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The Internet Changes Nothing

In 1998, during the Age of Irrational Exuberance, I made my first website.  It was a collection of online history links, a site that students of history everywhere might profit by.  And for a time they did.  Hundreds of history professors put links to the page on their syllabi.  Thousands of students visited the site.  Then some enterprising fellow in Australia turned my page into a porn site.  I imagine he’d been watching it for some time.  Anyone could tell that the site received considerable traffic from young men, the target audience for all pornographers.  So when I neglected to renew the lease on the URL in 2002, my Australian friend poached it and launched “Naked Russian Girls.”

We knew the revolution wouldn’t be televised, but many of us really hoped it might be on the Internet.  Now we know these hopes were false.  There was no Internet Revolution and there will be no Internet Revolution.  We will stumble on in more or less exactly the way we did before massive computer networks infiltrated our daily lives.  Just look around and you will see that the Singularity is not near.  For some reason we don’t want to admit this fact.  Media experts still talk as if the Internet is new, as if it is still evolving, as if it will shortly “change everything.”  They tell us that the Web will let us build super networks (The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom), organize ourselves in magical ways (Here Comes Everyone: The Power of Organizing without Organization), and even learn new things (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge).  These new powers will in turn enable us to transform our economy (Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything), revolutionize politics (The Revolution will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything) or perhaps even destroy our culture (The Cult of the Amateur. How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture).

So the experts say, and so many people still believe.  But it’s time to face facts.  The Internet is not new anymore.  It’s twenty years old.  Commercial television was roughly two decades old in 1970; it was an established medium.  No one then heralded TV as a revolutionary new technology.  The Internet is not maturing.  It is mature.  TV’s programming and business models were rock solid in 1970; the new line up was always the old line up slightly modified.  No one speculated seriously about any radical new broadcast TV format.   Finally, the Internet has not “changed everything.”  TV too was supposed to “change everything.” It didn’t.  Rather, it altered what we did with our time. Before TV, the week had an extra twenty hours.  TV took them away. 

The Internet hasn’t even done that. Before the Web we were already used to sitting in front of electronic boxes for hour upon hour.  The boxes have now changed, but they are still boxes.  Of course the things we do on the Internet are different from those we did (and do) in front of the TV.  But it’s important to remember that they are only different; they are not new.  Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet.  Not what you could do, but what you actually do.  You email people you know.  In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t.  You read the news.  You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t.  You watch videos.  There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats.  You buy things.  Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods.  As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them.  You play games.  There are many kinds of games on the Internet, but those we seem to like best all fall into two categories:  the ones where we can kill things and the ones where we can cast spells.  You look things up.  The Web is like a bottomless well of information.  You can find the answer to almost any question if you’re willing to look.  But you generally don’t like to look, so you get your answers from Wikipedia.  Last, you do things you know you shouldn’t.  The Internet is great for indulging bad habits.  It offers endless opportunities to steal electronic goods, look at dirty pictures, and lose your money playing poker.  Moreover, it’s anonymous.  On the Web, you can get what you want and be pretty sure you won’t get caught getting it.  That’s terrifically useful.

But what exactly is new here?  Not very much.  Email is still mail.  Online newspapers are still newspapers.  YouTube videos are still videos.  Virtual stores are still stores.  MMORPGs are still variations on D&D.  A user-built encyclopedia is still a reference book.  Stealing mp3s is still theft. Cyber-porn is still porn.  Internet poker is still gambling.  In terms of content, the Internet gives us almost nothing that the much maligned “traditional media” did not.  It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Internet is a post office, newsstand, video store, shopping mall, game arcade, reference room, record outlet, adult book shop and casino rolled into one.  Let’s be honest:  that’s amazing.  But it’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing—it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.

The media experts, however, tell us that there really is something new and transformative about the Internet.  It goes under various names, but it amounts to “collaboration.”  The Internet makes it much easier for people to do things together.  Look, they say, at email discussion lists, community blogs, auction sites, product rating pages, gaming portals, wikis, and file trading services.  Collaboration abounds online.  That’s a fair point.  But “easier” is not new or transformative.  There is nothing new about any of the activities that take place on the aforementioned sites.  We did them all in the Old World of Old Media.  As for transformative, the evidence is thin.  The basic institutions of modern society in the developed world—representative democracy, regulated capitalism, the welfare net, cultural liberalism—have not changed much since the introduction of the Internet.  The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then.

Just why we would think that a new medium like the Internet would “change everything” is a bit of a mystery, but it probably has to do with the lingering influence of Marshall McLuhan.  The sage of Toronto famously taught that “the medium is the message,” which is to say that media technologies themselves are powerful agents of social change.  It’s a nice slogan, but it’s not really true.  Writing, print, and electronic communications—the three major media that preceded the Internet—did not change the big picture very much.  Rather, they were brought into being by major historical trends that were already well underway, they amplified things that were already going on.  In ancient Mesopotamia, the evolving state needed to record things, so its rulers began to use writing extensively.  In Renaissance Europe, an increasingly literate population wanted additional reading material, so Guttenberg provided it via print.  In mid-twentieth-century America, businesses clamored for new ways to advertise their wares, so radio and TV companies formed to provide audiences to which those wares could be pitched.  None of these technologies were new at the moment they “took off.”  Writing existed long before the state, printing long before the reading public, and electronic communications before mass advertising.  McLuhan mixed up cause and effect: new media don’t create big-picture trends, big-picture trends create new media.

It was no different with the Internet, though we don’t seem to want to admit it.  When it comes to invention stories, we prefer romantic tales of rebel geniuses who invent bright new futures in dim garages or obscure labs.  Think Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and Philo Farnsworth.  The invention story we tell about the Internet is of this heroic sort.  In it, U.S. Defense Department “wizards” invent ARPANET in the 1960s and their brilliant successors go on to invent the Internet in the 1970s and 1980s.  But this isn’t the story of the Internet at all.  It’s the tale of the invention of a technical capacity, a prototype.  ARPANET is to the Internet as tallies are to writing, seals are to printing, and cathode ray tubes are to TV.  Communications tools are not “media” in the sense we normally use the word.  A stylus is not a scriptorium, movable type is not a publishing industry, and a wireless set is not a radio network.  In order for media technologies to become full-fledged media, they need to respond to some big-picture demand.

In the case of the mature Internet, that demand was primarily commercial.  In the early 1990s, major media companies realized that the Web offered a terrific opportunity to sell advertising, corporations realized that it offered new outlets to sell their goods, and millions of entrepreneurs—like the fellow who turned my old website into porno—realized that they, too, could turn a buck on the Internet.  Everyone with anything to sell flocked to the Web.  The Internet was not born of wizardry, but of the ordinary working of advanced capitalism.  Today it bears all the marks of that specific parentage.  Try this experiment.  Go to any of the websites you ordinarily visit and attempt find a page that does not feature self-promotion, advertisements, or some opportunity to spend or “donate” your money.  It’s not going to be easy.  Chances are the mail you send and receive, the blogs and newspapers you read, the videos you watch, the virtual stores you visit, the games you play, the reference sites you use, and the files you trade are all going to be surrounded by or full of promos, ads and products.

In the end, the message is the message, and the message transmitted over virtually all modern media, the Internet included, is this:  buy something.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way things are in our world.  It’s time to face it—the Internet changes nothing.