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Commonspace - Chapter Forteen (Jumping the Shark)

Link to original publication: http://commons.ca/articles/fulltext.shtml?x=474
Q. What is jumping the shark? A . It's a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know f...
Views: 2.039 Created 10/08/2006

Q. What is jumping the shark?

A. It's a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on... it's all downhill…

The aforementioned expression refers to the telltale sign of the demise of Happy Days, our favorite example, when Fonzie actually "jumped the shark." The rest is history.

Jumping the shark applies not only to TV, but also music, film, even everyday life. "Did you see her boyfriend? She definitely jumped the shark." You get the idea.

-The ‘Jump the Shark’ Web site <www.jumptheshark.com/about.htm>

While we were putting this book together, some of our more emotionally wizened peers remarked that our overall prospectus for a commonspace-dominated Internet was, um, well, a little optimistic. Optimism is not a quality usually associated with us card-carrying Generation Xers. Kurt Cobain wasn’t an optimist. Douglas Coupland isn’t an optimist. Nor is Damien Hirst.

But go ahead: call us optimists. We don’t mind. Optimists are statistically more resistant to infectious illness and are better at fending off chronic diseases <www.globalideasbank.org/1993/1993-38.HTML> than gloomy goth types. (When it comes right down to it, we have to ask: has goth really accomplished anything other than producing a generation of men that can apply their eyeliner without smudging it? Come on, people: relax. Buy a Beatles album. Wave your pale arms in the sun.) Actually, optimism is completely in sync with the commonspace notion of mutual self-interest. Think of it this way: the universe – including the Internet and the business world – doesn’t give a shit about us as individuals. You either, for that matter. (We’re optimists, but we’re not stupid.) People who have a set of self-serving illusions are generally able to maintain high levels of health and happiness, even in the face of an indifferent and occasionally openly hostile cosmos.

But self-serving illusions aside, there really is good reason to be optimistic about the future of the Internet and commonspace. The Internet has had a bigger, more positive impact on our society than any communications technology since the printing press. It has made it easier and cheaper to set up our own businesses – especially information-based businesses – than any time in the past hundred years. It has encouraged pinstriped CEOs to tear off their ties and walk around with open collars, even occasionally to wear their ties around their heads in a weak imitation of samurai warriors (don’t tell them they look silly… that kind of entertainment value is hard to find). Most importantly, it has provided an environment that makes it easy to collaborate and connect to others at work and play.

While from time to time it may seem like the fantasy of a freshman anarchist, the shift towards a more collective way of working is very real. Online communities are proving to be a useful and enduring element in our lives. The global group mind is producing collectively written software that is powering the bulk of the world's e-commerce transactions. Tiny little businesses built by people sick of cubicle hell are making a living in the digital bazaar. Politics and community organizing is moving back to the grassroots. Yes, all of these things are very real.

The changes that are being driven by the Internet and the digital collective feel like nothing short of a cultural revolution against crappy old Industrial Age thinking and the pablum of television. If that's not a reason for optimism, what is? But even as optimists, we've got to ask, can it really last, or has the Internet already jumped the shark?

Five Things That Could Still Wreck the Internet

The thing that should give us pause is that we’ve heard the ‘technology will save us all’ rhetoric before. Many times. The techno-pundits of the last century promised that electricity would have such a socially equalizing impact that there would no longer be a need for manual labour. Radio pulled together small groups of people interested in collaborative media. Television was heralded as the great teacher, a force that would create equitable education for all. And what did we learn from television and other electric media before them? We learned not to speak too soon.

Media are complex social and technical systems. The assumptions and cultures of the people who design and use media have a profound impact on what any given media form can actually do. As the designers and users change – and they have changed dramatically over the 30 years since the Internet was born – the social and technological frameworks of the medium change with them. The culture of the inventors is rarely the same as that of the manager who is eventually brought in to run the show. In the past, media that have started out with the potential to make the world more interesting or more democratic have slipped into stolid complacency. (You can take our word for it, or you can visit the Retro Future Archives <retrofuture.web.aol.com> and see for yourself.)

