing). I just click a button and my text is published. But! If my server logs are to be trusted, it will be read by 10s or at best 100s of people over its lifetime. That’s more than if I’d just written some notes to myself or published it in an academic journal but much less than if I publish it in a national daily with a readership of hundreds of thousands. Not all of them will read what I write but more than would on this blog.
So while democratising the publishing industry has worked for Kos, Huffington and many others, still many more blogs languish in obscurity. I can say anything I want but my voice matters little in the cacophony.

In terms of addressing an audience and having a voice, the internet has done little for most people. This is not because not enough people have enough to say but because there’s only so much content the world can consume. There is a much longer tail trailing behind Clay Shirkey‘s long tail. It’s the tail of 5-post 0-comment blogs and YouTube videos with 15 views. Even millions of typewriter-equipped monkeys with infinities of time can’t get to them all. Plus it’s hard to predict what will be popular (although educated guesses can produce results in aggregate). Years ago I took a short clip with my stills camera of a black-smith friend of mine making a candle-holder. It’s had 30 thousand views on YouTube. Why I don’t know. There’s nothing particularly exciting about it but there must be some sort of a long tail longing after it. None of the videos I hoped would take off did. This is the experience of many if not most. Most attempts at communities fail because the people starting them don’t realize how hard it is to nurture them to self-sustainability. I experienced this with my first site Bohemica.com. It got off to a really good start but since it was never my primary focus, the community kind of dissipated after a site redesign that was intended to foster it.

Just in terms of complete democratization of expression, the internet has done less for most than it may appear. But how about the speed of communication? I’m getting ready to do an interview with someone in the US, record it, transcribe it and translate it – all within a few days. The Internet (or more accurately Skype) makes the calling cheap, the recording and transcription is made much quicker by tools I didn’t have access to even in the early 2000s when I was doing interviews. And of course, I can get the published product to my editor in minutes via email. But what hasn’t changed is the process. The interview, transcription and translation take pretty much the same amount of time. The work of agreeing with the editor on the parameters of the interview, arranging it with the interviewee take pretty much as long as before. As does preparation for the interview. The only difference is the speed and ease of the transport of information from me to its target and me to the information. It’s faster to get to the research subject – but the actual research still takes about the same amount of time limited by the speed of my reading and the speed of my mind.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And as long as humans are a part of the interface in a communication chain, the communication will happen at a human speed. I remember sitting over a print out of an obscure 1848 article on education from Jstor with an academic who started doing research in the 1970s and reminiscing how in the old days, he’d have to get on the train to London to get a thing like this in the British Library or at least having to arrange a protracted interlibrary loan. On reflection this is not as radical a change as it may seem. Sure, the information takes longer to get here. But people before the internet didn’t just sit around waiting for it. They had other stuff to read (there’s always more stuff to read than time) and writing to get on with in the meantime. I don’t remember anyone claiming that modern scholarship is any better than scholarship from the 1950s because we can get information faster. I’m as much in awe of some of the accomplishments of the scholars of the 1930s as people doing research now. And just as disdainful of others from any period. When reading a piece of scholarly work, I never care about the logistics of the flow of information that was necessary for the work to be completed (unless of course, it impinges on the methodology – where moderns scholars are just as likely to take preposterous shortcuts as ancient ones). During the recent Darwin frenzy, we heard a lot about how he was the communication hub of his time. He was constantly sending and receiving letters. Today, he’d have Twitter and a blog. Would he somehow achieve more? No, he’d still have to read all those research reports and piddle about with his worms. And it’s just as likely he’d miss that famous letter from Brno.

