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The centre will not hold?
September 5, 2010 10:54 AM   Subscribe

The Economist ponders the future of the internet.
posted by bardophile (36 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think The Economist is over-blowing things a little here. The Internet will stay around. It's too valuable for commercial reasons not to. Also, I wonder how many of those government information/content removal requests are about a) criminal fraud/scams, b) sex trafficking/child pornography, and c) other generally objectionable criminal activity. Frankly, given the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of Internet users, those requests seem fairly minimal.

On the other hand, I think the writer may be prescient in one sense: The Internet is on track to be taken over by huge corporations who will bend it to its will. The 'net is hard for governments to carefully regulate, but it's not hard at all of for large corporations to spend billions herding the mindless masses. (If that premise is at all interesting to you, check out the Otherland fantasy/sci-fi series.)

(Finally, I promised that the next time I saw an Economist article that I'd point out that the NY Times considers Economist readers to be part of a "sophisticate garden." Woo!)
posted by GnomeChompsky at 11:06 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I need to show a guy who's had a fatal heart attack while sitting at his computer."

"We've got that B-roll!"
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:30 AM on September 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ah, well, the Economist!
"“This looks rather unlikely today, but if it happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.”"
Precisely. That's every Economist article boiled down to one primary thesis. It is, I daresay, editorial policy.
Not quite good enough to line parakeet cages, as its pages, while as thin as newsprint, are coated, and really don't absorb well.
posted by nj_subgenius at 11:35 AM on September 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


Recently read Gary Shteyngart's near-future satire Super Sad True Love Story, and he envisions the closed-network scenario taken to extremes. There's very little in the book about the Internet per se. Instead there's a Facebook-like network called GlobalTeens that keeps trying to get you to switch from text to images, as well as micro-nodes where individuals can stream their own experiences and constantly "rate" others around them for attributes such as Male Hotness.
posted by texorama at 11:39 AM on September 5, 2010


Tim O'Reilly's article was a lot better, in my opinion.
posted by fake at 11:41 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Opponents of the enshrining of net neutrality in law—not just self-interested telecoms firms, but also experts like Dave Farber, another internet elder—argue that it would be counterproductive. Outlawing discrimination of any kind could discourage operators from investing to differentiate their networks.

This paragraph could be exhibit A in why I hate the way most journalism discusses net neutrality. It's not even just that there's no real explanation of what we're talking about. It's crappy ambiguity in that last sentence. Outlawing discrimination of any kind? Do we mean completely forbidding all kinds of service distinction? Or do we mean forbidding any one kind of service distinction? You can argue the expression leans toward the first if you parse it carefully... but it's easy not to, particularly if nobody's broken out the possible distinctions and you have no idea what they are.

And why doesn't the article do this? This is probably the single most important issue at the heart of the concerns expressed in the article, and there's almost no attention given to what net-neutrality is, what breaks it, what possible kinds of restrictions could keep it from breaking. Nobody who reads this is going to know that the most important thing not to discriminate against is the traffic source/destination, that it's actually OK to tier service by bandwidth/speed at the endpoints (and that we do this now and it provides plenty of incentives for buildout), that it's even more or less OK to prioritize service by traffic type.

No, the entire thing is flattened down -- oh noes, people want to stiffle the internet, but any restriction will mean we won't be able to monetize and have incentives for growth! Nobody will learn anything thing worth knowing about net neutrality by reading this piece.

And this is supposed to be one of the erudite news magazines out there. Am I to believe that The Economist just doesn't have anybody on staff with the actual intelligence to genuinely understand the underlying issues, or if their values as a publication forbid them from trying to genuinely educate their audience?
posted by weston at 11:50 AM on September 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


The point of comparison for the internet is not TV, or the phone, but radio. When radio got started out, it was a pain in the ass to transmit or receive. In the 20s, it was mostly a bunch of dudes in their 20s who experimented at home and basically communicated only with each other. But then, they figured out ways to make radio easier to tune, and as the masses were able to gain more access to the spectrum, without having to have lots of technical knowledge to do so, stations and then networks (or "chains," in the parlance of the times) rose up and began to dominate. They figured out a way to monetize transmission--advertising and sponsorship--and then the networks wound up having significantly more power than the nearest equivalent, the newspaper, had before radio. That's not to say that there weren't independent or nonprofit or the occasional unlicensed stations (and you can still get a ham license today), but the importance of those functions was overwhelmed by the dominance of the chains.

TV was just an upgrade to radio that let you get pictures, too. The distribution model was the same.

But with the internet, you had a brand new disribution model. And at first, back in the days of 14.4 kbps modems, it was a pain in the ass to access the internet. The people online were mostly in their 20s , who had the time and the expertise to get online, and to design their own webpages. And then things came along to make everything easier--blogger, facebook, wordpress--and access both to receiving and sending information on the net expanded to a wider circle of people. And then they figured out how to monetize it, and the companies that are beginning to consolidate control of the parts are probably already more powerful than their nearest equivalents, the networks. Which, like the newspapers last time, are already on the decline.

