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October 1, 2013 8:59 AM   Subscribe

"Twenty years after people began using the web en masse, it’s time, Williams said, to accept that the internet isn’t a magical universe with boundless potential. It’s just another engine for improving quality of life." Twitter, Blogger and Medium founder Evan Williams on the triumphs and dangers of convenience.
posted by Potomac Avenue (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mefi's own evhead.
posted by Jpfed at 9:07 AM on October 1, 2013


also time to stop equating the web with the internet.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:08 AM on October 1, 2013 [14 favorites]


It's true, I suppose, but remember how much fun it was when it seemed like it was a magical universe? That first decade was really great; I'm glad I was there to experience it.
posted by briank at 9:09 AM on October 1, 2013 [23 favorites]


"Getting rich online" is the problem. The internet could have been something more, but the web is ownable, and so it has been owned.

It sounds weird these days to talk about "something more" than merely making money, but making money is so... boring. People have always been making money; it's nothing new or exciting. But the idea that you could accomplish big things without having to build a business model around them, now, that's truly interesting. In that regard the free software world has been much more successful than the web itself.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:26 AM on October 1, 2013 [17 favorites]


To underscore how old-timey the internet is: a couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a (typical American) teenager who had never heard of the internet. A short investigation uncovered that in his mind, there are facebook, google and various mobile apps but no "internet".
posted by rada at 9:40 AM on October 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


I long for an alternative to the internet that involves some sort of text-based social networking that is more structured than IRC and email. I fear that we can't go home again.
posted by mecran01 at 9:48 AM on October 1, 2013


text-based social networking that is more structured than IRC and email

I mean, I think mobile+twitter answers this desire pretty well right?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:52 AM on October 1, 2013


Mars Saxman: Indeed. I met someone recently who shared an interesting idea about how to improve civil discourse online. I suggested that I didn't really see a good way to make money out of it, but no fear, it could always be done as a charity or non-profit, and that such organisations could still (potentially) afford to pay decent salaries to its workers, like Mozilla does.

Unfortunately this fellow had been fatally infected by the 'hackers gotta make money' virus, and kept on returning to the idea that maybe he should go to VCs, maybe there was a way to sell services to advertising companies, etc. I said that doing such things would compromise the entire ideal of what he was trying to do, a little bit like if Wikipedia started putting up sponsored pages. But there was no convincing him, and I believe nothing was made in the end.
posted by adrianhon at 9:57 AM on October 1, 2013


I’ve never understood the "magical" part. Amazing and impressive? Certainly. The internet is an extension of the phone and various other technologies. I’ve always been baffled by how so many people see things as being totally different if they’re on a computer and/or the internet. There’s really not that much different happening than there ever was, just faster and more convenient.
posted by bongo_x at 10:03 AM on October 1, 2013


from the article: “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease. In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think"

The convenience of what the internet gives me access to on request is amazing and I couldn't imagine ever going back to a time of not having it. But part of me misses that period of not having access to an answer and my brain kicking into overfrive trying to come up with my own answers, alternative ideas, and hairbrained theories. A lot of great things happened between a question formulating and me walking into a library or bookstore.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:10 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Step 1: Create technology that seems like magic
Step 2: Absorb that technology so completely that it becomes commonplace
Step 3: Repeat
posted by gwint at 10:10 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


it's certainly magic to the degree that set free so much that was trapped, stagnant, beholden to moribund processes, technology and systems of control in the pre-web days.

Simple example. A musician can now release and distribute their material without having anything to do with the toxic inner workings of the music biz. And yeah, it was vilely toxic even back in 1990. There's no guarantee of revenue, but one's stuff can now proliferate without the direct involvement of Satin and his minions. Taken for granted now, but magical thinking back then.
posted by philip-random at 10:15 AM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


A musician can now release and distribute their material without having anything to do with the toxic inner workings of the music biz.

People have always done that. Most of the time very few people heard their music though. Just like today.
posted by bongo_x at 10:22 AM on October 1, 2013


I think Ev is holding back. I think he really wants to say "People generally suck, and if they want to spend their time flinging virtual feces at each other, well you might as well make some money off of that activity."

I might feel the same way if I was culpable in the existence of Follow Friday.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2013


... without the direct involvement of Satin and his minions.

His lustrous, silken minions...
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


the internet is still a pretty magical place if you can manage to avoid Twitter and Facebook.
posted by any major dude at 10:45 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's true, I suppose, but remember how much fun it was when it seemed like it was a magical universe? That first decade was really great; I'm glad I was there to experience it.