Of course, another fallacy we like to commit is assuming that communication in the past was simply communication today minus the internet (or telephone, or name your invention). But that’s nonsense. I always like to remind people that the “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet and fall in love online is a remake of a 1940s film where the protagonists sent each other letters. But these often arrived the same day (particularly in the same city). There were many more messenger services, pneumatic tubes, and a reliable postal service. As the Internet takes over the burden of information transmission, these are either disappearing or deteriorating but that doesn’t mean that’s the state they were in when they were the chief means of information transmission. Before there were photocopiers and faxes, there were copyists and messengers (and both were pretty damn fast). Who even sends faxes now? We like to claim we get more done with the internet but take just one step back and this claim looses much of its appeal. Sure there are things we can do now that we couldn’t do before like attend a virtual conference or a webinar. That’s true and it’s really great. But what would have the us of the 1980s have done? No doubt something very similar like buying video tapes of lectures or attending Open Universities. And the us of the 1960s? Correspondence courses and pirate radio stations. We would have had far less choice but our human endeavor would have been roughly the same. The us of 1930s, 1730s or 330s? That’s a more interesting question but nobody’s claiming that the internet changed the us of those times. We mostly think of the Internet as changing the human condition as compared to the 1960s or 1980s. And there the technology changes have far outstripped the changes in human activity.

If it’s not true that the internet has enabled us to get things done in a qualitatively different manner on a personal level, it’s even less true that it has made a difference at the level of society. There are simply so many things involved and they take so much time because humans and human institutions were involved. Let’s take the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 in which I was an eager if extremely marginal participant. On Friday, November 17 a bunch of protesters got roughed up, on November 27, a general strike was held and on December 10, the president resigned. In Egypt, the demonstrations started on January 25, lots of stuff happened, on February 11 the president resigned. The Egyptians have the Czechs beat in their demonstration to resignation time by 5 days (17 v 23). This was the “Twitter” revolution. We didn’t even have mobile phones. Actually, we mostly even didn’t have phones. Is that what all this new global infrastructure has gotten us? Five days off on the toppling of a dictator? Of course, not. Twitter made no difference to what was happening in Egypt, at all, when compared to other revolutoin. If anything Al Jazeera played a bigger role. But on the ground, most people found out about things by being told by someone next to them. Just like we did. We even managed to let the international media up to speed pretty quickly, which could be argued is the main thing Twitter has done in the “Arab Spring” (hey another thing the Czechs did and failed at).

Malcolm Gladwell got a lot of criticism for pointing out the same thing. But he’s absolutely right:

“high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/02/does-egypt-need-twitter.html

And while these ties can be established and maintained purely virtually, it takes a lot more than a few tweets to get people moving. Adam Weinstein adds to Gladwell’s example:

Anyone who lived through 1989 or the civil rights era or 1967 or 1956 knows that media technology is not a motive force for civil disobedience. Arguing otherwise is not just silly; it’s a distraction from the real human forces at play here.
http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/02/malcolm-gladwell-tackles-egypt-twitter

Revolutions simply take their time. On paper, the Russian October Revolution of 1917 took just a day to topple the regime (as did so many others). But there were a bunch of unsuccessful revolutions prior to that and of course a bloody civil war lasting for years following. To fully institutionalize its aims, the Russian revolution could be said to have taken decades and millions dead. Even in ancient times, sometimes things moved very quickly (and always more messily than we can retell the story). The point about revolutions and wars is that they don’t move at the speed of information but at the speed of a fast walking revolutionary or soldier. Ultimately, someone has to sit in the seat where the buck stops, and they can only get there so fast even with jets, helicopters and fast cars. Such are the natural logistics of human communal life.

This doesn’t mean that there the speed or manner of communication doesn’t have some implications where logistics are concerned. But their impact is surprisingly small and easily absorbed by the larger concerns. In the Victorian Internet, Tom Standage describes how war ship manifests could no longer be published in The Times during the Crimean war because they could be telegraphed to the enemy faster than the ships would get there (whereas in the past, a spy’s message would be no faster than the actual ships). Also, betting and other financial establishments had to make adjustments not to get the speed of information get in the way of making profit. But if we compare the 1929 financial crisis with the one in 2008, we see that the speed of communication made little difference on the overall medium-term shape of the economy. Even though in 2008 we were getting up to the second information about the falling banking houses, the key decisions about support or otherwise took about the same amount of time (days). Sure, some stock trading is now done to the fraction of the second by computers because humans simply aren’t fast enough. But the economy still moves at about the same pace – the pace of lots and lots of humans shuffling about through their lives.

