At the onset of the Internet, the society hailed it as public redeemer. Each individual would see equal weight and power on the Internet, but as the Internet developed, it looked less the utopian technology that the world had hoped would come about. The Internet evolved out of its context of the turn of the millennia, molded by the forces of that society. At the birth of the Internet, the 60s and 70s saw huge revolutions. In “Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint, Manuel Castells outlines how the Internet is designed in the image of its time.1 The cultural shift in the value of freedom and individual autonomy influenced a new generation of inventors who embedded their ideals in the technology they developed. The result was to be a network that was scalable, flexible with an ability to reorganize itself efficiently in the image of those who would use it. In the beginning, this was mostly true. However, the Internet progressed in tandem with the global capitalist world, and many of those already in power or those who had access to the strongest computers were able to capitalize on the peer-to-peer exchanges occurring on the Internet. As the growing peer-to-peer economy becomes more hierarchical, a call to action is necessary. How can these new technologies guide greater exchange and connection in a way that produces an equal society?
WHAT PRODUCED THE UNEVEN PEER-TO-PEER ECONOMY IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Our culture teaches us to individually bear the burden of both our failures and successes rather than blame society. The pressure to choose the right path, to make our own future can become too burdensome to individuals. The Internet amplifies this, as an individual faces the many options that the modern Internet presents us, people become paralyzed, unable to make decisions. Parents, teachers, and peers teach children to “work hard, make good choices, and success and happiness will follow”. However, faced with many options, we rely more on the choices of others than our own. Are others making better more informed decisions than we are though? Not necessarily. According to Renata Selecl, the paradox of choice is a condition created when presented with a surplus of options, people become acquiescent sheep.2 The Internet theorist, Clay Shirky highlights how following others becomes intensified through the Internet. “Power law distributions tend to arise in social systems where many people express their preferences among many options. We also know that as the number of options rise, the curve becomes more extreme.” 3 The initial user of a website will recommend a site to the person who comes behind them, and this second user will influence the next user, and so on and so forth. This creates an exponential pyramid scheme based on who appears early on, or what company begins at the right place at the right time. Those who succeed in this model are not necessarily the best or most talented, but those who get in at the start. This presents a frightening future where following the trends of others could make civilization prone to mob behavior. Will we become a less critical and reflective society? Will we just wait for others to make decisions and lose our ability to formulate our own opinions and decide what is valuable? Will we blindly work for others in hopes of success finding us down the road?
Media also perpetuates this culture of self-made success. Television portrays “the best” winning fame and fortune on shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and even “Biggest Loser.” It furthers that ideal that everyone will win someday if they work to be the best. Thus, the consciousness overlooks the inequalities in society because deep down we believe extreme wealth is a fair possibility. This promotes a culture of self-
discipline and drive. We voluntarily push ourselves even though the gains are insubstantial and unfair. As society grows more passive, those already in power can more easily guide and manipulate society to support motions that keep themselves in power. We accept that people like Mark Zuckerberg deserve their positions of wealth and power because they “fairly” worked to this standing. Thus, those who have “earned” their power are now taking advantage of others’ drive.
This has been one of the greatest shocks to balance in the economy has been the seemingly innocent voluntary labor rampant in open source. The innate openness of network structure has allowed us to pool, exchange, and collaborate freely. The spread of knowledge is greater than ever. Innovation forges ahead when we cooperate. When we all work together we all benefit, right? Well, not if major corporations who help us collaborate are scraping the cream as everyone else does the majority of the work. In Nicholas Carr’s “From the Many to the Few”, he explains how larger corporations are reaping the benefit of unpaid labor. People are doing work online for the simple love of it. Companies can scale themselves at low costs because the majority of its operators are uploading content free of charge. In the words of Carr, 4 These increasing returns from scale are putting the rest of us out of business. As more work becomes available at competitive to free prices online, formally employed professionals are laid-off. Amateurs uploading content to YouTube and other online platforms self-fund their work. “They’re the directors, producers, writers, and actors, and by uploading their work to the YouTube site they’re in effect donating their labor.”4 People have innately contributed reviews and work freely for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently that it
could be pooled in a sophisticated way that allows companies to turn this free work into a product they can reap the benefit from. The network knows no bounds, so white-collar jobs spread to those willing to work free or in some cases, to countries where wages are much lower. 5 We happily contribute to what we believe is one another, while the few elite benefit from our voluntary labor, meanwhile we see any means to a livelihood wane.