I've... browsed things you people wouldn't believe... Bomis rings of X-Files fan pages. I watched green wire-frame skull gifs rotate over a star field background. All those... moments... will be lost in time, like [coughs] Geocities pages... on...dial-up. Time... to log off...
posted by Sangermaine at 10:57 AM on October 1, 2013 [20 favorites]


It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely.

Much like a truck.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:24 AM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is he/are we conflating human problems with human desires? Or is this why so many well-meaning Stanford kids are building apps to fix poverty and feed the hungry, apps that don't touch the political economy and the chain of causation, but assume that if you can ameliorate the symptoms quick enough, you don't have to address the root issue? The allegory about the man who, after devoting years of his life to rescuing people floating by on the river, finally asked what was happening upstream that was putting all the people in the water could now be updated to the man just building an app to crowdsource rescue teams.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


More like indoor plumbing.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2013


I dunno, having filed FOIA requests both prior to and post internet era I have to say the internet is still a pretty magical thing.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:57 AM on October 1, 2013


I miss the days when I had to goto my dad's work to tap in on a computer with a clunky CRT monitor, pixels thick as a pin, and computers that made noise to let you know that you were piloting a machine.

Nowadays, checking something on the web is like checking the time, disappointingly in some cases.

But even then, yeah, the web is amazing.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 12:15 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


... without the direct involvement of Satin and his minions. His lustrous, silken minions...

Are they able to be identified because of twerking?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2013


Mefi's own evhead.

And former employer of mathowie, who, if my chronology is correct, laid him and pb off during the downtime before Blogger was bought by Google, motivating #1 into making Metafilter financially sustainable (without becoming anybody's 'next big thing').
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:48 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


When a relative of mine got sick I was able to look up her illness in medical textbooks and read academic journal articles about it, mostly for free, and when a surgery was scheduled I was able to similarly research every little detail about it and read studies evaluating the risks and outcomes of that procedure. I was able to get a pretty good grasp of everything quite quickly by looking up basic physiology texts and terminology elsewhere on the web, even though I've got no medical background and my last biology class was in high school. Today I could have even done that all on my portable wireless telephone while still sitting in the hospital waiting room. That alone seems pretty magical to me - I wouldn't have been able to do the same thing even at most libraries in the pre-internet days, and even at the library of a college or university with a medical program it would have taken me ten times as long.
posted by XMLicious at 2:43 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


When a relative of mine got sick I was able to look up her illness in medical textbooks and read academic journal articles about it, mostly for free, and when a surgery was scheduled I was able to similarly research every little detail about it and read studies evaluating the risks and outcomes of that procedure. I was able to get a pretty good grasp of everything quite quickly by looking up basic physiology texts and terminology elsewhere on the web, even though I've got no medical background and my last biology class was in high school. Today I could have even done that all on my portable wireless telephone while still sitting in the hospital waiting room. That alone seems pretty magical to me - I wouldn't have been able to do the same thing even at most libraries in the pre-internet days, and even at the library of a college or university with a medical program it would have taken me ten times as long.
posted by XMLicious at 5:43 PM on October 1


I dig this. I dig this with a 'but'. The 'but' works as follows.

My dad was in medicine. We had a constant influx of Merk manuals, magazines which highlighted the strange disease of the month that you got to guess from a pretty grotesque set of pictures (Think Highlights for doctors). There were journals, advertisements, pens, Actigal the Gall Bladder Doll, Hytrin branded clothespins... When I was a kid, I flipped through these. I had all kinds of awesome ailments - David Sedaris style. The thing is, there was a point where I did pick up a few things - not enough to not go to the doctor, but if I heard about something, I had at my finger tips the answer. I knew which books to look in if I didn't know something - and I memorized and learned a lot of fun and weird diseases - because ... hey... Maine in the winter is boring. To this day, I remember a lot of the stuff because in general I was wired to learn at that age. I know my states and my state capitals and probably a pretty good chunk of my countries and can probably tell you more than you ever wanted to know about certain specialist subjects that I learned and memorized.

The internet is a great pass-through. Getting at information and being able to find something quickly is very different than knowing something intricately. Its the same difference in foundation than a C&C milling machine vs. a master craftsman. The C&C will never mess up, but it is limited to what the program is. The craftsman may make an error - but she may also make something unrivaled albeit slower. Minds no longer have to chronologically put the Norman invasion, the Magna Carta, and an assortment of other historic events in order in your head. That's freeing for other things, sure, but the same skills can help with estimation and ordering and really maximizing your own internal neural network. I grew up during the transition to less fact more rules based approach to learning.

