Internet Fundamentals

What fundamental principle is the Internet built on? Is the Internet a mass of content or a mass of connections?

The other day I was talking to a friend about how hundreds of years ago the problem was the inavailability of information.  Books were precious items that contained the secrets of religions and governments, and oral news was available only when a traveler came to town with stories of distant events.

Over the past centuries, the amount of available information has been growing at an exponential rate and the problem has not become scarcity of knowledge, but rather organization and application of knowledge.  The internet is simply one of the more recent developments along this trajectory, but presumably in the centuries to come the internet too will be surpassed by new tools.

The internet is not built on a single fundamental principle any more than books are.  However, the internet is an important development in the democratization of knowledge, communication, cultural production, and more.  With the increasing ease that people can share and communicate, a new set of problems has arisen:

1 – Everyone Shouting, No One Listening

In the early days of the internet, people seemed to operate under the Field of Dreams principle, that “If you build it, they will come.”  People would upload videos to YouTube, post blog entries, and create websites with the assumption that others would magically find it and pay attention.  We still see this today in schools all the time: teachers post student videos to YouTube, and students upload blog entries, intending to reach a ‘global audience’ but in fact probably receiving fewer views than if they had just presented it to their class.

The fundamental problem is that there is more information, more entertainment, and more content than anyone could possibly absorb, so we all find ways to filter out some content and pay attention to other.  One of the most valuable commodities in the modern world is people’s attention, so finding ways of attracting and holding that attention is part of 21st century problem solving.  This is as true for HBO and Hollywood as it is for all the YouTubers who try to reach 1000 views.

2 – Freedom of Information

Another problem that has escalated dramatically with internet access, particularly high-speed access, is ownership of knowledge. Both patent law and copyright law are struggling today to find a model that makes sense within a rapidly shifting world.  The heart of the problem is that the cost ratio between creating content and distributing it has radically shifted.  In the days of oral narratives and storytelling, every performance was a unique, the time involved in reproducing it was equal to the cost of creating it in the first place.  When books were all hand-written, the cost of transcribing a new copy was enormous.

Now, with digital technologies able to reproduce books, music, video at virtually no cost, the rules have all changed.  In addition, nearly all productions are part of collaborative projects with fuzzy borders and uncertain authorship.  This global collaboration has been helped us solve previously impossible problems, but it has also brought into question the whole global economic model.

Rather than relying on selling actual things, many companies (eg. Google) are simply selling advertising and audience.  And yet for every advertising tool created, there are also tools built to block or disable them, from AddBlock+ to TiVo.  Most people acknowledge that if companies didn’t make any money, they would go out of business, and yet many today act as if anything that can be distributed for free should be.

The internet is not simply a mass of content, nor is it a simply mass of connections.  The connections between people have generated unprecedented amounts of information, and that information has in turn attracted, entertained, enlightened, and dumbed-down new people.  Like most phenomena that involve large numbers of people, the causes and principles underlying it are as complex as the people themselves.