Entities such as Facebook, Google and Twitter sell the idea these users are simply helping one-another as they portray themselves in the public interest. Why is it so dangerous to trust major corporations? As Astra Taylor eloquently puts it in “The People’s Platform, “When the CEO of Twitter tells users to ‘think of Twitter as a global town square,’ he elides the fact that we don’t have to click ‘agree’ on a Terms of Service, a binding contract, before entering an urban plaza.”6 Public entities cannot be trusted because they simply begin with honest and good intentions. As a private entity, the innate nature is for these entities to operate for profit, which is inherently self-interested before it is interested in the public good.
While the middle class continues to decline as more work is done free, few lucky and talented early investors benefit like kings. The common person networks with friends on Facebook, shares and finds information via Google, and sells and buys products on Amazon. Such trade would not be possible without huge masses of society using and contributing to these platforms. While the middle class diminishes, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has a net worth of $33.1 billion dollars, Eric Schmidt of Google has an $8.3 billion dollar net worth, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon has a net worth of $27.6 billion dollars. 7,8,9 This accumulation of wealth guarantees their sustained power, deciding how the world develops, which undoubtedly will be in their favor.
As the gaps grow larger between these major companies and the middle class,
the divide becomes even greater for those without access to the Internet. Only a portion of the world’s population has access to the Internet. In 2013, 61% of the world’s population was not using the Internet. 10 As the Internet replaces other modes of access, the majority of the world becomes marginalized. Nowadays, those without a computer or Internet access have greater difficulty finding and applying for jobs, keeping up with news and cultural information, and finding equal access to education that is available online.
WHY WE AREN’T DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT
If such extreme inequality exists, why has the disenfranchised majority done nothing about it? Society continues to support those already in power because of our cultural stance and the unchartered new territory we don’t know how to navigate. Options overwhelm the populace, preventing action. It seems silly to challenge the entities in power because they do not feel like an enemy to overcome. Society trusts these entities because they sell themselves as “in the public interest.” Our culture pushes us to accept these great inequalities because of the underlying ideal that those in control have earned their power. However, this is harming our own livelihood.
The success attained by those in power is a product of the hard work of millions online who are not reimbursed for the majority of their work. Many see the agency created by the Internet but fail to understand how it has been simultaneously detrimental to the majority. With a mixture of these forces at play, the uneven peer-to-peer economy seems destined to continue uninterrupted.
WHAT COULD THE FUTURE PEER-TO-PEER LOOK LIKE?
Will the current trajectory lead us to Internet tyranny or are there other scenarios that might lead us to a more egalitarian society? Reformation is possible in various ways, but it can lead us down dangerously different paths. The following hypothetical future scenarios laid out explore the outcomes of reformation proposed by prominent theorists. A plan for Internet reformation will be drawn out of an understanding of the positive and negative outcomes of these economic models. By comparing Google, one of the most influential online companies, under each of these hypothetical futures, variation between these hypothetical futures will be simpler to compare and contrast. What may be the simplest to imagine, the current model continued.