And now my mind wanders to Alzheimers and wondering how in the long run, this quick random access pass through brain that most, including mine, has become. If we get lost on the road and don't remember where we are going, is the same thing going to happen with technology? Are we going to slowly lose how to find what we need to know? Are we going to forget what we were looking for? Or, does this mean we can record and stratify the content of our lives in such a way that the effect of brain erosion is mitigated?

Sorry, stream of conscious. I dig having these things at my hands too... I just wonder really if it is actually for the societal better.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:58 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Frontiers come and go, but throughout all of them, past and future, that feeling of seeing it all out there, all those possibilities before you... that was a fine thing to see.

When we actually get out to space, yeah, we'll get that feeling again, partly because humans are hooked on it, and do it merely just to get our fix. Soon enough, though, we'll just be shuffling back and forth between planets in spaceships, trying to not get space coffee on our jumpsuits, and look out the window and not see the vast emptiness and wonder of space, but just the gaps between jobs and families and that one planet out there you never want to go back to again even if it kills you. Then some guy on the other side of the cabin starts talking about his nephew, and how he's doin' all sorts of weird shit in multidimensional space that's going to be the next big thing, and you wonder, "Hmmm. I wonder what's out there?", and so, the cycle begins again.

All this reminds me of a spoken word part of an old song by Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo called Call of the West
...He heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself peering down the muzzle Of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner.

"There's a conflict," he said, "There's a conflict, between land and people...
The people have to go. They've come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, take pictures, to not have to do laundry... to own a mini-bike! Have their own CB radios and air conditioning; good plumbing for sure and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli. To have a little chili every morning and maybe... maybe to own their own gas stations again... and take drugs! Have some crazy sex! But above all, above all, to have a fair shake; to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and spit out of the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face"
posted by chambers at 6:59 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I take this with a grain of salt. Perhaps glibly, those who run the big apps have a massive conflict of interest when describing the possibilities of the Internet in that they benefit more when people restrict their concept of the internet to Twitter, Facebook, et al. Wall off the garden, they desire, and in doing so reduce the possibilities of online behavior to the time-tested practices of commerce.

Coincidentally, as the Internet (and these services) becomes more popular and mainstream, the larger these companies become and hire more people to accomodate their users, such that more people who are trained in the canon of business, which still powers on via our universities and TV shows, wangle themselves into positions of influence, steering the boat so that the communities regress to the mean as plotted by the religious discourses of Capitalism. It's one small step for these company leaders to extrapolate to Internet-wide policy in an attempt to rope in the frontier. He's thinking small, couching it with sophistry toward a feel-good future where that one weird trick they don't want you to know about is retweeted for the benefit of all mankind.

I bet Ev wasn't downplaying the magic in those early Conway meetings.
posted by rhizome at 4:08 AM on October 2, 2013


I dig having these things at my hands too... I just wonder really if it is actually for the societal better.

I would say unquestionably so. If I'm understanding you properly, the phenomenon you're talking about doesn't have anything to do with the internet. A skilled 21st-century or late-20th-century-machinist who can make a steel knife from scratch doesn't know how to knap tools from flint nodules and quite possibly doesn't even have the same level of skill with manual un-powered machinist's tools from a hundred years ago, or with a blacksmith's tools from the 19th century, much less if he or she had to start from a pile of iron ore to make metal tools.

People becoming literate and able to write things down instead of ensure that every single bit of knowledge was retained in someone's head somewhere using meter and verse and narration and other mnemonics, or the printing press making paper libraries much more common, didn't cause any sort of societal breakdown just because it was easier than the previous way of doing things. There never was a golden age of universal optimal education where you had to know the equivalent of the Magna Carta in a field to possess proficiency or expertise. In fact, in our own civilization and its predecessors you usually got along quite well having only the most meager, flawed, Eurocentric understanding of the history of whatever it was you were doing, even in advanced academic fields.

If anything, it's going to be because of the internet that any modern machinists also know how to knap flint tools or construct things from soft iron on a blacksmith's anvil, or how Qin dynasty artisans made all of the metallurgically-advanced stuff that was found with the Terracotta Army, if we ever figure that out, or even just how the bar stock that comes into the shop got that way starting from a pile of lode-bearing rocks. There really is nothing lost in leaving behind the state of affairs where only a few people with the luxury of time or resources have access to quality in-depth information, even if the wider access alone doesn't make us all skilled machinists or surgeons or historians.
posted by XMLicious at 11:42 AM on October 3, 2013


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