Is the hype around the Internet that different? Most of the people driving the growth of the Internet – and certainly the explosion of commonspace culture – weren’t even born when electricity, radio and television were first invented. It’s easy to forget history and the cycle of hype that always surrounds new technology.

However, here may well be something more to the Internet than to other media forms. Unlike television and even radio, the Internet has very quickly transformed huge numbers of people into communicators. While we can debate whether 50% or 70% of the Western population is currently online, there is no question that the number is immense. There is also no question that ‘interacting’ online is starting to replace passive couch potatoism. This is a marked difference from the adoption patterns of previous media forms, and it cannot help but have some kind of impact.

A large part of that ‘some kind of impact’ is commonspace. People who never would have thought of collaboration as an inspiring notion in the past are going hog-wild about it. And for the most part, they don’t even realize the importance of what they’re doing. They have no Internet philosophies. People are contributing to the group mind of discussion forums, online games and open source simply because it’s fun and entertaining. Others are doing so because it’s good business. It’s a movement that has no leaders. It just is.

But even though there is considerable momentum behind the cultural changes that the Internet has caused, we are still not living in a ‘commonspace society’. There are still a number of factors that could ‘wreck’ the Internet by pushing it back on the path of one-to-many media. Before we wrap up and march away singing a rousing, optimistic chorus of Long Live Commonspace, it's worth putting our skeptic hats on for a minute to look at the Five Things That Could Still Wreck The Internet.

The envelope, please…

#1 Lawyers and Patents

Sometimes reading the business press is a lot like watching Late Night With David Letterman: page after page of stupid human tricks. Well, stupid lawyer tricks, more precisely. And these stupid lawyer tricks are a real threat to the future of the Internet.

The biggest area of concern is patents. Over the past few decades, the U.S. Patent Office has been granting patents to anyone who could scribble an idea down on paper and make it sound like an invention. Many of these patents are for such basic technical concepts and business processes that their enforcement could bring the Internet to a grinding halt: banner ads, one-click shopping, online affinity programs, online donations, even hyperlinks. To most people, these are all basic, obvious, intuitive uses of the Internet. To the patent owners, these are great ideas that they came up with in their basement before anyone else.

The ‘before anyone else’ part is very important, and may be the Internet’s salvation. The key step of delegitimizing a patent is proving that there is ‘prior art’. All this means is that you have to show that someone had the idea before the patent holder. For many of the key patents that threaten the Internet, this shouldn’t be hard. Take the fact that British Telecommunications claims to own a patent on one of the most basic building blocks of the Internet: the hyperlink. (Actually, the patent has lapsed everywhere in the world except the U.S. , where it will expire in October of 2006.) Prior art says otherwise. Vannevar Bush talked about a hyperlink system called the Memex as early as the 1940s[1], and Ted Nelson has been tirelessly evangelizing about the importance of hypertext since 1960[2].

The problem is that it’s almost impossible for patent officers to really know all of the prior art. And some people say they don’t care much anyway. The Patent Office sees its mandate as processing as many reasonably sane patents as possible. They just don’t have the information they need to know what is sane and what’s not. Once the patent is granted, things can get costly for all concerned. Patent litigation can focus on the tiniest details of the ‘invention’ in question. Sure, Ted Nelson talked about hyperlinks, but did he specifically talk about hyperlinks over a TCP/IP network? These are the kinds of details that matter in court.

If the U.S. legal system has half a collective brain (we’re reserving judgement), it will take the details with a grain of salt and look at the broad picture. This would have a moderating effect on an out-of-control patent system and would probably encourage more diligence in the granting of new patents. On the other hand, if nit-picking patent-holders like British Telecom win in court, the whole culture of the Internet and commonspace could be in jeopardy. Imagine if you had to pay a licensing fee every time you made a hyperlink. With one stroke of a judge’s pen, the collective mind would be lobotomized.

