In The Adpocalypse: What it Means, VlogbrotherHank Green issues a humorous lament on the impending demise of online advertising. Please devote the next 3:54 of your life to watching that video, so you catch all his points and I don’t need to repeat them here.
Got them? Good.
All of Hank’s points are well-argued and make complete sense. They are also valid mostly inside the bowels of the Google beast where his video work has thrived for the duration, as well as inside the broadcast model that Google sort-of emulates. (That’s the one where “content creators” and “brands” live in some kind of partly-real and partly-imagined symbiosis.)
While I like and respect what the brothers are trying to do commercially inside Google’s belly, I also expect them, and countless other “content creators” will get partly or completely expelled after Google finishes digesting that market, and obeys its appetite for lucrative new markets that obsolesce its current one.
We can see that appetite at work now that Google Contributor screams agreement with ad blockers (which Google is also joining) and their half-billion human operators that advertising has negative value. This is at odds with the business model that has long sustained both YouTube and “content creators” who make money there.
So it now appears that being a B2B creature that sells eyeballs to advertisers is Google’s larval stage, and that Google intends to emerge from its chrysalis as a B2C creature that sells content directly to human customers. (And stays hedged with search advertising, which is really more about query-based notifications than advertising, and doesn’t require unwelcome surveillance that will get whacked by the GDPR anyway a year from now.)
Google will do this two ways: 1) through Contributor (an “ad removal pass” you buy) and 2) through subscriptions to YouTube TV (a $35/month cable TV replacement) and/or YouTube Red ($9.99/month for “uninterrupted music, ad-free videos, and more”).
Contributor is a way for Google to raise its share of the adtech duopoly it comprises with Facebook. The two paid video offerings are ways for Google to maximize its wedge of a subscription pie also sliced up by Apple, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, ShowTime, all the ISPs and every publication you can name—and to do that before we all hit Peak Subscription. (Which I’m sure most of us can see coming. I haven’t written about it yet, but I have touched hard on it here and here.)
I hope the Vlogbrothers make money from YouTube Red once they’re behind that paywall. Or that they can sell their inventory outside all the silos, like some other creators do. Maybe they’ll luck out if EmanciPay or some other new and open customer-based way of paying for creative goods works out. Whether or not that happens, one or more of the new blockchain/distributed ledger/token systems will provide countless new ways that stuff will get offered and paid for in the world’s markets. Brave Payments is already pioneering in that space. (Get the Brave browser and give it a try.)
It helps to recognize that the larger context (in fact the largest one) is the Internet, not the Web (which sits on top of the Net), and not apps (which are all basically on loan from their makers and the distribution systems of Apple and Google). The Internet cannot be contained in, or reduced to, the feudal castles of Facebook and Google, which mostly live on the Web. Those are all provisional and temporary. Money made by and within them is an evanescent grace.
All the Net does is connect end points and pass data between them through any available path. This locates us on a second world alongside the physical one, where the distance between everything it connects rounds to zero. This is new to human experience and at least as transformative as language, writing, printing and electricity—and no less essential than any of those, meaning it isn’t going to go away, no matter how well the ISPs, governments and corporate giants succeed in gobbling up and spinctering business and populations inside their digestive tracts.
The Net is any-to-any, by any means, by design of its base protocols. This opens countless possibilities we have barely begun to explore, much less build out. It is also an experience for humanity that is not going to get un-experienced if some other base protocols replace the ones we have now.
I am convinced that we will find new ways in our connected environment to pay for goods and services, and to signal each other much more securely, efficiently and effectively than we do now. I am also convinced we will do all that in a two-party way rather than in the three-party ways that require platforms and bureaucracies. If this sounds like anarchy, well, maybe: yeah. I dunno. We already have something like that in many disrupted industries. (Some wise stuff got written about this by David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules.)
Not a day goes by that my mind isn’t blown by the new things happening that have not yet cohered into an ecosystem but still look like they can create and sustain many forms of economic and social life, new and old. I haven’t seen anything like this in tech since the late ’90s. And if that sounds like another bubble starting to form, yes it is. You see it clearly in the ICO market right now. (Look at what’s lined up so far. Wholly shit.)
But this one is bigger. It’s also going to bring down everybody whose business is guesswork filled with fraud and malware.
If you’re betting on which giants survive, hold Amazon and Apple. Short those other two.