1. GOLIATH MARKET
THE CURRENT MODEL CONTINUED
What will the future look like if the current Internet model continues? Many theorists would gladly see this happen. For theorists like Chris Anderson, the Internet has helped propel the market in a positive direction. Major companies that have sprung up online are able to provide countless choices in the products they offer, filling the niches of the market. In this prime example, Anderson explains how the corner video store was forced to only offer big hit mainstream movies because it has to pay for shelf space and thus must offer what is most profitable and desirable by the majority of the public. For those that are able to offer products online, shelf space is non-existent or in inexpensive locations, and thus online companies can fill the market with a plethora of choices the market hasn’t seen before. “With no shelf space to pay for and, in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees, a miss sold is just another sale, with the same margins as a hit. A hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability.” 11
As the online market produces greater niches, the amount of options and innovation will surely rise. Companies with major start-up investors will provide commodities for close to nothing or free. Services like video and phone calls will become completely free, as platforms are able to make money off of user loyalty. The general public will see huge advantages to the wide array of luxuries created from this. Major mergers of existing large companies will provide the world with low cost options. As companies like Google and Amazon merge into a Googlezon, new benefits could spring out of their gained power. The efficient logistical side of Amazon paired with the coding of Google’s extensive city information could produce a burst of innovation. The development of a drone delivery system will change the routines of everyday life, allowing products to come to us on demand, rather than us venturing out to stores. The one click purchase feature will progress. Algorithms will detect your buying habits in order to speculate what you want to buy and lift the chore of making weekly shopping trips. Instead groceries and other repeated purchases will just show up in our cupboards. The advancement of Googlezon’s online security system will develop home security that is congruent with consumers’ online security. Access to houses and buildings will be further secured and flexible as doors open only for authorized visitors, i.e. friends, members, or drones delivering packages. The scale of these new companies will lead to polished content that is less prone to glitches or viruses. Large companies will be eager to keep their customers loyal, as long as competition exists.
Of course, major mergers do not come without their flaws. If Amazon and Google merge into a Googlezon, they will further curate search results to promote the consumption of their products. Self-promoting propaganda may be all we see. After a time, Googlezon and other large companies will take advantage of their monopolies. As the market lacks competition, companies will charge more for less. Prices on everyday items and services will be driven up. The pressure to innovate will decline. When mapping out a route to a friend’s house Googlezon will reroute you noting places you may enjoy based on your previous searches. Routes would be curated to maximize the likelihood of purchases that will benefit Googlezon. Of course, Googlezon will only suggest places that have paid to advertise with their company. Companies not advertising through Googlezon will struggle to survive as they become invisible online. Drones will render many stores obsolete, as products sold through this online exchange are less expensive and easier to access. This will create an even larger divide in power.
For the user experience, those who are better endowed will have the option to pay for a premium Googlezon experience where the user is less bombarded by advertisement. Those who cannot pay for this luxury will be kept poor as they struggle to make equally productive use of the Internet. The company will continue to invest in laying high-speed fiber optic cables in neighborhoods that lobby for these improvements. Those lobbying will likely be those with higher economic status, further pushing the economic gaps in society. Algorithms that qualify who you are based on your search results will further compartmentalize and polarize society. The separation between sponsored and unsponsored content will grow impossible to read, as Facebook disguises advertisements as suggestions from a user’s friends. As phone providers struggle to compete on this market, deals between online platforms and these service providers could come about. Sprint may strike a deal with Spotify, Facebook and a number of other platforms allowing its users to use these “channels” free of any data charges. Free choice would be further monopolized in this market as users are forced to choose the monopolies that already exist in order to save money on their cell phone or Internet plans.12 Googlezon and companies like it will hold immense political power, lobbying for greater deregulation of the market that will promise their continued throne at the top of the market pyramid.
We are able to consume a wider variety that is more responsive to what the people may want, but we are less capable of contributing or producing in competition with these titans. Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” is an entrepreneurial guide for the select few CEO’s who have the capital and capability to tackle entire sectors of the market under one roof. The rest of society doesn’t have the capability to offer content for free in order to compete with these goliaths.
