How we gained control — and gave everything away
Most of today’s news on internet, technology, social media and likewise, is dominated by an extraordinary sequence of fast-forward updates, startups (the new Twitter slash Facebook slash Google), lame vietnamese birds or the extraordinary sums of money spent on takeovers and merges — and all in the blink of an eye.
At its best, todays events (because that’s what they are) are an ideal hyperbolic roller coaster ride for early adopters, VC’s — and everyone else who was very good at maths.
I suck at maths but I like the roller coaster ride. Yet there is an attitude towards the new and futuristic that often seems short sighted. This has its advantages (when you hunch down when walking you see more of the pavement you travel; with all its intriguing patterns, ant tracks and chewing gum residue), but a little more upright position gives a very different perspective on things.
First things first — and they were BIG
When we take a look back at the very juvenile history of automisation (and in a smaller perspective that of the internet), I see at the start that machines as big as war vessels needed a huge amount of power to perform one thing — and one thing only. Over and over again, the steam train, for example, needed a lot of heat to move a heavy object from A to B on a straight line. And then back again. That’s basically it.
When we take a look at the ﬁrst computers, a similar image occurs. Lots of power (and wires) to perform an over-seeable set of tasks. Neat. Through time, it evolved to a calculator-on-speed with a nifty screen, a handy steering device (the mouse) and a control center within reach (keyboard). So, instead of shouting to the operator to switch pin A to B, we now press keys.
Yes, we’ve come a long way…
What went wrong
And then, the interwebs arrive. Now we don’t have to move objects from A to B, we simply pretend to do that by moving bits. It’s called virtualisation. And because we believe in this virtual reality (that through technology is almost indistinguishable from the real world), it works.
At least, it’s making the shipping of actual stuff around the world coming in our own reach. With four clicks I can send an old steam train from Scotland to Hawaii, or guns from the States to Kabul, or toys from Denmark to Santa Claus, North Pole.
All this does not only gives me comfort (and some interesting bank statements), it also and foremost gives me the sensation of control. And that feels good. Very. Good!
Pay or perish
Back to the internet. In the early days of Mozaic and Netscape, you needed a couple of things to get online.
1. A machine that could handle a browser.
2. A device that functions like a telephone, but only talks in strange sounds, bits and bytes.
3. Some kind of organization that made sure that your internet box was connected with his brothers and sisters around the globe. (Yes, kids, that’s the provider.)
Within the machine you had to deal with different operating systems, different versions of operating systems, different hard drives, different processors and — of course — very different software. Hard and software were like water and oil: you needed a lot of batting to make sure it worked all the time, not even the way it was supposed to work (a vain idée fixe) but how it could work for you on a good day. One new installation of some kind of software or hardware and you could start all over from scratch. And you needed an impressive collections of adaptors, wires and other connecting devices. Nostalgic were the days of wasting materials.
For this kind of systems we paid serious money. That’s how Microsoft got big. IBM. SAP. Apple. Oracle. And they just got bigger.
This system of pushing producers of systems and software was a business gold mine. The user had to constantly adapt (whether he liked it or not) to the new thingy and he also had to pay for it. Otherwise, his old crappy stuff would stop working. An offer that appeared to be pretty hard to refuse, right?
And then there was Google: Free. No strings attached. Or so it seemed. As a small, gentle company it hardly appeared to be the dauphine of the evil hardware kings. With a simple but extremely effective business model, Google showed the new way of making money on internet: Use me. Use my data. See some ads and ‘Oh, yes (almost forgot, sorry) — can we get to see some of the info you share on your websites so that other people also see that vital information? Please? You don’t have to pay for it. Thank you, you’re too kind.’
You don’t have to pay for it. Right. There is no such thing as a free piece of content. And yes, we are too kind. We actually put a lot of effort thus money in being indexed by Google. And we do that voluntarily. We provide tons of content to achieve that someone somewhere over the rainbow sees it, likes it and — hopefully — acts on it. The only one that is actually making money whatever content the content, is Google.
Imagine a newspaper in which all contributions are published. Whether it is a missing cat, a controversial Super Bowl clip, recipes for peanut butter and broccoli, the world news headlines, sports, events, birthday’s, moods, opinions and the occasional cute puppy. Everyone gets a free subscription. Advertisers are queueing up to put ads in this newspaper. It becomes very popular — duh!
Its popularity takes on grotesque proportions; people and businesses are actually paying to get their stuff published. They are even prepared to share their most intimate data with the newspaper. To gain a better position to make it to the front page. The newspaper grows and keeps growing. The revenues likewise. And all the money goes to the publisher. Who gets free, abundant content. With advertisers who pay big money. Sounds familiar?
Of course, your most intimate information and daily events in live are not suited for newspapers. These are reserved for small talk at the vendor machine, a nice bench in the park, the telephone, bedroom, kitchen, car. Look here, my Johnny’s first steps! What if we should use the same model of the successful newspaper — but we don’t call it a newspaper. We call it a, hm, let’s see, a kind of a ‘face’ book. Just like in college. Sound familiar?
In essence: the internet nowadays is dominated by a new breed of publishers. Publishers who get all their content at least for free (at best heavily paid), with advertising possibilities that make big data into big bugs, whose subscriptions are free, with a small, minor condition: deliver all your personal belongings — every time you consume the content.
Sure, there are no strings attached. That’s because you are the string.
Morphing the media
So we share, we like, we search, we publish, we optimize, we tweet, pin, post and snap with with astonishing speed and frequency. And, technology evolves at the same warp-speed, we get to mould our lives with these publishers and all the devices that mainly make it easy to publish anytime anywhere anything. Enter smartphone. Enter apps.
With these apps (whether they are device based e.g. weather app on phone or site-based such as ‘neat’ Facebook apps) we can personalize our digital parallel lives. Every site, program, app or device we can adjust to our personal needs. A nice background color, a ﬁne-tuned privacy setting, ﬁngerprint access — we take control. And we take it back from the bad boys who gave us too many cables for machines that didn’t listen to our needs, for too much money. We can get all this now for free. And so we do.
We can choose from millions apps, settings, devices and mould them to our very own need. We are morphing the media to the perfect ﬁt.
It is not only content, the huge amount of data that is released and revealed when you open an app makes any privacy optimist pretty humble and very pessimistic. Combined with the fact that publishers like Facebook are slowly taking over the browser function (how many times do you actually leave Facebook when you click a link or watch a Youtube), it is only a matter of time that these big data result in (commercial) proﬁles that gives a better description of the you than any good conversation with all your family, friends, foes and colleagues ever can give.
The funny part (call it my morbid sense of humor) of this exportation of data or live is we almost all have the idea that we have only gained more freedom, more individuality. And more control. Lots of control. Our ideal media experience is a continuously ﬂuid access to information, fun, interconnectivity, ’togetherness’. The tools that are given are mostly free, because the suppliers know that every time the tool is used, data is generated. Data means money, even if some data seems completely irrelevant. For now. Because they also know the future: big data means big money.
Of course, there is no way back and that is not the point. But sometimes it can be useful to look up from the pavement, look over your shoulder and far ahead. You don’t need an app for that and it gives you something good in return: genuine control — no strings attached.