Nobody is going to own podcasting. By that I mean nobody is going to trap it in a silo. Apple tried, first with its podcasting feature in iTunes, and again with its Podcasts app. Others have tried as well. None of them have succeeded, or will ever succeed, for the same reason nobody has ever owned the human voice, or ever will. (Other, of course, than their own.)
Because podcasting is about the human voice. It’s humans talking to humans: voices to ears and voices to voices—because listeners can talk too. They can speak back. And forward. Lots of ways.
Podcasting is one way for markets to have conversations; but the podcast market itself can’t be bought or controlled, because it’s not a market. Or an “industry.” Instead, like the Web, email and other graces of open protocols on the open Internet, podcasting is all-the-way deep.
Deep like, say, language. And, like language, it’s NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. That means anybody and everybody can do wherever they want with it. It’s theirs—and nobody’s—for the taking.
Both of those are tools created by Dave Winer, alpha dad of blogging, podcasting and syndicating. Dave was half the guests on Friday evening’s opening panel. The other half was Christopher Lydon, whose own podcast, Radio Open Source, was born out of his creative partnership with Dave in the early chapters of podcasting’s Genesis, in 2003, when both were at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center.
One way you can tell nobody owns podcasting is that 1.5 decades have passed since 2003 and there are still no dominant or silo’d tools either for listening to podcasts or for making them.
On the listening side, there is no equivalent of, say, the browser. There are many very different ways to get podcasts, and all of them are wildly different as well. Remarkably (or perhaps not), the BigCo leaders aren’t leading. Instead they’re looking brain-dead.
The biggest example is Apple, which demonstrates its tin head through its confusing (and sales-pressure-intensive) iTunes app on computers and its Podcasts app, defaulted on the world’s billion iPhones. That app’s latest version is sadly and stupidly rigged to favor streaming from the cloud over playing already-downloaded podcasts, meaning you can no longer listen easily when you’re offline, such as when you’re on a plane. By making that change, Apple treated a feature of podcasting as a bug. Also dumb: a new UI element—a little set of vertical bars indicating audio activity—that seems to mean both live playing and downloading. Or perhaps neither. I almost don’t want to know at this point, since I have come to hate the app so much.
Other tools by smaller developers (e.g. Overcast) do retain the already-downloaded feature, but work in different ways from other tools. Which is cool to me, because that way no one player dominates.
On the production side there are also dozens of tools and services. As a wannabe podcaster (whose existing output is limited so far to three podcasts in twelve years), I have found none that make producing a podcast as easy as it is to write a blog or an email. (When that happens, watch out.)
So here’s a brief compilation of my gatherings, so far, in no order of importance, from the conference.
Podcasting needs an unconference like IIW (the next of which happens the first week of May in Silicon Valley): one devoted to conversation and forward movement of the whole field, and not to showcasing panels, keynotes or sponsoring vendors. One advantage of unconferences is that they’re all about what are side conversations at standard keynote-and-panel conferences. An example from my notes: Good side conversations. One is with Sovana Bailey McLain (@solartsnyc), whose podcast is also a radio show, State of the Arts. And she has a blog too. The station she’s on is WBAI, which has gone through (says Wikipedia) turmoil and change for many decades. An unconference will also foster something many people at the conference said they wanted: more ways to collaborate.
Now is a good time to start selling off over-the-air radio signals. Again from my notes… So I have an idea. It’s one WBAI won’t like, but it’s a good one: Sell the broadcast license, keep everything else. WBAI’s signal on 99.5fm is a commercial one, because it’s on the commercial part of the FM band. This NY Times report says an equivalent station (WQXR when it was on 96.3fm) was worth $45 million in 2009. I’m guessing that WBAI’s licence would bring about half that because listening is moving to Net-connected rectangles, and the competition is every other ‘cast in the world. Even the “station” convention is antique. On the Net there are streams and files:stuff that’s live and stuff that’s not. From everywhere. WBAI (or its parent, the Pacifica Foundation), should sell the license while the market is still there, and use the money to fund development and production of independent streams and podcasts, in many new ways. Keep calling the convening tent WBAI, but operate outside the constraints of limited signal range and FCC rules.