2. THE COMMONS
A PUBLIC COMMODITY MODEL
“It’s time to recognize the Internet as a basic human right.” - Sir Tim Berners-Lee13
To theorists like Astra Taylor, the Internet should see more public forms where private sectors are currently taking over. “Google Books is a perfect example of what media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan calls ‘public failure,’ a situation where private actors perform services for gain that would be better left to the public sector. Vaidhyanathan has proposed something called the Human Knowledge Project, a government-led effort to create a truly global online library aimed at ‘satiating curiosity,’ not ‘facilitating consumption.’” 14 To these theorists, it is the role of the government to step in the way
and guard as well as invest in the Internet as a public resource. “’Clearly, we should not trust Google to be the custodian of our most precious cultural and scientific resources. Without firm regulations a truly competitive market, or a competing project, we have no recourse in the event of sub-standard performance or malfeasance by the company.’” 14 Simply funding an online public library will not be enough to even the playing field. To these theorists, the public should benefit from the majority of platforms turned to public entities. Americans have been hesitant to hand over anything in the technological sector to the government. There is a general mistrust that the government can operate anything in the technological sector efficiently. The government has been prone to long bureaucratic processes that aren’t conducive to innovation and the speed expected by Internet users. Further mistrust of how government will use the publics’ information has further stunted the government’s involvement. To Taylor, this is overly skeptical as the potential benefits are immense. Further, the government doesn’t need to be the only entity running these platforms. To Taylor large online companies like Google and Amazon should be pushed to become not-for-profit or B-corporations in order to guarantee their interest in the public good over their own self-interest. As companies like Google are pushed to become B-corporations, the shape of the Internet will drastically change the future. A Google search won’t promote results of companies that are paying for advertisement but rather will produce results that are most relevant to what the user is trying to find. As companies shift their focus to public interest content will become less consumer-driven and geared towards more productive knowledge. This shift will allow for a market that is more level as government regulation helps encourage small company growth. Working standards for Google and Amazon employees will rise as regulations for humane working conditions overtake the drive for inexpensive products. Current Chinese companies like Foxconn who manufacture a wide range of electronics such as the iPhone, Kindle, and the Wii, noted for their poor working conditions, will be forced to offer better wages and safer facilities. Foxconn and companies like it have been referred to as labor camps for poor wages, long hours, and worker suicides. As the Internet is mandated as a public resource opportunities will be brought to large populations that had little access to the Internet. Free public Wi-Fi will be provided in public spaces throughout cities and towns. Tax dollars will help fund this infrastructure as a resource as important as the public library system. This will help level opportunity between the upper and middle class and poor communities who currently lack easy access to the Internet. This newly elevated demographic will boost the economy as education and access rises.
Although gaining a new educated demographic, with a growing public Internet sector, the economy may suffer overall. A growth in publicly geared companies will lessen competition. Innovation will become less of a priority for these companies as competition softens. For platforms operating similar to the government, bureaucratic processes could slow companies’ efficiency. As a B-corporation, Google will have to follow environmental-protection protocol before developing a new server location. They will have to perform more surveys and research about how a product will impact the public. This lack of efficiency will stunt the economy. Better working conditions for employees will mean higher prices on items and services they offer. Overall personal debt could increase through higher taxes. As the government holds the reins on the Internet, it may be more likely to abuse its access to private information. A big brother future seems frighteningly probable in this scenario. Currently “under the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, all phone calls and broadband Internet traffic (emails, web traffic, instant messaging, etc.) are required to be available for unimpeded real-time monitoring by Federal law enforcement agencies.” 15 With more access to Internet platforms will the government go even further? With any concentration of power, abuse of that power will most certainly take hold. If the government gains too great of control over the Internet, it could be used for the gains of those in office.
3. THE MICROPAYMENT
A POINTILLIZED SYSTEM
While some theorists believe the current model isn’t broken, and others hope regulation and government involvement will help level the Internet, theorists like Jaron Lanier propose instilling a micropayment system online. For Lanier the fundamental issue of the Internet is that information cannot simply be free because it takes real people real labor in order to accumulate, create, and share information. Lanier criticizes these larger entities like Google and Amazon that are taking advantage of those who donate their labor. This system’s main goal is to break apart power to create a pluralistic and diverse system in order to distribute wealth and power accumulation. Lanier fears the Internet is creating a conformist culture through these online monopolies. “Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavour of person-hood. MySpace preserved some of that flavour, though a process of regularized formatting had begun.
Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other forms.” 16
To Lanier, micropayments would help promote individuality on the Internet. Thinkers of the past have also hoped for more distributed power in a similar grassroots fashion. To Colin Ward pushing for smaller modes of self-organization would enable individuals to participate in the development of society, empowering individuals.
