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Alexa, how do we disrupt the tech lords?

Credit: Westend61, Getty Images

Credit: Westend61, Getty Images

May 10, 2018   3 mins

Ethan Zuckerman helped to invent the pop-up ad. But if you can forgive him that, his interview by Noah Kulwin for New York magazine is well worth a read:

Like a lot of Silicon Valley alumni, Zuckerman (now a professor at MIT) views today’s internet with a degree of horror. An old enemy – the push to create a proprietary internet walled-off from outside information sources – has come back from the dead and is more powerful than ever:

“…imagine that you had a web browser that could only look at Facebook. It couldn’t look at any other website. Well, that’s what we had more or less in the days of AOL and CompuServe. They finally had to open up, otherwise they would die. But that was that walled-garden model.

“In many ways, that’s now what we’re all dealing with on our phones, you know? My Facebook app won’t let me look at Twitter, and it won’t let me look at Mastodon, and it won’t let me look at anything else.”

The new tech lords have yet to capture the web in its entirety, but Zuckerman believes that their dominance comes at a terrible cost:

“I really feel like we’ve lost about ten years of innovation. I feel like this last decade has been pretty boring for the web.”

He’s right. Think about the development of internet in decade-long chunks. In 1988, most of us hadn’t even heard of the internet, but by 1998, email was widespread and websites commonplace (even if we were still using dial-up modems to access them). Fast forward another ten years to 2008 and broadband had become the norm. Google and Facebook were also achieving default status – indeed the internet as we know it today was pretty much all there already.

But that’s the problem: the internet in 2018 is really not that different from the internet in 2008. Compared with the enormous leaps of the previous two decades, the most recent decade has been one of consolidation – and, some might say, stagnation.

Of course, thanks to the smartphone (and the spread of halfway decent wi-fi) the internet has gone fully mobile over the last decade – but it’s still basically the same internet, only on a smaller screen. Any upgrades on ‘web 2.0’ are after, not before, the decimal point.

Zuckerman pins the blame on market incumbency:

“You used to be able to do something novel online for a modest amount of money. And in many ways, it’s still pretty easy to program something new. But it’s very difficult to build an audience for it unless you are essentially willing to pay quite a bit of money to an existing partner. Or essentially try to buy that audience through Facebook or Google.”

He’s not arguing that there’s been no internet-related innovation over the last decade. Tellingly, however, it’s been concentrated in domains beyond the digital advertising oligopoly. One of these is China – where market barriers place Google and Facebook on the outside. The other one that Zuckerman mentions, is the market for services such as Uber and AirBnB – which are about applying internet technology to “monetise the physical world”.

A third domain that Zuckerman doesn’t mention is the digital assistant – e.g. Alexa, Siri etc. Admittedly, this is yet another area that the tech giants currently control. Furthermore, these aren’t services that generate their own revenue streams (other than the sale of speaker units). For the moment, they can be viewed as extentions of established Silicon Valley business models.

However, as the AI that powers digital assistants continues to improve, a more disruptive scenario presents itself. The standard social media business model is all about attracting, directing and retaining our attention within a proprietary online environment whose purpose is to sell digital advertising.

The purpose of a properly smart digital assistant, however, would be to trawl the internet so that we don’t have to – finding the information and making the arrangements we need to improve our experience of the real world. If they’re any good, these are services that we’d pay for directly – just as people pay for human assistants.

The digital assistant would be much cheaper, of course, and would truly represent the next leap in the development of the Web – an internet that doesn’t distract us, but instead helps us to achieve what we really want to do with our lives.

Meanwhile, businesses based on selling our attention to advertisers will get exactly what they deserve.

The giants of social media may appear to be impregnable, but in the end it’s all a matter of time.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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