There is another area that stupid lawyer tricks could also cause mayhem – open source licensing. The actual content of open source licenses like the GNU General Public License is quite an important part of the open source revolution. Not only does it force people who add on to GPL software to freely re-release their code to the open source world, but also it protects developers from being sued for their work. The liability clause of the GPL <www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html> states:

NO WARRANTY

11. BECAUSE THE PROGRAM IS LICENSED FREE OF CHARGE, THERE IS NO WARRANTY FOR THE PROGRAM, TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY APPLICABLE LAW. EXCEPT WHEN OTHERWISE STATED IN WRITING THE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND/OR OTHER PARTIES PROVIDE THE PROGRAM "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. THE ENTIRE RISK AS TO THE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PROGRAM IS WITH YOU. SHOULD THE PROGRAM PROVE DEFECTIVE, YOU ASSUME THE COST OF ALL NECESSARY SERVICING, REPAIR OR CORRECTION.

12. IN NO EVENT UNLESS REQUIRED BY APPLICABLE LAW OR AGREED TO IN WRITING WILL ANY COPYRIGHT HOLDER, OR ANY OTHER PARTY WHO MAY MODIFY AND/OR REDISTRIBUTE THE PROGRAM AS PERMITTED ABOVE, BE LIABLE TO YOU FOR DAMAGES, INCLUDING ANY GENERAL, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES ARISING OUT OF THE USE OR INABILITY TO USE THE PROGRAM (INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO LOSS OF DATA OR DATA BEING RENDERED INACCURATE OR LOSSES SUSTAINED BY YOU OR THIRD PARTIES OR A FAILURE OF THE PROGRAM TO OPERATE WITH ANY OTHER PROGRAMS), EVEN IF SUCH HOLDER OR OTHER PARTY HAS BEEN ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGES.

This kind of limitation on liability is essential for the growth of open source, especially in the business world. Freely releasing and modifying software as part of a global community is the core activity of the open source community. If there were a threat of lawsuit every time you released your code to the world, well, you just wouldn’t release it.

While there have been no big lawsuits that test out the GPL, there are rumblings of concern. Lobbyists working for commercial software vendors are rumoured to be skulking around Washington with the message that the GPL liability clause should be seen as invalid. And with AOL’s yanking of Gnutella from the Nullsoft Web site, there is clearly a corporate consciousness about the risks of open source software bearing the company name. (Despite its name, Gnutella was never an open source project, or associated with the Free Software Foundation in any way. As Richard Stallman notes, there’s no certainty that Gnutella is actually ‘free’ software in the sense that GNU uses it at all.[3]) If the Gnutella situation or concern about the GPL were to grow into a more concrete attack on the liability limitations in the open source license, the emerging ‘free market of software’ could face serious problems.

The motto of the bazaar has always been caveat emptor. If we forget this, we’ll be headed back to the malls and box stores before you can say ‘Windows 2000 shipped with 65,000 bugs.’

#2 Asymmetry

While it’s much quieter – and possibly more insidious – than stupid lawyer tricks, another threat to the Internet is ‘asymmetry’.

At both a technical and a cultural level, the Internet is all about symmetry of connection. As far as the Internet is concerned, any computer can function as either a client or a server, a sender or a receiver. This fact has helped to create a culture that encourages everyone to think of themselves as a publisher or a collaborator. No one is forced to be a member of the audience, though you can always choose to be.

While no one can actually create or send as much information as they consume, the potential to be equal parts sender and receiver is crucial to the survival of commonspace. Sadly, there are a number of things that are eroding this symmetry in sneaky and insidious ways. Some of them, like Web TV boxes that turn the Internet into another form of channel surfing, seem doomed to fail. This is a good thing. But others are actually catching on.

The phenomenon that has the most likelihood of creating mass asymmetry is neighbourhood caching. As more and more people get high-speed connections, it is simply impossible for the Internet backbone to support all of the traffic. To solve this problem, DSL and cable Internet providers are setting up mass caches – storage bins for commonly used files – to serve their networks. At first, this seems like an innocuous and maybe even brilliant technical hack. It means that popular files are available faster (as they are on the local network) and bandwidth to the outside world is reserved for more unique traffic. And at the moment, caching is fairly innocuous.