Two countries separated by a giant ocean: "Their nightmare is what Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, calls “the Tony Soprano vision of networking”, alluding to a television series about a mafia family." Thanks for that.
posted by thecaddy at 12:06 PM on September 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:07 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.

I assume you're referring only to economic views here, of course. The Economist is in favour of gay marriage. (and btw, I think I agree that the Economist is greatly overrated).
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:19 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


About 15 years ago, though, it used to be a lot better. It really did use to explain its views more and the assumptions that underlay them.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:20 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is it saying we're all fucked?

*Clicks link.
A virtual counter-revolution
The internet has been a great unifier of people, companies and online networks. Powerful forces are threatening to balkanise it
Yeah, that's about right. Don't throw in massive data mining and constant monitoring of everything you do.
posted by delmoi at 12:21 PM on September 5, 2010


Those old guys are indulgent and fairly precise writers if you excuse a parched metaphor or two. I appreciate them trying to "get it" wrt arguments about the internet but they still cast their arguments in bronze.
There is thought though, more than most and about important things. The articles linked in this comment by Jedicus regarding religious tolerance (and being in favor of gay marriage as stated above) demonstrate a willingness to consider ideas and reflect a dedication to principles that is not often seen in their cohort.
posted by vapidave at 12:29 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This paragraph could be exhibit A in why I hate the way most journalism discusses net neutrality. It's not even just that there's no real explanation of what we're talking about. It's crappy ambiguity in that last sentence. Outlawing discrimination of any kind? Do we mean completely forbidding all kinds of service distinction? Or do we mean forbidding any one kind of service distinction? You can argue the expression leans toward the first if you parse it carefully... but it's easy not to, particularly if nobody's broken out the possible distinctions and you have no idea what they are.
I assume you're talking about source discrimination vs. service type discrimination. Obviously source discrimination is what most people are worried about, but automatic packet type discrimination is also bad.

I understand the importance of having some traffic be 'bulk' and some traffic be 'low latency' but why not let the user choose? Give people X amount of 'low latency' bandwidth and Y amount of 'bulk' bandwidth. And let the user, or their applications, choose. For example, I'd really like to have HTML and Ajax web requests put on the low-latency channel. That way lag on web pages would go down a lot.

On the other hand, loading larger images and so on could be done on the 'bulk' channel. But making choices at the ISP level isn't going to give people that kind of granularity, or even make it possible. The ISP isn't going to know if you have a web page loading in the background or if you're using an interactive "HTML5/AJAX/DHTML" app (they seem to change the name every couple of years but it's always been the same thing...)

Put control in the hands of users, and user-level applications, not ISPs.
posted by delmoi at 12:30 PM on September 5, 2010


Question: Do you think I'm smarter than everyone else because I read The Economist, or do I read The Economist because I'm smarter than everyone else? Now, there's a conundrum! I should mail that one in to The Economist and see what they think!
posted by Threeway Handshake at 12:37 PM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Would I need to own a computer to understand this Internets?
posted by punkfloyd at 12:48 PM on September 5, 2010


Economic pressures shape our culture and technology.
The internet wasn't going to stay open for very long. Personally I think that economics and politics are more likely to shape the technologies that exist within them than the other way around.

...and I really don't like the way they're going. I associate what's happening to the Internet with the gradual disappearance of public water fountains and libraries, in favour of bottled water and purchased e-books that you can't even properly loan out or resell.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:14 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Speaking purely from a technical sense, if you can get just one port to one server that's running SSH, you can get access to anything that machine can reach. And that's certainly not the only way to tunnel; I've seen a proof-of-concept tunneler that actually embeds packets in perfectly valid DNS requests, receiving return data in equally valid replies. It can thus communicate, albeit quite slowly, even if every IP port is blocked. If there's a working DNS resolver on your network, you can get out.

Fundamentally, the Internet is not a controllable thing. Short of physically breaking all communication with the outside world, it's almost certain that any technical blocking measures can be evaded. Transferring lots of data in this fashion would probably make you stand out on traffic analysis, but if you're willing to accept a sufficiently slow data rate, it should be possible to be completely invisible, lost in the noise.