Users would be paid in tiny increments for every bit of labor they performed online, i.e. writing an article, changing a sentence on Wikipedia, or even updating a status on Facebook. Through the micropayment system, the new distributed power would take wealth from large entities such as Google and Facebook and disperse the wealth into the hands of those creating this content. This would help propel healthy competition online. Other social platforms and even individual promotional websites would come to replace the singular monopoly of Facebook. Various search engines would compete with Google, providing various specific benefits. In a pointillized system, uniqueness and innovation would be rampant. As information and the development of bits becomes a livelihood for many, entrepreneurialism will increase. Many will be able to leave their traditional jobs for self-made jobs online. As people are awarded to pursue their passions on a collaborative interface, many will innovate alone or with others across the web. The micropayment system will make payment based specifically on the content a user chooses to view and use allowing for a range in prices from very cheap to highly expensive. Privacy will increase as various users aren’t forced to abide by the laws of current platforms that make sharing of user information a mandate.
Grassroot culture, although unique, is oftentimes overly romanticized. This micropayment model could produce an Internet full of unpolished content. Many may be encouraged to create their own websites without larger free entities to host them on something curated. The outcome could have the reverse effect of empowerment for
many. Disabling many without the capital to hire specialized help. These unpolished websites could simultaneously struggle to compete with skilled and curated labor online. This could however encourage individuals to find ways to contribute to existing platforms in exchange for help from those who have the skills they themselves lack. The cost of transactions in a micropayment model could make many micropayments inefficient. Furthermore, information handled by and between smaller entities could be less secure. The monetization of every aspect of online culture could prevent people from sharing in a more free and cooperative way.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
As each hypothetical future is understood, it presents its own new series of problems. No utopian model yet exists for the Internet, and most likely never will. Because of this, the inherent issues prevalent in each of these systems should be recognized and weighed for their opportunity costs. Large online corporations must be held accountable for their actions. Allowed to run their own course, it is only a matter of time before one of these goliaths misuses their power, or inadvertently collapses the market when it faces its own issues. “Too big to fail” no longer makes society feel safe, so these large monopolies must be broken up by the people and the government in order keep the system bio-diverse, plural and safe. Companies using open-source resources need to pay these open-source laborers potentially through a micropayment system. Companies should be pushed into the public realm where the interest of the public could see more benefit from companies turning into not-for-profit or B-corporations. Companies dealing in information should be especially pushed to make a switch. As copyrights expire information should be held in the commons, and those trying to profit off of this information should be stopped. Government entities must remain transparent. The people must demand this. Finally, micropayment systems are largely untested. These systems should be explored in sections of the Internet. A cultural shift must take place that recognizes that the masses do the majority of work on the Internet. We must push to appreciate the individual authors of large collective projects in order to save notions of author biases and retain that information comes at a cost.
1. Manuel Castells, “Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In Castells, ed. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004), 3-45.
2. Salecl, Renata. The Tyranny of Choice. Pbk. ed. London: Profile, 2011.
3. Shirky, Clay. “Shirky: Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.” Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet. February 8, 2003. Accessed December 11, 2014.
4. Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 137. 5. Nicholas Carr, “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 140
6. Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. 221.
7. Pilkington, Ed (March 10, 2011). “Forbes rich list: Facebook six stake their claims”. The Guardian (UK). Retrieved March 30, 2011.
8. “Google’s Eric Schmidt talks about how to run the world (not that he wants to)”. Los Angeles Times.
9. Jeff Bezos Now Worth $32.3 Billion”. Forbes. October 28, 2014. Retrieved October 28, 2014.
10. “Key ICT indicators for developed and developing countries and the world (totals and penetration rates)”, International Telecommunications Unions (ITU), Geneva, 27 February 2013
11. “The Long Tail .” Wired 12.10: The Long Tail. October 1, 2004. Accessed December 12. Abbruzzese, Jason. “The Internet’s Nightmare Scenario Could Be Playing Out on Your Smartphone.” Mashable. August 4, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014. http://mashable.com/2014/08/04/wireless-dystopian-future-of-the-internet/.
13. Press, Sylvia. “Web Inventor Says Internet Should Be ‘Human Right’” ABC News. December 11, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/web-inventor-internet-human-27514947.
14. Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. 220.
16, 2014. http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html.
15. “CALEA Archive -- Electronic Frontier Foundation”.Electronic Frontier Foundation (website). Retrieved 2009-03-14
16. Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.