As I said at the start, although this post has been brewing in me for a while, it was most immediately inspired by that of Marshall Poe (of New Books in History) published about 6 months ago. What he said got no less relevant through the passage of time.

Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats. You buy things. Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods. As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them.

This is easy to forget. We call online shopping and food delivery a great achievement. But having shopping delivered was always an option in the past (and much more common than now when delivery boys are more expensive). Amazon is amazing but still just a glorified catalog.

But there are revolutionary inventions that nobody even notices. What about the invention of the space between words? None of the ancients bothered to put spaces between words or in general read silently. It has been estimated that putting spaces between words not only allowed for silent reading (a highly suspicious activity until the 1700s) but also sped up reading by about 30%. Talk about a revolution! I’m a bit skeptical about the 30% number but still nobody talks about it. We think about audio books as an post-Eddison innovation but in fact, all reading was partly listening not too long ago. Another forgotten invention is that of the blackboard which made large-volume dissemination of information much more feasible through a simple reconfiguration of space and attention between pupil and teacher.

Visualization of the various routes through a ...

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David Weinberger recently wrote what was essentially a poem about the hypertext (a buzz word I haven’t heard for a while):

The old institutions were more fragile than we let ourselves believe. They were fragile because they made the world small. A bigger truth burst them. The world is more like a messy, inconsistent, ever-changing web than like a curated set of careful writings. Truth burst the world made of atoms.

Yes, there is infinite space on the Web for lies. Nevertheless, the Web’s architecture is a better reflection of our human architecture. We embraced as if it were always true, and as if we had known it all along, because it is and we did.
http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2011/05/01/a-big-question

It is remarkable how right and wrong he can be at the same time. Yes, the web is more of a replication of the human architecture. It has some notable strengths (lack of geographic limitation, speed of delivery of information) and weaknesses (no internal methods for exchange of tangible goods, relatively limited methods for synchronous face-to-face communication.) I’d even go as far as calling the Internet “computer-assissted humanity”. But that just means that nothing about human organization online is a radical transformation of humanity offline.

What on Earth makes Weinberger think that the “existing institutions were fragile”? If anything they proved extremely robust. I find The Cluetrain Manifesto extremely inspiring and in many ways moving. But I find “The Communist Manifesto” equally profound without wanting to live in a world governed by it. The “The Communist Manifesto” got the description of the world as it is perfectly right. Pretty much every other paragraph in it applies just as much today as it did then. But the predictions offered in the other paragraphs can really cause nothing but laughter today. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” gave the same kind of expression to the frustration with the Dilbert world of big corporations and asked for our humanity back. They were absolutely right.

Markets can be looked at as conversations and the internet can facilitate certain kinds of conversation. But they were wrong in assuming that there is just one kind of conversation. There are all sorts of group symbolic and ritualized conversations that make the world of humans go around. And they have never been limited just to the local markets. In practical terms, I can now complain about a company on a blog or in a tweet. And these can be viewed by others. But since there’s an Xsuckx.com website for pretty much all major brands, the incentive for companies to be responsive to this are relatively small. I have actually received some response to complaints from companies on Twitter. But only once it led to the resolution of the problem. But Twitter is still a domain of “the elite” so it pays companies to appease people. However, should it reach the level of ubiquitous obscurity that many pages have, it will become even less appealing due to the lack of permanence of Tweets.

The problem is that large companies with large numbers of customers can only scale if they keep their interaction with those customers at certain levels. It was always thus and will always remain so. Not because of intrinsic attitudes but because of configurational limitations of time and human attention. Even the industrially oppressed call-center operator can only deal with about 10 customers an hour. So you have to work in some 80/20 cost checks into customer support. Most of any company’s interaction with their customers will be one to many and not on one on one. (And this incidentally holds for communications about the company by customers).