We're used, nowadays, to having ridiculously fast communication, but even a 300 baud modem was a very useful thing indeed. You can get an awful lot of data into a very small space if you're willing to use text.
posted by Malor at 1:16 PM on September 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Internet will continue to absorb all comers and relentlessly make other network boundaries increasingly porous as long is it continues to act as the public money spinwasher for the Californian Idiology. TCP/IP is just *that good*. And I see no evidence that in the 1.5 decades since the Californian Ideology was written that the West Coast neoliberal pseudohippy hegemony has weakened or that the Internet no longer serves a congruent purpose... if anything its cultural influence is now stronger than ever (thanks, Internet!). I was inclined to give this Economist article a pass (the usual bland, overlong what-iffery, but they have a shitload of pages to fill!), but then the writer throws in a few appeals to authority at the end, including that regular purveyor of seductively unsupported fictions, Chris Anderson, with his ridiculous fetish for dodgy graphs. Sorry Economist, you lose +1 Internets.
posted by meehawl at 1:33 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:07 PM on September 5 [+] [!]


The Economist has been a liberal magazine1 for 150 years, so long that views which where once considered extreme are now practically an unchallenged consensus. Of course, in that time a very different use of the word "liberal" has emerged in the United States.

The irony is this: If you take American definitions of economic liberal and economic conservative, then The Economist is economically conservative compared to typical European positions, but in Europe we don't use conservative and liberal in at all the same way. Many of our conservatives are economic protectionists (who abhor the technocratic, open-borders for labour as well as capital positions of The Economist) and the left doesn't care for The Economist because of its "liberal" positions.

Ah, but surely you could call it "conservative" in the US, right?
Not really.
First of all, to the extent it takes editorial positions on non-economic issues, it ridicules the positions of most American conservatives. Vigorously and consistently in favour of gay marriage and more open borders. The only times that say, creationism and abortion laws even come up is as - almost anthropological - asides to briefly marvel that there could even be a debate.
The Economist endorsed the Healthcare bill, with reservations. What where the reservations, you ask? Well, they wondered why a public option hadn't been seriously considered considering the evidence showing significant cost reductions.
That's right, The Economist is more liberal in the American sense of the word than President Obama.

Now, you might say that a magazine could be more liberal than Obama and still be a conservative, but I think that this is a ridiculous word game. By European standards he might be a conservative, but you go to war with the electorate you have, not the one that Sweden has.

(1) No. Shut up.
posted by atrazine at 1:34 PM on September 5, 2010 [16 favorites]


This can't be allowed to happen. We need more community-run ISPs.
posted by phrontist at 1:37 PM on September 5, 2010


This can't be allowed to happen. We need more community-run ISPs.

We also need to improve mesh topology networking. The problems are upstream though, most long distance transits actually go through infrastructure owned by a very small number of companies, they'll still be able to traffic shape.
posted by atrazine at 1:43 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.


Well said. The Economist should worry less about the internet and more about what happened to economists.
posted by larry_darrell at 1:46 PM on September 5, 2010


Also, Facebook is ripe for replacement by a decentralized system. Why not Youtube, Google (the search function), Twitter?

It's enraging to see companies spring up to do for us what we could, in principle, do for ourselves. Admittedly, it would be very difficult in the case of Google - you couldn't run it SETI@Home style for social and technical reasons. But as it stands, Google has clusters all over the world - why should those be controlled by some central entity? Why not a federation of groups, accountable to their users, administering clusters for their locality?

In the present bargain what are at best amoral corporations provide us with services in exchange for access to our data, which they "mine" on behalf of their partners to better manipulate us with advertising. This centralization of our IT infrastructure in a small number of private hands makes monitoring convenient for the government as well, and even if the rumors of collusion are without basis now, such an arrangement seems inevitable.
posted by phrontist at 2:05 PM on September 5, 2010


The problems are upstream though, most long distance transits actually go through infrastructure owned by a very small number of companies, they'll still be able to traffic shape.

Yeah, I'm assuming that over time community-run groups could establish their own connections between one another, and resist the consolidation that led to this situation in the first place.
posted by phrontist at 2:16 PM on September 5, 2010


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.

It doesn't necessarily follow that the Economist is a "conservativish" magazine (for one thing, as atrazine says, what a reader in the US would consider "conservative" and what a reader in Europe would consider "conservative" are two very different things). Even if it were, "conservative" does not necessarily equal "something that indulges and coddles pre-existing views of the world."

That definition is as much likely to apply to a "liberal" ideology as it is likely to apply to a "conservative" one (and I say that as a self-described liberal) -- to the extent that those pre-existing labels even mean all that much anymore. In many ways, the internet (at least the version of it that has existed up till now) has hastened the decrepitude of those labels.
posted by blucevalo at 3:12 PM on September 5, 2010


Google has clusters all over the world - why should those be controlled by some central entity? Why not a federation of groups, accountable to their users, administering clusters for their locality?

Google is more trustworthy than a federation of users. What group of users would you trust with that power? Digg users? Wikipedia editors? Slashdot?

User generated content is good because you get a lot of stuff written by people who are fanatical about obscure topics. But user generated ranking and moderation are bad for exactly the same reason. You don't want your search results ranked by a bunch of fanatics. Fanatics lack perspective.

