File Under: Web Basics

The Un-Internet

The tech world is in an infinite loop.

I’ve written about it so many times, but that’s how it goes with loops. You don’t have to write original stuff more than once. Each time around the loop, at some point, everything comes back into style.

No need to list all the loops, other than to say Here We Go Again!

At issue is this: Control.

For whatever reason, the people who run the tech companies want it. But eventually the users take it.

I wrote in 1994, my first time as a chronicler of the loops: “The users outfoxed us again. It happens every fifteen years or so in this business, We lost our grounding, the users rebelled, and a new incarnation of the software business has been created.”

In the same 1994 piece: “Once the users take control, they never give it back.”

You can see it playing out in the Twitter community, and now the Tumblr community.

It isn’t a reflection on the moral quality of the leaders of the companies, to want to control their users. But it’s a short-term proposition at best. Either the companies learn how to take the lead from their users, or they will be sidelined. Unless the laws of technology are repealed, and I don’t think laws like that can be repealed.

Lest you think I was smart enough to see this coming in my own early experience as a tech entrepreneur, I wasn’t. We were scared of software piracy, didn’t understand how we could continue to be in business with software that could be easily copied. So we established controls that made it difficult for non-technical users to copy the software. That created a market of other software that would copy our software. So it was reduced down to whether or not the users would knowingly do something we disapproved of. Many of our users were honorable, they did what I would have done in their place. They stopped using our products. I would regularly receive letters from customers, people who had paid over $200 for the disks our software came on, with the disks cut in half with a scissor. These letters made their point loud and clear. One day everyone took off their copy protection, and the users got what they wanted. I came to believe then that this is always so.

This time around, Apple has been the leader in the push to control users. They say they’re protecting users, and to some extent that is true. I can download software onto my iPad feeling fairly sure that it’s not going to harm the computer. I wouldn’t mind what Apple was doing if that’s all they did, keep the nasty bits off my computer. But of course, that’s not all they do. Nor could it be all they do. Once they took the power to decide what software could be distributed on their platform, it was inevitable that speech would be restricted too. I think of the iPad platform as Disneyfied. You wouldn’t see anything there that you wouldn’t see in a Disney theme park or in a Pixar movie.

The sad thing is that Apple is providing a bad example for younger, smaller companies like Twitter and Tumblr, who apparently want to control the “user experience” of their platforms in much the same way as Apple does. They feel they have a better sense of quality than the randomness of a free market. So they’ve installed similar controls. Your content cannot be displayed by Twitter unless you’re one of their partners. How you get to be a partner is left to your imagination. We have no visibility into it.

Tumblr has decided that a browser add-on is unwelcome. Presumably it’s only an issue because a fair number of their users want to use it. So they are taking issue not only with the developer, but with the users. They have admitted that the problem is that they must “educate” their users better. Oy! Does this sound familiar. In the end, it will be the other way around. It has to be. It’s the lesson of the Internet.

My first experience with the Internet came as a grad student in the late 70s, but it wasn’t called the Internet then. I loved it because of its simplicity and the lack of controls. There was no one to say you could or couldn’t ship something. No gatekeeper. In the world it was growing up alongside, the mainframe world, the barriers were huge. An individual person couldn’t own a computer. To get access you had to go to work for a corporation, or study at a university.

Every time around the loop, since then, the Internet has served as the antidote to the controls that the tech industry would place on users. Every time, the tech industry has a rationale, with some validity, that wide-open access would be a nightmare. But eventually we overcome their barriers, and another layer comes on. And the upstarts become the installed-base, and they make the same mistakes all over again.

It’s the Internet vs the Un-Internet. And the Internet, it seems, always prevails.

Photo: Benoit/Flickr

This post first appeared on Scripting News.

Dave Winer, a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software. A former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, Dave won the Wired Tech Renegade award in 2001.
Follow @davewiner on Twitter.