The Unusual Evolution of the Internet

The Internet we have today evolved out of improbability. It shouldn’t have happened like it did. It evolved as a wide-open network forged by starry-eyed academics and geeks who really believed it might make the world better. It wasn’t supposed to win against walled gardens like Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL — but it did. If you rolled back the clock, knowing what we know now, you could be sure it would never play out the same way again.

To use the same analogy that Eric Raymond did in his now-famous essay on the development of Linux, these were people who believed in bazaars rather than cathedrals. The internet was cobbled together to scratch an intellectual and ethical itch, rather than a financial one.

But today, as this essay in The Atlantic by Jonathan Zittrain warns us, the core of the internet is rotting. Because it was built by everyone and no one, all the superstructure that was assembled on top of that core is teetering. Things work, until they don’t: “The internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks.”

The problem is, it’s no one’s job to make sure those bricks stay in place.

Zittrain talks about the holes in humanity’s store of knowledge. But there’s another thing about this evolution that is either maddening or magical, depending on your perspective: It was never built with a business case in mind.

Eventually, commerce pipes were retrofitted into the whole glorious mess, and billions managed to be made. Google alone has managed to pull over a trillion dollars in revenue in less than 20 years by becoming the de facto index to the world’s most haphazard library of digital stuff. Amazon went one better, using the Internet to reinvent humanity’s marketplace and pulling in $2 trillion in revenue along the way.

But despite all this massive monetization, the benefactors still at least had to pay lip service to that original intent: the naïve belief that technology could make us better, and  that it didn’t just have to be about money.

Even Google, which is on its way to posting $200 billion in revenue, making it the fifth biggest media company in the world (after Netflix, Disney, Comcast, and AT&T), stumbled on its way to making a buck. Perhaps it’s because its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, didn’t trust advertising. In their original academic paper, they said that “advertising-funded search engines will inherently be biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.”  Of course they ultimately ended up giving in to the dark side of advertising. But I watched the Google user experience closely from 2003 to 2011, and that dedication to the user was always part of a delicate balancing act that was generally successful.

But that innocence of the original Internet is almost gone, as I noted in a recent post. And there are those who want to make sure that the next thing — whatever it is — is built on a framework that has monetization built in. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg is feverishly hoping that his company can build the foundations of the Metaverse. It’s why Google is trying to assemble the pipes and struts that build the new web. Those things would be completely free of the moral — albeit naïve — constraints that still linger in the original model. In the new one, there would only be one goal: making sure shareholders are happy.

It’s also natural that many of those future monetization models will likely embrace advertising, which is, as I’ve said before, the path of least resistance to profitability.

We should pay attention to this. The very fact that the Internet’s original evolution was as improbable and profit-free as it was puts us in a unique position today. What would it look like if things had turned out differently, and the internet had been profit-driven from day one? I suspect it might have been better-maintained but a lot less magical, at least in its earliest iterations.

Whatever that new thing is will form a significant part of our reality. It will be even more foundational and necessary to us than the current internet. We won’t be able to live without it. For that reason, we should worry about the motives that may lie behind whatever “it” will be.

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