(Disclaimer: This comment is coming from inside the Google!)
posted by ryanrs at 3:50 PM on September 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Those old guys are indulgent and fairly precise writers

I heard it was written by a pack of anonymous 20-somethings from Oxford. Is this not the case?
posted by ryanrs at 4:00 PM on September 5, 2010


Hmm. Let's see…

Can I still get my own domain? Yes.
Can I still get free software to power my web server? Yes.
Can I still get bandwidth? Yes.
Can I still create my own web pages, web services, web applications, etc.? Yes.

So, basically, nothing is any different today than it was 15 years ago. All the scare mongering is from the fools that never understood how to do any of the above to begin with that are scared they'll lose their fun time-wasting ego-stroking toys.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:42 PM on September 5, 2010


CD, the point is not "things are different now". It's "people are working very hard to make them different in ways that benefit them and harm everyone else." If you're going to be dismissive, at least read the article, and comprehend it, before you say things, or else you're just going to look stupid.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:47 PM on September 5, 2010


Google is more trustworthy than a federation of users. What group of users would you trust with that power? Digg users? Wikipedia editors? Slashdot?

User generated content is good because you get a lot of stuff written by people who are fanatical about obscure topics. But user generated ranking and moderation are bad for exactly the same reason. You don't want your search results ranked by a bunch of fanatics. Fanatics lack perspective.


Who said anything about user generated content? I'm talking about how a google-like system (a PageRank implementation) can be administered in a decentralized fashion.
posted by phrontist at 6:17 PM on September 5, 2010


I mentioned user generated content as an example of something that seems to work well, as opposed to user generated rankings which always seem to have issues.

But I guess you're talking about something more like a free software implementation of web search. That would be pretty neat, but it's hard to get started since you can't do much on a single computer.

Assuming a successful implementation and the infrastructure to run it, what would a free software search engine do different from Google? If privacy is your biggest concern, couldn't that be fixed with a browser plugin or a fork of the Firefox project?

But yeah, I can see how something like Facebook can't be fixed with a simple plugin. Its privacy problems are deeply ingrained in the service. Web search, on the other hand, works pretty well as a stateless service. Even search result ads are targeted much more to the search query than the identity of the end user (as far as I know).
posted by ryanrs at 7:16 PM on September 5, 2010



So, basically, nothing is any different today than it was 15 years ago. All the scare mongering is from the fools that never understood how to do any of the above to begin with that are scared they'll lose their fun time-wasting ego-stroking toys.


Technology may not be different, but the culture and economic and legal structure built up around that technology certainly are.
If you think that technical limitations are all that limit people... well hell. We could all go to the moon if that were true.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:58 PM on September 5, 2010


Recently read Gary Shteyngart's near-future satire Super Sad True Love Story...

I recently read that as well, I thinks it's been somewhat overpraised but the parts about the future of social networks were quite good, such as a scene at a bar where everyone carries these iPhone like devices and the protagonist can a list of everyone in the bar and that he ranks near the bottom on attractiveness but high on credit rating.
posted by bobo123 at 9:50 PM on September 5, 2010


I've got a copy of the 2008 Year Preview issue of the Economist on file somewhere. Nowhere in it do they mention the impending meltdown of the entire world's economy in September of that year.

Which isn't to say they're always wrong. They're not. But they're best when they're basically telling us what just happened (skewed, of course, to reinforce their particular point of view -- basically, that Capitalism is preferable to EVERYTHING else).

If I'm looking for a peek into the future, I prefer YouTube.
posted by philip-random at 12:11 AM on September 6, 2010


I heard it was written by a pack of anonymous 20-somethings from Oxford. Is this not the case?

Well, I know of at least one 20-something from Yale who was working there, but incredibly secretive about it. So, at least some of the staff fits into the category you're describing. Not that Oxford and Yale are the same thing, but still.
posted by bardophile at 1:27 AM on September 6, 2010


Basically, if you have this sort of conservativish view of the world, you probably love the Economist, because it will never, ever tell you anything that might indicate that you're wrong about anything.

Not so. The arguments the Economist will use are sort of conservativish and often doom laden. But it will follow them through to their logical conclusions. If you have an ill-considered conservativish view it will challenge that. It e.g. accepted most of the conservative arguments on what was needed for healthcare and then pointed out that Single Payer and cutting bureaucracy by getting rid of the insurance model was the best way to achieve this. It's laissez faire - so it's pro gay marriage and open borders. A whole lot of sort of conservativish people detest both.

In short, mapping onto American politics, it's the sort of conservativish world view that leads to voting Democratic because that's the sort of conservativish party in America. And once you're at the point of discarding e.g. political loyalties when they no longer fit the facts, it's not challenging you need so much as information.

Yes, it will seldom challenge sort of conservativish premises. But that's a whole different matter. It will challenge any unconsidered positions.
posted by Francis at 3:10 AM on September 6, 2010


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