Liberation Technology

by on January 23, 2006

So I’ve been following this month’s argument over at Cato Unbound, a site run by my friend and former colleague Will Wilkinson that takes a Big Idea each months and brings in some Smart People to discuss it. I’ve been meaning to jump in when I saw a point where I’d have something to add to the discussion.

The problem is that I agree with Eric Raymond’s opening salvo, in which he tears the lead essay, written by Jaron Lanier, to shreds. Lanier’s essay is chock full of breathtakingly broad generalizations expounded in a world-weary tone. He flits from topic to topic, issuing sweeping but vague pronouncements about each, without ever arriving at any kind of clear point.

So honestly, I’m not sure what Lanier’s point is, or whether I agree with it. So instead of jumping into that specific argument, let me offer some quick thoughts on this month’s big idea: what’s become of the techno-utopianism of the 1990s? While I think that some of the utopians over-stated their case, and most of them got the details wrong, their basic thesis was right: the Internet is going to revolutionize American (and world) politics, society, and economics.

The thing I think we need to keep in perspective is that the revolution is still in its infancy. The World Wide Web is barely a decade old. The pace of improvement hasn’t slowed: the Web of today is probably more different from the web of 2001 than the web of 2001 was from that of 1996. Blogs have gone from being virtually unknown in 2000 to a major force in American politics in 2004. Web-centric applications that actually work, such as Google Maps are only about 2 years old, yet they’re already beginning to transform our ideas about what a computer program is and how it can be delivered. Radically decentralized news sources like Digg are democratizing news. A new generation of social networking sites like Facebook, and MySpace are transforming young peoples’ social interactions.

And there’s little reason to think the pace of change will slow. Internet music and video are still infant technologies, with tiny fractions of the market. Both will likely be Internet-centric businesses a decade from now. Flickr has made taken most of the pain out of online photo sharing, and it’s likely that it and its competitors will penetrate the homes of ordinary Americans in the coming decade. And doubtless there are lots of other changes on the way that I’m not smart enough to predict (if I were, I’d be founding a new company, not blogging about it).

The question, obviously, is whether these online advances are revolutionizing our offline lives, or if we’ve simply replaced our dumb, 20th-century gadgets with newer, more networked versions. I think we need to keep in mind that, again, the revolution is just getting started. There are lots of little signs of how transformative these technologies are. One is the effect the Internet had on the 2004 election, and the likelihood that the impact will be far greater by 2008, when a substantial fraction of the electorate will have favorite blogs. Another is the extent to which the Internet has made it easier to keep in touch with friends and family over long distances. People now have a far richer variety of options–instant messaging, email, personal blogs, online photos, video conferencing–than was available to anyone in the 20th century.

Economics is being transformed as well. pioneered the long tail business model, turning a profit on products previously too obscure to be worth anyone’s time. EBay is creating a whole new industry of self-employed merchants with essentially zero overhead. Craig’s List is steadily destroying the newspaper industry by undercutting the classified section, one of its main money-makers.

The use of some of these technologies are largely limited to technologically savvy 20- and 30-somethings at the moment, but over time they’ll diffuse to the rest of society. Moreover, people my age (26) and older had to learn to use most of these tools as adults. Our children will grow up taking them for granted, and as a result they’re likely to be much more adept at using them than we can hope to be.

The conventional view is that there was an explosion of innovation with the Internet bubble, and then the bubble popped and the rate of technological progress slowed. I think the opposite might be true. Sure, the hype surrounding the Internet dropped off a cliff in 2001, but the pace of technological progress may have actually increased after the bubble popped. Ironically, during the bubble a lot of resources got diverted from geeks writing neat code to MBAs and marketing types coming up with silly business plans. When everyone’s idea was getting venture capital, a lot of time and effort was wasted on bad ideas. The post-bubble Internet is a lot less flashy, but it’s much more focused on technology that actually works, and that users actually use.

Internet technologies are still nowhere near the saturation point, so I think we can look forward to at least another decade of dizzying social change as a result of technological progress. No, we don’t spend our days wearing virtual reality helmets, but by any reasonable standard, this is a social and technology revolution, and it’s just getting started.

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