There’s a genre of conversations in the business and IT communities that focus on ‘why is X’ successful. Ford of the 1920s, IBM of the 1960s, Apple of the 2000s. The constant in these conversations is the wilful effort of projecting the current convetnional wisdom about business practices onto what companies do and used to do. This often requires significant reimagining of the present and the past. Leo Laporte and Paul Thurott recently had a conversation (http://twit.tv/ww207) in which they were convinced that companies that interact and engage with their customers will be successful. But why then, one of them asks, is not Microsoft whose employees blog all the time is not more successful than Apple who couldn’t be more tightlipped about its processes and whose attitude to customers is very much take it or leave it? Maybe it’s the Apple Store, one of them comments. That must be it. That engages the crap out of the Apple’s customers. But neither of them asked what is the problem with traditional stores, then? What is the point of the internet. The problem is that as with any metaphoric projection, the customer engagement metaphor is just partial. It’s more a way for us to grasp with processes that are fairly stable at the macro institutional level (which is the one I’m addressing here), but basically chaotic at the level of individual companies or even industries.

So I agree with Marshall Poe about the amount of transformation going on:

As for transformative, the evidence is thin. The basic institutions of modern society in the developed world—representative democracy, regulated capitalism, the welfare net, cultural liberalism—have not changed much since the introduction of the Internet. The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then.

Based on my points above, I would even go as far as to argue that the basic institutions have not changed at all. Sure, foreign ministries now give advisories online, taxes can be paid electronically and there are new agencies that regulate online communication (ICANN) as well as old ones with new responsibilities. But as we read the daily news, can we perceive any new realities taking place? New political arrangements based on this new and wonderful thing called the Internet? No. If you read a good spy thriller from the 80s and one taking place now, you can hardly tell the difference. They may have been using payphones instead of the always on mobile smart devices we have now but the events still unfold in pretty much the same way: people go from place to place and do things.

Writing, print, and electronic communications—the three major media that preceded the Internet—did not change the big picture very much. Rather, they were brought into being by major historical trends that were already well underway, they amplified things that were already going on.

Exactly! If you read about the adventures of Sinuhe, it doesn’t seem that different from something written by Karl May or Tom Clancy. Things were happening as they were and whatever technology was available to be used, was used as well as possible. Remember that the telephone was originally envisioned to be a way of attending the opera – people calling in to a performance instead of attending live.

As a result, many things that happened could not have happened exactly in the same way without the tools of the age being there. The 2001 portion of the war in Afghanistan certainly would have looked different without precision bombing. But now in 2011 it seems to be playing out pretty much along the same lines experienced by the Brits and the Soviets. Meaning: it’s going badly.

The role of TV imagery in the ending of the Vietnam war is often remarked on. But that’s just coincidental. There have been plenty of unpopular wars that were ended because the population refused to support them and they were going nowhere. Long before the “free press”, the First Punic Wars were getting a bad rep at home. Sure, the government could have done a better job of lying to the press and its population but that’s hard to do when you have a draft. It didn’t work for Ramses II when he got his ass handed to him at Kadesh and didn’t ultimately work for the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan. The impact of the impact of the TV images can easily be overestimated. The My Lai Massacre happened in 1968 when the war was about in its mid-point. It still took 2 presidential elections and 1 resignation before it was really over. It played a role but if the government wanted, it could have kept the war going.

Communications tools are not “media” in the sense we normally use the word. A stylus is not a scriptorium, movable type is not a publishing industry, and a wireless set is not a radio network. In order for media technologies to become full-fledged media, they need to respond to some big-picture demand.

