Monday, January 23, 2012
The Great Internet Blackout
"This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud." For people who grew up at a certain time with a thick glowing monitor casting light on their faces these were the closing words of their own Declaration of Independence. For those people the internet was not a layout of graphics and flash videos blaring from every website, but amalgams of text. The internet before the internet was an elitist place, like Linux, it was part puzzle and part love of taking intangible things apart and putting them back together again.
Like most revolutionaries they were doomed to be made irrelevant by the consequences of the forces that they had set in motion. The curiosity that was their code of honor has been overtaken by the world that they helped open up. And that world is an amazing place. Freedom of information is no longer an idealistic slogan, it's a commonplace reality. So commonplace that it's hardly worth mentioning. People once fought and died to protect libraries. Now you can take every single library within a hundred miles of where you live, whether it's a metropolis or a small town, and dangle it from the end of your keychain as a flash drive. Books, articles, vast troves of information, even classified diplomatic cables. Everything is available.
While the back ends of the system have become more complex, the end user experience has become trivially simple. With the iPad and the Kindle Fire, and Android and Windows 8 spreading the experience across generic tablets, the user experience comes down to touching the screen of a locked down system which is actually a disguised storefront to sell the user content through a carefully controlled, but fun to use environment. That is an overstatement, but it's also the trend. It has been a long journey, but we finally have the technology that movies told us to expect wrapped in a simple package without any of the depth or complexity. Without most of the freedom that was at the core of how the technology got started.
The economics of the internet are based around it as a vehicle for the delivery of goods and services. That transformation is slowly destroying American retail, it is doing so at a snail's place as big box retailers struggle to adapt, but the shopping mall and the big box store are still dinosaurs and their day is swiftly coming. Retailers who sold anything that can be digitized and delivered over the internet are already gone. Music stories, video rental places and now bookstores are vanishing into the past. An era when we get many of our goods out of CAD/CAM printers is not entirely inconceivable.
Virgin, Blockbuster and Borders have been sucked into the vortex as the middlemen in the marketplace that the marketplace no longer needed. The megacorporations which actually produce the songs, movies and books have been making their last stand since the nineties and their last stand invariably involves lawyers and lobbyists, rather than intelligently adapting to the marketplace. It is hard to feel sorry for these massive behemoths stomping and roaring about, bellowing about thievery everywhere. They have a point, but they are so thoroughly unsympathetic in their character and conduct that it is a point which no one but congressmen listen to.
The new middlemen of the internet distribute access to the content by filtering it through search engines, email social media networks while charging advertisers for access to their trove of passing eyeballs and the data that comes with them. Some of these giants actually sell digital content, but mostly they make money from the internet as a shopping mall. They don't need to run the stores, though they do run some of them, all they need to do is sell ad space to stores who want to pitch their products to the customers looking for the store they want or where they parked or the nearest bathroom.
The SOPA/PIPA debate is not really about the freedom of the internet. It's a battle between massive corporations seeking to protect their own interests. The megacorporations who create content want to empower law enforcement to go after content theft. The megacorporations who sell ads don't care if the content they are selling ads around is legitimate or not. This is naked self-interest and greed on both sides and neither side looks particularly pretty. Neither set of corporate combatants cares if the internet is "free" or not. Neither actually believe in a free internet. The difference between a Time Warner and a Google is the way they go about making money from the internet.
There's plenty of hypocrisy to go around on both sides. Time Warner, not too long ago, got together with some of the same "Save the Internet" lobbyists to legalize content theft, so long as the people being stolen from were small time. The Orphan Works Act united big content corporations and free internet activists and if you ever wrote or drew anything without obvious copyright attached to it, then your work is one of those orphans.
On the other side the corporations which are blase about content from entertainment corporations being distributed online, react quite differently when it's their own source code being leaked. It's fine when someone else's information is free and can be used to sell ads on YouTube. It's fine when classified diplomatic cables are leaked and distributed while they sell ads on the sidebar. But when it's their source code, then that's a bridge too far.
Finally to the left of them is a free internet lobby which insists that intellectual property shouldn't exist and that actually giving content creators rights is just a barrier to creativity. Creativity being other people remixing their content. They have plenty of points, but the largest point that weighs against them is simple enough. People choosing to contribute their content copyright free to a creative community is a beautiful thing, while people being compelled to work for free by having their content stolen is slavery.
A world in which creating content has diminishing returns is a world with diminishing content. We are already entering that world now. A world where the content consumed has been chewed over, remixed and turned out again. Where few new things are being made, but a great many old things are being used as ironic commentary. Entertainment has become meta-entertainment, language is a code, everything comments on itself and on the absurdity of life and on the absurdity of its own structure. It may be art, but it's the art of a decadent and dying culture which mocks itself because it no longer believes in itself.
The old hackers are also a fading myth. The new black hat hacker is not an explorer, he uses tools that someone else made to make money or for pure malice wrapped in absurdist clothing, which for all its pretensions is nothing more than the gangs of A Clockwork Orange with a keyboard. If the old viruses were at least made out of some degree of curiosity, today's malware is a mostly for profit tool. It's another extension of the ubiquitous advertising that is splattered over every website everywhere, no matter how trivial or serious. And when it isn't done for profit, then it's done for the sheer thrill of being able to hurt and humiliate others.
The old elitist idea that the world of cables pumping bytes in and out of cathode ray monitors would lead to a world where knowledge mattered more than anything else was not entirely wrong, but like most elitist ideas it failed to take into account what would happen when the world migrated to their little utopia.
The internet is a forum for corporate land-grabbing and range wars, which is what SOPA is really about. It's a forum for international wars to be fought in its darker territories. It is a place where nations, causes and terrorist groups spread their propaganda. Where criminals and gangs run free. It is not a self-regulated society. It is a loosely regulated corporate run anarchy backed by some laws. Given time that will change. The last two years when the internet became a tool for overthrowing governments and leaking classified information wholesale have made that inevitable. It is not a question of if it will happen, but when and how.
The corporations who have lined up to fight for internet freedom will not object so long as it does not affect their business model. Their lobbyists have probably already been thinking of various plans that will address the problem. But the temporary gatekeepers are also a passing phase. As control of the internet leaves American hands, it will pass into the hands of alliances of governments which do not believe in freedom of speech or political freedom. And which do not have a Silicon Valley lobby knocking at their door.
Ignorance has been the only delay as politicians have spent a generation nodding sagely about computers being the future, and then the internet being the future. And no one wanted to stand in the way of the future. Newer generations of politicians will not crack down because the MPAA or the RIAA or some other content publishers lobby them to. They will have grown up with the internet, but with no commitment to freedom of speech. They will have come out of an environment where any forum that is not controlled becomes intolerable. And they will crack down.
The internet has changed our society, but our society has also change the internet. It is a reflection of the best of what we can do, but also the worst. The freedom that we have today may also be a passing phase, like places where you could go rent a video at 12 o'clock in the morning and modems heavy enough to be used as doorstops. In pushing the technology to the limits, we have also pushed ourselves to the limits, and it is only a matter of time before we surrender the power to the authorities to push back.