Monday 7 May 2007

It's the End of the Net as we know it, and we feel fine....

John C. Dvorak has an interesting post on his column blog, entitled "Will the Internet Collapse?" He doesn't think it will, obviously, and he's got some pretty impressive trends to back up his contention. Example: 140,000 terabytes of backbone traffic in 2002 — at a "conservative" 60% annual growth through 2007, that's roughly 25 KB for each of the six billion or so people on the planet. Most of whom (still) wouldn't know what a byte was if it bit them; they've got more pressing concerns, like safe food, clean water, housing... But I digress.

I don't think the Net per se will "collapse", either. What's going to happen — what's already happening — is both more subtle and dangerous. The "Internet craze" that gave rise to Bubbles 1.0 (1990s) and 2.0 (now) and has driven the Net from a quirky research project into a cultural touchstone, has done two things that, by comparison, would make an every-Friday-from-4-to-10-PM crash seem benign in comparison (and "4-t0-10-PM" where? On the Internet, it's always "now".)

The first problem is the Baby's Spoon in the Waterfall. There's so much information (wrapped up in even more "content", which isn't the same thing) that no person, government, entity or corporation can ever comprehend. People who spend large amounts of time surfing the Web and using various tools to pull information off the Net in other ways, soon exhibit a behavior akin to being "punch drunk". Late in te 12th round, The Champ has connected so many times with Joe Palooka's jaw, and we in the crowd can see Joe staggering around, unsure of even from which direction the merciless pummeling is coming, let alone able to control the situation. The Champ, in this analogy, is the onslaught of data/information/"content" from the Net, primarily email and the Web; Joe is standing in for the typical, non-technical ("you mean Yahoo and the Web aren't synonyms?") user. As the user's eyes glaze over and the cognitive mind enters vapor-lock, he is essentially unable (and psychologically unwilling) to refine his usage patterns or seek out new experiences that he wouldn't find in "offline" life (what in an earlier age was called the "You Are There" effect). So, for instance, the stereotypical North American user goes back to the "safe, familiar" online equivalents of his offline television shows — the "news" sites owned by the same multinational corporations that own American media, and YouTube, which can be viewed as a worldwide online version of "America's 'Funniest' Home Videos": another vehicle for peddling the same tired corporate products in the commercials.

The other problem, of course, is that organizing all this "stuff" has become more difficult, and the rate that it becomes more difficult is at least as rapid as the rate of growth itself. While the Net, and the Web in particular, have enabled new ways to express individual personalities (e.g., MySpace) and alowed ordinary citizens of many countries to amass much ore detailed information about what their government is doing, for them or to them (e.g., YouGov and Thomas), if you don't know about YouGov or Thomas (or any similar site set up by your own country's government), then the old Bruce Springsteen song, "57 Channels and Nothing's On" seems quaint and manageable in comparison. People know there's all sorts of stuff out there — they can Google for it, "it must be real" — but, unable to come to grips with how things are organized (they aren't, on purpose) or how to use the available information to achieve a personally important goal, they fall back on the sites that organize and package and sanitize the content, accepting loss of control as the price of freedom from thinking too much. (E.g., AOL — a subsidiary of Time-Warner, and Fox "News".com, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AIPAC.) As people sink safely back into their easy chairs, content to absorb the anti-intellectual pablum that bombards them, they lose touch with the idea, let alone the possible reality, of an energized populace using the new, revolutionary technology at its disposal to improve their own lot in life and that of the world at large. Instead of a medium which challenges the status quo, the Net has devolved into a tool which reinforces it.

A collapse of the Internet? You're right, John; it will never happen. But a collapse of the promise and meaning of the Internet? It's already here, folks; we're just standing around watching streaming video of the rubble bouncing.

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