It is so easy to confuse the technology with the message. On brief reflection, the McLuhan quote we all keep repeating like sheep is really stupid. The medium is the medium and the message is the message. Sometimes they are so firmly paired we can’t tell them apart, sometimes they have nothing in common. What is the medium of this message? HTML, the browser, your screen, a blog post, the Internet, TCP/IP, ehternet? They’re all involved in the transmission. We can choose whether we pay attention to some of them. If I’d posted somebody a parchment with this on it, it would certainly add to the message or become a part of it. But it still wouldn’t BE the message! Lots of artists like Apollinaire and his calligrams actually tried to blend the message and the medium in all sorts of interesting ways. But it was hard work. Leo Laporte (whose podcasts I enjoy listening to greatly) spent a lot of time trying to displace podcast with netcast to avoid an association with the medium. He claimed that his shows are not ‘podcasts’ but ‘shows’, i.e. real content. Of course, he somehow missed the fact that we don’t listen to programs but to the radio and don’t view drama but rather watch TV. The modes of transmission have always been associated with the message – including the word “show” – until they weren’t. We don’t mean anything special now when we say we ‘watch TV’.

Of course, the mode of transmission has changed how the “story” is told. Every new medium has always first tried to emulate the one it was replacing but ultimately found its own way of expression. But this is no different to other changes in styles. The impressionists were still using the same kinds of paints and canvasses, and modernist writers the same kind of inks and books. Every message exists in a huge amount of context and we can choose which of it we pay attention to at any one time. Sometimes the medium becomes a part of the context, sometimes it’s something else. Get over it!

There are some things Marshall Poe says I don’t agree with. I don’t think we need to reduce everything to commerce (as he does – perhaps having imbibed too much of Marxist historiography). But most importantly I don’t agree when he says that the Internet is mature in the same way that TV was mature in the 1970s. Technologies take different amounts of time to mature as widespread consumer utilities. It is always on the order of decades and sometimes centuries but there is no set trajectory. TV took less time than cars, planes took longer than TV, cars took longer than the Internet. (All depending on how we define mature – I’m mostly talking about wide consumer use – i.e. when only oddballs don’t use it and access is not disproportionately limited by socioeconomic status). The problem with the Internet is that there are still enough people who don’t use it and/or who can’t access it. In the 1970s, the majority had TVs or radios which were pretty much equivalent as a means of access to information and entertainment. TV was everywhere but as late as the 1980s, the BBC produced radio versions of its popular TV shows (Dad’s Army, All Gas and Gaiters, etc.) The radio performance of Star Wars was a pretty big deal in the mid-80s.

There is no such alternative access to the Internet. Sure, there are TV shows that play YouTube clips and infomercials that let you buy things. But it’s not the experience of the internet – more like a report on what’s on the Internet.

Even people who did not have TVs in the 1970s (both globally and nationally) could readily understand everything about their operation (later jokes about programing VCRs aside). You pushed a button and all there was to TV was there. Nothing was hiding. Nothing was trying to ambush you. People had to get used to the idiom of the TV, learn to trust some things and not others (like advertising). But the learning curve was flat.

The internet is more like cars. When you get in one, you need to learn lots of things from rules of manipulation to rules of the road. Not just how to deal with the machinery but also how to deal with others using the same machinery. The early cars were a tinkerer’s device. You had to know a lot about cars to use cars. And then at some point, you just got in and drove. At the moment, you still have to know a lot about the internet to use it. Search engines, Facebook, the rules of Twitter, scams, viruses. That intimidates a lot of people. But less so now than 10 years ago. Navigating the Internet needs to become as socially common place as navigating traffic in the street. It’s very close. But we’re not quite there yet on the mass level.

Nor do I believe that the business models on the Internet are as settled as they were with TV in the 1970s. Least of all the advertising model. Amazon’s, Google’s and Apple’s models are done – subject to normal developments. But online media are still struggling as are online services.

We will also see significant changes with access to the Internet going mobile as well as the increasing speed of access. There are still some possible transformations hiding there – mostly around video delivery and hyper-local services. I’d give it another 10 years (20 globally). By then the use of the internet will be a part of everyday idiom in a way that it’s still quite not now (although it is more than in 2001). But I don’t think the progress will go unchecked. The prospect of flying cars ran into severe limitations of technology and humanity. After 2021, I would expect the internet to continue changing under the hood (just like cars have since the 1960s) but not much in the way of its human interface (just like cars since the 1960s).