The risk lies in the potential ‘business opportunities’ that caching offers to network providers. If caches provide better performance, especially for high-bandwidth multimedia files, why not charge content providers for the privilege of being cached? Those who can afford to pay will receive good performance; those that don’t will get crappy performance. Imagine having to choose between seeing Disney content in HDTV-quality video vs. The Blair Witch Project in QuickTime. Obviously, caching charges would seriously degrade the symmetry of connection that drives the Internet and makes it an open marketplace for ideas. The decisions that network providers make in this arena will have a huge impact on the survival of the bazaar of ideas.

#3 Big Brother

 

CommonSpace relies on trust... and privacy. If Big Brother comes along to undermine this trust, the porous borders of organizations will once again begin to fill with cement, and the walls will go up.

The obvious manifestation of Big Brother is government, especially government-controlled public key encryption. The saga of the battle for a free, strong cryptographic standard available to the public is a long and twisted one with many key players, including Phil Zimmerman, inventor of PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) <www.pgp.com>, The Electronic Frontier Foundation <www.eff.org>, the U.S. government <www.fedcirc.gov>, The Center for Democracy and Technology < www.cdt.org >, 2600 <www.2600.org>, and various and sundry hackers, crackers, cypherpunks and hackers-crackers-cypherpunks-turned-security-experts (such as Lopht Heavy Industries<www.l0pht.com>). In brief (and reductively – we could write another whole book on this), the conflict lies between those that believe that the cryptographic ‘keys’ which determine who can read an encrypted message (whether hardware or software-based) should be controlled by the government, and those that believe the keys should only be in the hands of those that their users wish them to have.

For now, the user-controlled encryption advocates are in the ascendancy. The U.S. government is expected to release new encryption export rules in the very near future, giving people better access to the strongest forms of encryption, regardless of key length or algorithm. This will represent a major change in U.S. policy about cryptography; even Web browsers and e-mail programs are required to produce alternate versions with ‘weak’ encryption for versions to be distributed outside the U.S. There have been some setbacks, such as the recent revelation of a security hole in PGP, the flagship free encryption program; but for the most part, the public right to encrypt sensitive data is well established.

But there is another Big Brother threat on the Internet: consumer data aggregation. When it’s been merged into an anonymous pool that represents general trends (without identifying individuals), aggregated consumer data can be a good thing. It even holds the potential to ensure that there’s less spam for everyone (Anonymity good! Spam bad!). But when aggregated consumer data is attached to our names (a process called ‘profiling’), it has super-scary Big Brother potential.

Profiling is not unique to the Internet, of course. Cards that offer travel miles and other affinity programs regularly share buying information about their members for the purpose of aggregation. In these cases, your name is attached to buying data from every business in the affinity program and then given back to them for direct marketing purposes. All your personal habits are floating around in plain sight of the marketing weasels.  Scared yet?

Studies show that we split three ways on the issue of our consumer data and privacy. One quarter of us don’t really care what’s done with information about our buying habits. Another quarter of us are ‘fundamentalists’ who don’t want anyone to know anything about us. The rest of us could go either way, depending on our impressions about how the data is going to be used in a given situation. If we feel that the information is being used anonymously or at least responsibly, we are happy to hand out our information. If we think it is going to be shared too freely across companies or given to private investigators, we instantly turn into pissed-off, pro-cypherpunk privacy zealots.

Companies that gather information about their customers need to learn that it’s not enough to implement and honour their privacy policies. They also need to build trust. People have to have a reasonable amount of confidence in the way companies use their information. Companies gathering data need to be hyper-aware and respectful of privacy-related issues. If they aren’t, they could contribute to the freezing-up of the exact kind of commonspace applications that they most want to access (i.e. targeted advertising). They could also slow down the overall process of social confidence-building that is necessary for the Internet to continue to grow and thrive.

#4 Unbridled Libertarianism

Politically, the culture of the Internet is a weird mix of unbridled libertarianism, anarchism, free-market capitalism and collectivism. At the root of the Internet, there is a kernel of wisdom that says ‘You can have complete individual freedom and contribute a better society for everyone at the same time.’ This belief is one of the key elements of commonspace. The unbridled libertarianism portion of the equation, however, can get a little out of hand.

