Tuesday, August 17, 2010

iHaves and iHave Nots

Of late I've been very much wondering if the Goodle-Verizon proposal would widen the digital divide. From Chris Andersen's Wired article: Is the web Dead that everyone is talking about:

This was all inevitable. It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.

Take railroads. Uniform and open gauge standards helped the industry boom and created an explosion of competitors — in 1920, there were 186 major railroads in the US. But eventually the strongest of them rolled up the others, and today there are just seven — a regulated oligopoly. Or telephones. The invention of the switchboard was another open standard that allowed networks to interconnect. After telephone patents held by AT&T’s parent company expired in 1894, more than 6,000 independent phone companies sprouted up. But by 1939, AT&T controlled nearly all of the US’s long-distance lines and some four-fifths of its telephones. Or electricity. In the early 1900s, after the standardization to alternating current distribution, hundreds of small electric utilities were consolidated into huge holding companies. By the late 1920s, the 16 largest of those commanded more than 75 percent of the electricity generated in the US.

Indeed, there has hardly ever been a fortune created without a monopoly of some sort, or at least an oligopoly. This is the natural path of industrialization: invention, propagation, adoption, control.

Now it’s the Web’s turn to face the pressure for profits and the walled gardens that bring them. Openness is a wonderful thing in the nonmonetary economy of peer production. But eventually our tolerance for the delirious chaos of infinite competition finds its limits. Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well, that increasingly seems OK. Have you looked at your cell phone or cable bill lately?

Yes, it's expensive. But worth it. For those of us who can find work. This conversation is almost entirely deaf to the real economic plight of, for example, people in the rust belt. Still, one wonders -- what about the chronically unemployed? In all the irrational exuberance about how apps and iTunes and ringtones and high end mobile devices and premium cable channels are going to be the great new next for the media class haven't we forgotten that we are in the worst economic situation as a country since the Great Depression?

What about the whole sectors of the economy that have quite possibly disappeared forever? Are we moving into an an app-centric networking world? Are we rapidly moving into a world of iHaves and iHave nots?

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