Compared to #podcasting, the conventions of radio are extremely limiting. You don’t need a license to podcast. You aren’t left out of the finite number of radio channels and confined geographies. You aren’t constrained by FCC anti-“profanity” rules limiting freedom of speech—or any FCC rules at all. In other words, you can say what the fuck you please, however you want to say it. You’re free of the tyranny of the clock, of signposting, of the need for breaks, and other broadcast conventions. All that said, podcasting can, and does, improve radio as well. This was a great point made on stage by the @kitchensisters.
Podcasting conventionally copyrighted music is still impossible. On the plus side, there is no license-issuing or controlling entity to do a deal with the recording industry to allow music on podcasts, because there is nothing close to a podcasting monopoly. (Apple could probably make such a deal if it wanted to, but it hasn’t, and probably won’t.) On the minus side, you need to “clear rights” for every piece of music you play that isn’t “podsafe.” That includes nearly all the music you already know. But then, back on the plus side, this means podcasting is nearly all spoken word. In the past I thought this was a curse. Now I think it’s a grace.
Today’s podcasting conventions are provisional and temporary. A number of times during the conference I observed that the sound coming from the stage was one normalized by This American Life and its descendants. In consonance with that, somebody put up a slide of a tweet by @emilybell:podcast genres : 1. Men going on about things. 2. Whispery crime 3.Millennials talking over each other 4. Should be 20 minutes shorter. We can, and will, do better. And other.
Maybe podcasting is the best way we have to start working out our problems with race, gender, politics and bad habits of culture that make us unhappy and thwart progress of all kinds. I say that because 1) the best podcasting I know deals with these things directly and far more constructively than anything I have witnessed in other media, and 2) no bigfoot controls it.
Archiving is an issue. I don’t know what a “popup archive” is, but it got mentioned more than once.
Podcasting has no business model. It’s like the Internet, email and the Web that way. You make money because of it, not with it. If you want to. Since it can be so cheap to do (in terms of both time and money), you don’t have to make money at it if you don’t want to.
I’ll think of more as I go over more of my notes. Meanwhile, please also dig Dave’s take-aways from the same conference.
It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.
I bring this up because yesterday my wife and I had our first less-than-ideal shared ride. To spare everyone involved, I won’t say whether it was with Uber or Lyft, or where the ride went. I will say the ride is normally around half an hour, and we’ve taken the same ride dozens of times.
First, the driver didn’t help us load our two heavy bags into the trunk of his car, which had a lot of loose crap in it.(And, to be fair, lots of shared-ride drivers have a collection of their own stuff in the trunk.) Maybe he declined because there was heavy traffic and we all needed to get a move on, or he didn’t see the bags; but let’s just say that wasn’t normal, or what drivers usually do when picking up people with sizable luggage.
Soon as we were on the road, he asked if we’d mind if he stopped at an ATM, because he needed money for tolls. Seems his EZ-Pass transponder had a problem and needed to be sent in and exchanged, so he was operating without it. We said okay and took a slow parallel highway where he hoped an ATM could be found. He eventually found one at a gas station mini-mart, but the machine had a problem that took about 20 minutes, during which we just sat in the car.
After he got the money, we found our way back to the main toll road, and eventually to our destination. At one point on the toll road I reminded him that he should get a receipt for the toll he paid in cash. At our destination he did get out of the car to help with our bags, but I had already removed them from the trunk.
The whole ride took an hour and thirty two minutes, according to the Moves app on my phone. Since it was rush hour, I’d say the ride took about 45 minutes longer than it should have.
So that’s the down side.
The upside was that he seemed to be a genuinely good guy, trying to make a living and dealing with the world. He recently moved into the area to seek work as a recording engineer: a skill he learned recently at a trade school after tiring of an earlier career as a technician for a mobile phone company. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and they are struggling to make ends meet, which is why he was felt he had to work giving rides, even though he lacked two essential conveniences: an EZ-Pass or enough cash.
He had a lot of interesting things to say about working for Uber and Lyft (he drives for both), what makes a good or a bad ride (he’s had both as a passenger), and whether telling the story of their coming baby would make a good YouTube mini-documentary or podcast. We also talked about history, architecture, culture and travel. He speaks Spanish as well as English and would like to go to Spain someday. He also apologized for the delays, and thanked me for understanding his situation. (Or situations.) And I gave him a tip. (Which I always do, at least in the U.S.)
So, while the ride itself wasn’t great, the conversation was one of the better ones I’ve had with a driver. And I wanted to support the guy’s work.
