Web Evolution

Michael Hirschorn:

Digital freedom, of the monetary and First Amendment varieties, may in retrospect have become our era's version of Manifest Destiny, our Turner thesis. Embracing digital freedom was an exaltation, a kind of noble calling. In a smart essay in the journal Fast Capitalism in 2005, Jack Shuler shows how similar the rhetoric of the 1990s digital frontier was to that of the 19th-century frontier era. It's a short jump from John L. O'Sullivan in 1839--"The far-reaching, the boundless will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles"--to Kevin Kelly, the pioneering conceptualizer of the "hive mind" and a founding editor of Wired, writing in Harper's in 1994, "A recurring vision swirls in the shared mind of the Net, a vision that nearly every member glimpses, if only momentarily: of wiring human and artificial minds into one planetary soul." Two years later Barlow, a self- described advocate for "online colonists," got down on bended knee, doublet unbraced, to beseech us mere analog mortals: "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone ... You have no sovereignty where we gather."

I take you on this quick tour not to make fun of futurism past (I have only slightly less-purple skeletons in my closet), but to point out how an idea that we have largely taken for granted is in fact the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixed, hyperlinked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality, in theory if not always in practice, proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds. Facebook and Twitter achieved massive scale quickly by creating an open system accessible to outside developers, though that openness is at times more about branding than anything else--as Twitter's fellow travelers are now finding out. Mainframe behemoths like IBM wave the bloody shirt of Linux, the nonprofit open-source competitor of Microsoft Windows, any time they need to prove their bona fides to the tech community. Ironically, only the "old" entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era's freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a century building up.

But now, it seems, things are changing all over again. The shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser ruled supreme, to the smart phone, where the app and the pricing plan now hold sway, signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995. In the U.S., there are only three major cell-phone networks, a handful of smart-phone makers, and just one Apple, a company that has spent the entire Internet era fighting the idea of open (as anyone who has tried to move legally purchased digital downloads among devices can attest). As far back as the '80s, when Apple launched the desktop-publishing revolution, the company has always made the case that the bourgeois comforts of an artfully constructed end-to-end solution, despite its limits, were superior to the freedom and danger of the digital badlands.

Apple, for once, is swimming with the tide. After 15 years of fruitless experimentation, media companies are realizing that an advertising-supported model is not the way to succeed on the Web and they are, at last, seeking to get consumers to pay for their content. They are operating on the largely correct assumption that people will be more likely to pay for consumer-friendly apps via the iPad, and a multitude of competing devices due out this year, than they are to subscribe to the same old kludgy Web site they have been using freely for years. As a result, media companies will soon be pushing their best and most timely content through their apps instead of their Web sites.
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