Bruce Sterling on Why It Stopped Making Sense to Talk About 'The Internet' in 2012

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Five simple reasons: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft.

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Bruce Sterling (flickr/webmink, with some fiddling).

Many people use, as a kind of shorthand, The Internet to mean a wide variety of things related to this series of tubes. The Internet could mean the culture made and distributed on the Internet, the LOLCATZ, memes, etc. ("The Internet loves this kind of stuff.") The Internet could mean the infrastructure itself, its speed and distribution. ("The Internet is so sloooow right now.") The Internet could mean the industry that builds it, the consumer and B2B companies that effectively own all the quasi-public spaces through which we traipse. ("The Internet wants to disintermediate blahblahblah.") And there are a thousand other times when we find it easier to say, "The Internet does" or "It feels like the Internet is" or whatever rather than attempt to identify the specific actors of the play.

And maybe that was helpful. Maybe in such a distributed system it makes sense to use "The Internet" as a stand-in for causal agents that seem to inhere in the network without belonging to any individual node. Maybe it's like a mob or a gatheration of starlings; the dynamic relationships between the individuals turn out to be more important than the things themselves. 

But in 2012, that way of talking, if it was ever helpful, is no longer. 

And there are five reasons for that: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft. Now, when we say, "The Internet" or "smartphones" or "computers" we usually mean something shaped by one of these entities, or all of them. 

At least that's how Bruce Sterling is thinking about things. In his annual conversation with Jon Lebkowsky on the WELL about the state of the world, he classed in "The Stacks," as he called them, with "some interest groups of 2013 who seem to be having a pretty good time."

Stacks.  In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about "the Internet," "the PC business," "telephones," "Silicon Valley," or "the media," and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.  These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.  

If you're Nokia or HP or a Japanese electronics manufacturer, they stole all your oxygen.  There will be a whole lot happening among these five vast entities in 2013.  They never compete head-to-head, but they're all fascinated by "disruption."

What will the world that they create look like? Here's what I think: Your technology will work perfectly within the silo and with an individual stacks's (temporary) allies. But it will be perfectly broken at the interfaces between itself and its competitors. 

That moment where you are trying to  do something that has no reason not to work, but it just doesn't and there is no way around it without changing some piece of your software to fit more neatly within the silo? 

That's gonna happen a lot: 2013 as the year of tactically broken bridges. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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