Does the Internet have a future?

Toronto hipster hangout Regulars, where real life is staging a comeback

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As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Gibson himself isn’t sure how he came up with the idea. But uneven distribution looks like a good call these days.

Recent developments indicate the U.S. digital divide has reached a stubborn pause; global growth of Internet access has slowed dramatically; and the “public” Internet is on its way to breaking up into three large pieces.

US market saturated

In September, the Pew Research Center announced that after a long period of growth, the share of Americans who go online, use social media or own key devices has plateaued. The market is saturated, with a catch: it’s only saturated among consumers already participating in digital life. Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

More cures for the dumb things we do with smartphones

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

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Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.

Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.

1- Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built

Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.

  • Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
  • Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
  • Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.

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Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list.  Continue reading

The Netflix boogeyman and a 21st-century role for the CRTC

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“Though some intervenors think this proceeding is all about Netflix, it’s not.” –Corie Wright of Netflix

“If the Commission fails to act swiftly after this proceeding, a service such as Netflix will become … one of the largest broadcasters in this country in the near future.” –Pierre Dion, CEO, Quebecor

“Canadian consumers can rest assured that our government will continue to stand up for them. We will not allow any moves to impose new regulations and taxes on Internet video that would create a Netflix and YouTube tax.” –Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage

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The thesis: Netflix has handed the CRTC a new lease on life

CRTC ordered Netflix to share its highly sensitive Canadian customer data. Netflix demurred (“stonewalled” by some accounts). The Commission has responded by making Netflix disappear from the history books, expunging its official testimony. Does that mean, as we read recently, that “It’s over, CRTC, Netflix and globalization have won”? Continue reading

The Internet in 2025: the Internet/Cloud of Things (Pew 4)

internet_map_2005_dataPartial map of the Internet cloud. Each line joins 2 nodes representing IP addresses. 

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Pew setup question

The evolution of embedded and wearable devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things – As billions of devices, artifacts, and accessories are networked, will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025?

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The visualization of the Internet you see above, while pretty dense and complicated, captures only a fraction of a certain class of networks as they existed nine years ago (i.e., less than 30% of the Class C networks reached by the Opte Project in early 2005). In the intervening time, the number of Internet-connected hosts has increased from less than 400 million to over one billion. But you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

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This past year marked the mainstreaming – in the public consciousness if not in our actual lives – of devices that are not only a) smart so they can compute, and b) small so they can be worn or embedded, but also c) networked so they can all communicate over the Internet. Judging by press coverage, I’d say the splashiest recent entries have been Google Glass and smart watches. Continue reading

The Internet in 2025: new killer apps in the gigabit age (Pew 3)

6867-bright-pier-1bBrighton Pier from the East

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The Pew question. New killer apps in the gigabit age – Will there be new, distinctive, and uniquely compelling technology applications that capitalize upon significant increases in bandwidth in the U.S. between now and 2025?

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You are your own killer app

I answered YES to the survey question. As I wrote in my elaboration, however, the “killer app” concept is misleading when we’re talking about what people get drawn to online. Certainly some emerging technologies have a big future: advanced motion capture and speech recognition come to mind.

No, as a matter of fact, content isn’t king

But using the Internet isn’t like watching TV, which is highly structured and impersonal, despite years of attempts to make TV “interactive.” Using the Internet, by contrast, is very personal. And to the chagrin of those who produce and distribute content for a living, third-party content is not king in the online world. Personal stuff is, as reflected in the most popular online activities, i.e. using email and search engines. In fact, these two activities have consistently ranked as the most popular ever since the Pew Internet Project began measuring online activities over the last decade. I didn’t quite put it this way in the response below, but my view is that it’s the bandwidth itself that’s the killer app.

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The Internet in 2025: which tech giants will dominate? (Pew 2)

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Screen grab from Pew/Elon survey questionnaire, January 2014

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The Pew survey included a question about tech firms that was set up a little differently than the others. As the screen grab above shows, participants were asked to rank the long-term success, or lack of success, among the Big 5 as listed, as well as among other firms of our choosing.

Although it’s about 10 years too early to say “I told you so,” the news over the last few days provides some support for conclusions drawn in my response. As you can see, I’m calling for Amazon and Apple to become “More important”… Facebook and Microsoft to become “Less important”… and Google to “remain the same.”

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Apple: too big to be successful any more?

A recent financial piece in the New York Times (Trying to See Apple From a Different Angle) says the stock market “doesn’t know quite what to make of Apple.” Two general reasons are adduced. One is cyclical: the company has had problems with sales of its cash cow, the iPhone. The other is structural: Apple has the largest market cap of any multinational, as well as the highest brand rating on the global Interbrand survey (all that engineering brainpower finally knocked a syrupy, dark-brown soft drink off its throne). Oh, and the $159 billion in cash it has lying around. Apple’s now so big and so successful that it’s scaring off growth investors who want to see a hit product every six months. Continue reading