We say this not because we’re advocating curbs on Internet freedom. Rather, our concern stems from the naïve utopianism that online super-libertarian stances frequently exhibit. (In passing, it’s worth mentioning that we suspect some people will accuse us of wishful thinking as well. Let the chips fall.) Over the last few years, we’ve heard it all. Some have argued that TCP/IP is somehow inherently anti-control or anti-authoritarian. Others have smugly extolled the Internet’s famous ability to blithely route around ‘damage’ like governments and conservative control freaks. And everywhere, there Stewart Brand’s famous cliché, ‘information wants to be free.’ Behind all the bluster is the tacit implication that the baddies of the old economy and big government ultimately can’t stop the online libertarian juggernaut, no matter what.

We’re all for hyperbole in the service of a worthy cause, but overhyping the ‘inherent’ democratic or libertarian potential of anything is a recipe for disaster. It’s also a recipe for being sideswiped when you least expect it. Do you think the early radio amateurs really believed that people would rush en masse to stores hawking radios without transmitters in them? Nope. They were mostly too busy being excited about the exhilarating freedom of communicating with each other – until they couldn’t any more.

Thankfully, there’s room for alternate perspectives and debate in online libertarian circles. Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and one of the idols of the cypherpunk-libertarian community, startled many of his fans with his address to the tenth annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in April 2000. His message: in the face of the very real injustices that employers and other institutions visit on the populace, installing encryption software to guard against the vague threat of an Orwellian nightmare is a simplistic and ultimately inadequate gesture. Stephenson also noted that this adjustment in his concerns had to do with a stray bullet crashing through the wall of a neighbour’s house and narrowly missing a sleeping child. Even more unsettling for the hard-core libertarians in the room was what happened next. Phil ‘Pretty Good Privacy’ Zimmerman stood up during the question period and quietly stated that he had not created PGP to feed the paranoid fantasies of ‘libertarian nutsos looking down a gunsight.’[4]

As typical Canadians, we have to agree. The whole U.S. geeks-with-guns scene makes us twitch. Hell, even our fellow Canuck David Cronenberg thinks guns are obscene, and imagine what it takes to gross him out. Given our high degree of respect for Eric Raymond’s thinking on the subject of open source, we’re not really sure what to do with his obsession with firearms. Call us what you will, but Canadians just don’t write sentences like ‘I found that the sight of three dozen people wearing pistols and casually socializing was curiously bracing.’[5] Not unless we’re making fun of someone, anyway. At least the fact that Raymond calls the firearms portion of his website ‘Eric’s Gun Nut Page’ <www.tuxedo.org/~esr/guns/index.html> shows that he has a sense of humour about the subject.

Not that we have any answers, just an observation. If we want to keep the Internet or anything else free, we need to do a reality check from time to time, and keep an eye on how the current rules are working. People made those rules, and people can change them.

#5 Us

Which brings us to the biggest threat of all: us.

We all make the Internet what it is. We connect to each other. We collaborate. We contribute to the group mind. As we do this, we make, break and morph the rules of commonspace.

As the collective rule-makers, it really is up to all of to ensure that the Internet doesn’t become television or something worse. For the most part, we are doing a great job. Open source thinking is being adopted by huge computer companies, and even by President Clinton’s technology advisory council. Collaborating and connecting – getting out of the spectator seat – is becoming a part of everyday lives. Most importantly, we are showing that the power of collective isn’t just a hippie fantasy: it works for business, it works for government, it works for all of us. Together, we’ve created the culture of commonspace. The thing is, if we want it to stay alive, we’re the ones who have to make it happen.

Otherwise, there are plenty of dirt-stupid marketing flacks who’ll be more than happy to swap your keyboard for a remote control with a big red ‘Buy’ button on it.



[1] <www.kerryr.net/pioneers/memex.htm>

[2] <www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~ted/XUsurvey/xuDation.html>

[3] For more information, see <www.gnu.org/philosophy/gnutella.html>

[4] <www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24833-2000Apr6.html>

[5] <www.tuxedo.org/~esr/guns/ipscc1.html>

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