But I couldn’t not rate the guy, or I wouldn’t be able to get a receipt or book the next ride. So I gave him four stars out of five. That’s the first time I’ve given any driver less than five stars. When I clicked on the fourth star, the app said what you see in the screen shot (from my phone) above. “Okay, could be better” was about right. Still, I would much rather have said nothing—or to have sent a note to the company. Anything but giving the guy some number of stars.
And no, I don’t know a better way. I am just sure that rating people is icky, and would rather say nothing than stroke or damn somebody with a star.
I should start by admitting I shot this picture with my phone, on the subway last night. I should also admit that I was no less absorbed in my personal rectangle than everyone else on the subway (and I do mean everyone) was with theirs.
I don’t know what the other passengers were doing on their rectangles, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts.
Two years from now, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed as iPods, Sonos remotes or whatever. But will we remain just as tethered to Apple, Google, telcos and app providers as we are today? That’s the biggest question. Dependent or independent? Subject to sovereigns or self-sovereign on our own? Probably some combination of the both, but the need is for greater independence and agency for each of us.
For sure most phones will do less old-fashioned telephony and more audio, video, VR, AR, and other cool shit. Just as surely they’ll also give us whole new ways to shape and be shaped. Perhaps by then mass media will finish getting replaced by mess media.
But I have to wonder what comes after phone use spreads beyond ubiquity (when most of us have multiple rectangles). Because everything gets obsoleted. That doesn’t mean it goes away. It just means something else comes along that’s better for the main purpose, while the obsoleted media still hang around in a subordinated or specialized state. Radio did that to print, TV did it to radio, and the Net is doing it to damn near every other medium we can name, connected across its Giant Zero at approximately no cost.
So, while all our asses still sit on Earth in physical space, our digital selves float weightlessly in a non-space with no gravity or distance. This is new shit.
McLuhan says the effects of every new medium can be understood through four questions he calls a tetrad, illustrated this way:
Put a new medium in the middle and then sort effects into the four corners by answering a question for each:
What does the medium enhance?
What does the medium make obsolete?
What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?
These are posed as questions because they should help us understand what’s going on. Not so we can come up with perfect or final answers. There can be many answers to each question, all arguable.
So let’s look at smartphones. I suggest they—
Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)
I don’t think we’re all the way into any of those yet, even as every damn one of us in a subway rewires our brains in real time using rectangles that extend our presence, involvement and effects in the world. Ironies abound.
Item: New York has just begun putting up notices that claim every subway station in the city now has wi-fi and cellular service. In my own experience, this checks out. But New York is still behind London, Paris and Boston in full deployment, because there is mobile phone and data service in the tunnels under those cities and not just in the stations.
Which to me says we’re still climbing toward peak phone.
My main point, however, is that there’s still a slope down the other side. Count on it. Something will put smartphones in that lower right box.
Before we start, let me explain that ATSC 1.0 is the HDTV standard, and defines what you get from HDTV stations over the air and cable. It dates from the last millennium. Resolution currently maxes out at 1080i, which fails to take advantage even the lowest-end HDTVs sold today, which are 1080p (better than 1080i).
Your new 4K TV or computer screen has 4x the resolution and “upscales” the ATSC picture it gets over the air or from cable. But actual 4k video looks better. Sources for that include satellite TV providers (DirectTV and Dish) and streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).
In other words, the TV broadcast industry is to 4K video what AM radio is to FM. (Or what both are to streaming.)
“Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways,” Pai wrote. “Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising—ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices.”
Three questions here.
Re: personalization, will broadcasters and advertisers agree to our terms rather than vice versa? Term #1: #NoStalking. So far, I doubt it. (Not that the streamers are ready either, but they’re more likely to listen.)
How does this square with the Incentive Auction, which—if it succeeds—will get rid of most over the air TV?
What will this do for (or against) cable, which is having a helluva time wedging too many channels into its available capacities already, and do it by compressing the crap out of everything, filling the screen with artifacts (those sections of skin or ball fields that look plaid or pixelated).
Personally, I think both over the air and cable TV are dead horses walking, and ATSC 3.0 won’t save them. We’ll still have cable, but will use it mostly to watch and interact with streams, most of which will come from producers and distributors that were Net-native in the first place.
But I could be wrong about any or all of this. Either way (or however), tell me how.
We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.)
But we have it in digital media.
Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now:
Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on.
Those ads are aimed by tracking beacons planted in your phones and browsers, feeding data about your interests, likes and dislikes to robot brains that work as hard as they can to know you and keep feeding you more stuff that stokes your prejudices. Fake or not, what you’ll see is stuff you are likely to share with others who do the same. This business that pays for this is called “adtech,” also known as “interest based” or “interactive” advertising. But those are euphemisms. Its science is all about stalking. They can plausibly deny it’s personal. But it is.
The “social” idea is “markets as conversations” (a personal nightmare for me, gotta say). The business idea is to drag as many eyeballs as possible across ads that are aimed by the same kinds of creepy systems. The latter funds the former.
Rather than unpack that, I’ll leave that up to the rest of ya’ll, with a few links:
So I was on a panel at WebScience@10 in London (@WebScienceTrust, #WebSci10), where the first question asked was, “What are two aspects of ‘trust and the Web’ that you think are most relevant/important at the moment?” My answer went something like this::::
1) The Net is young, and the Web with it.
Both were born in their current forms on 30 April 1995, when the NSFnet backed off on its forbidding commercial traffic on its pipes. This opened the whole Net to absolutely everything, exactly when the graphical Web browser became fully useful.
Twenty-one years in the history of a world is nothing. We’re still just getting started here.
2) The Internet, like nature, did not come with privacy. And privacy is personal. We need to start there.
We arrived naked in this new world, and — like Adam and Eve — still don’t have clothing and shelter.
The browser should have been a private tool in the first place, but it wasn’t; and it won’t be, so long as we leave improving it mostly up to companies with more interest in violating our privacy than providing it.
Just 21 years into this new world, we still need our own clothing, shelter, vehicles and private spaces. Browsers included. We will only get privacy if our tools provide it as a simple fact.
We also need to be the first parties, rather than the second ones, in our social and business agreements. In other words, others need to accept our terms, rather than vice versa. As first parties, we are independent. As second parties, we are dependent. Simple as that. Without independence, without agency, without the ability to initiate, without the ability to obtain agreement on our own terms, it’s all just more of the same old industrial model.
In the physical world, our independence earns respect, and that’s what we give to others as a matter of course. Without that respect, we don’t have civilization. This is why the Web we have today is still largely uncivilized.
We can only civilize the Net and the Web by inventing digital clothing and doors for people, and by providing standard agreements private individuals can assert in their dealings with others.
Inventing yet another wannabe unicorn to provide “privacy as a service” won’t do it. Nor will regulating the likes of Facebook and Google, or expecting them to become interested in building protections, when their businesses depend on the absence of those protections.
Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.
In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”
But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.
What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?
Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.
All due respect, but: bah.
There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.
Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.
I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example. Hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.
Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?
Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?
Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?
Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net we do have)?
I think the answer to all of those would be no.
In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”
Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect many of us pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”
How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?
I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.
Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.
There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”
Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.
That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.
The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.
All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.
A world without distance
Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.
On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”
On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.
On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.
I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:
Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?
Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.
A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.
Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.
We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.
Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.
The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.
Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.
Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.
While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.
The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.
This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.
For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.
These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.
Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).
Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.
So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.
When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.
When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.
When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.
When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.
And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.
Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.
Terraforming The Giant Zero
William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.
So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.
Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?
Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)
Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)
Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.
Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?
The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.
I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.
If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.
This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at publius.cc on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.
At the uptown end of the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway platform there hangs from the ceiling a box with three disks on fat stalks, connected by thick black cables that run to something unseen in the downtown direction. Knowing a few things about radio and how it works, I saw that and thought, Hmm… That has to be a cell. I wonder whose? So I looked at my phone and saw my T-Mobile connection had five dots (that’s iPhone for bars), and said LTE as well. So I ran @Ookla‘s Speedtest app and got the results above.
Pretty good, no?
Sure, you’re not going to binge-watch anything there, or upload piles of pictures to some cloud, but you can at tug on your e-tether to everywhere for a few minutes. Nice to have.
So I’m wondering, @TMobile… Are those speeds the max one should expect from LTE when your local cell is almost as close as your hat?
And how long before you put these along the rest of the A/B/C/D Train routes? (The only other one I know is at 72nd, a B/C stop.) Or the rest of the subway system? In Boston too? BART? (Gotta hit all my cities.)
Meanwhile, thanks for taking care of my Main Stop in midtown.