There are still many things that need working out. The role of social media (like YouTube) and social networking (like Facebook). Will they put a layer on top of the internet or just continue being a place on the internet? And what business models other than advertising and in-game purchases will emerge? Maybe none. But I suspect that the Internet has about a decade of maturing to get to where it will be recognisable in 2111. Today, cars from the 1930s don’t quite look like cars but those from the 1960s do. In this respect, I’d say the internet is somewhere in the 1940s or 50s. Both in usability, ubiquity, accessibility and it’s overall shape.

The most worrying thing about the future of the internet is a potential fight over the online commons. One possible development is that significant parts of the online space will become proprietary with no rights of way. This is not just net-neutrality but a possible consequence of the lack of it. It is possible that in the future so many people will only access the online space to take advantage of proprietary services tied to their connection provider that they may not even notice that at first some and later on most non-proprietary portions of the internet are no longer accessible. It feels almost unimaginable now but I’m sure people in 16th century East Anglia never thought their grazing commons would disappear (http://www.eh-resources.org/podcast/podcast2010.html). I’m not suggesting that this is a necessary development. Only that it is a configurational possibility.

As I’m writing this. A Tweet just popped up on my screen mentioning another shock in Almaty a place where I spent a chunk of time and where a friend of mine is about to take up a two-year post. I switch over to Google and find out no reports of destruction. If not for Twitter, I may not have even heard about it. I go on Twitter and see people joking about it in Russian. I sort of do my own journalism for a few minutes gathering sources. How could I still claim that the Internet changes nothing? Well, I did say “almost”. Actually, for many individuals the Internet changes everything. They (like me) get to do jobs they wouldn’t, find out things they couldn’t and talk to people they shouldn’t. But it doesn’t change (or even augment) our basic flesh-bound humanity. Sure, I know about something that happened somewhere I care about that I otherwise wouldn’t. But there’s nothing more I can do about it. I did my own news gathering about as fast as it would have taken to listen to a BBC report on this (I’ve never had a TV and now only listen to live radio in the mornings.) I can see some scenarios where the speed would be beneficial but when the speed is not possible we adjust our expectations. I first visited Kazakhstan in 1995 and although I had access to company email, my mother knew about what was happening at the speed of a postcard. And just the year before during my visit to Russia, I got to send a few telegrams. You work with what you have.

All the same, the internet has changed the direction my life has taken since about 1998. It allowed me to fulfil my childhood dream of sailing on the Norfolk Broads, just yesterday it helped me learn a great new blues lick on the guitar. It gives me reading materials, a place to share my writing, brings me closer to people I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. It gives me podcasts like the amazing New Books in History or China History podcast! I love the internet! But when I think about my life before the internet, I don’t feel it was radically different. I can point at a lot of individual differences but I don’t have a sense of a pre-Internet me and post-Internet me. And equally I don’t think there will be a pre-Internet and post-Internet humanity. One of the markers of the industrial revolution is said to be its radical transformation of the shape of things. So much so that a person of 1750 would still recognize the shape of the country in 1500 but a person in 1850 would no longer see them the same. I wonder if this is a bit too simplistic. I think we need to bring more rigor to the investigation of human contextual identity and embeddedness in the environment. But that is outside the scope of this essay.

It is too tempting to use technologies as a metaphor for expressing our aspirations. We do (and have always done) this through poetry, polemic, and prose. Our depictions of what we imagine the Internet society is like appear in lengthy essays or chance remarks. They are carried even in tiny words like “now” when judiciously deployed. But sadly exactly the same aspirations of freedom and universal sisterhood were attached to all the preceding communication technologies, as well: print, telegraph, or the TV. Our aspirations aren’t new. Our attachment to projecting these aspiration into the world around us is likewise ancient. Even automatised factory production has been hailed by poets as beautiful. And it is. We always live in the future just about to come with regrets about the past that has never been. But our prosaic present seems never to really change who we are. Humans for better or worse.

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