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kottke.org posts about the future

The internet is an all-in-one machine

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 17, 2017

Kevin Kelly’s helped me make sense of the internet for as long as I can remember. One of his best blog posts, from 2008, is “Better Than Free.”

The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free…

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.

When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

Well, what can’t be copied?

Kelly suggests eight “generative” values that can’t be easily copied by the internet: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment,
Patronage, and Findability. This list holds up pretty well: digital tech has handled some of these things better than others (we can get our digital files from the cloud almost anywhere; embodiment is still mostly analog). And most of these things we do pay for, if only in the form of being locked in to one company’s ecosystem that manages these things for us. It also ties in clearly to 1000 True Fans and other essays of Kelly’s that have turned out to be prescient and/or influential.

But is the internet really best characterized as a copy machine? This has always bothered me. Unlimited free copies of digital objects proliferating everywhere is a problem because of the internet. But the other things that the internet does pose thorny problems too.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that “the internet is a fax machine.” Most of what we do on the internet is zip digital documents back and forth from one machine to the other. It would be nice to think of that process as simply copying. But we need channels and tubes and signals and protocols to move those docs back and forth, and all of that we pay for. And at a more abstract level, we need distribution channels so the docs reach who they’re supposed to. TCP/IP is a distribution channel, but so are Facebook and Google and Snapchat and Twitter. Somebody ends up paying for all of them.

The other two parts of the all-in-one machine are more complicated. If we’re just copying things backwards and forwards, we never add anything new. And if you look at a lot of internet media, it’s mostly just recycled content from some other part of the internet. A Reddit thread becomes a Twitter meme becomes a web story becomes a TV story, which becomes 20 web stories. Copying is getting pretty tired. We need to do more scanning — literally and figuratively. We need to think harder about how to make the offline and online worlds meet. The internet companies spending real money right now are spending it on this problem.

Printing is just the other side of the same thing. How can we translate online activity to offline action? Or, even if it stays digital, how do we produce a work that people can recognized as a finished object? How can we move a digital thing from one physical experience to another? If we used to print digital documents or photos from our PCs to get a better look at them, maybe now we move videos and games from our smartphones to bigger screens in our offices and living rooms. It’s still the same kind of process, and we need to solve similar kinds of problems to the ones when we were first figuring out how to establish a WYSIWYG relationship between software and a printed page. All of that takes work, and all of that takes money.

In other words, we don’t pay for the copies — we pay for the toner. Same as it ever was.

We Work Remotely

Wired in the 1990s

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

I used to work at Wired, and later at The Verge, and at both places we had a lot of reverence for “Wired in the 90s.” You’d say it fast like that, too — “wired-in-the-90s” — and it was a universally recognized shorthand for relevance, cool, slick design, smart writers, the “culture of now.” I suspect it probably stands for that for a lot of Kottke readers too.

Yesterday, for reasons unknown, my RSS reader spit up a random Kevin Kelly post from 2012 called “Predicting the Present” that excerpts a bunch of quotes from the early years of Wired. Here are some of them (I tried to pick fun ones):

We as a culture are deeply, hopelessly, insanely in love with gadgetry. And you can’t fight love and win.

Jaron Lanier, Wired 1.02, May/June 1993, p. 80

The idea of Apple making a $200 anything was ridiculous to me. Apple couldn’t make a $200 blank disk.

— Bill Atkinson, Wired 2.04, Apr 1994, p. 104

Marc Andreessen will tell you with a straight face that he expects Mosaic Communications’s Mosaic to become the world’s standard interface to electronic information.

— Gary Wolf, Wired 2.10, Oct 1994, p. 116

The human spirit is infinitely more complex than anything that we’re going to be able to create in the short run. And if we somehow did create it in the short run, it would mean that we aren’t so complex after all, and that we’ve all been tricking ourselves.

— Douglas Hofstadter, Wired 3.11, Nov 1995, p. 114

Of all the prospects raised by the evolution of digital culture, the most tantalizing is the possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society.

— Jon Katz, Wired 5.04, Apr 1997

It is the arrogance of every age to believe that yesterday was calm.

— Tom Peters, Wired 5.12, Dec 1997

Separately, Ingrid Burrington was leafing through a 1996 issue of Wired and found this beauty:

AI-based investment systems will cut a swath through Wall Street, automating thousands of jobs or downgrading their skills.

— Clive Davidson, freely quoting Ron Liesching, Wired 4.12, Dec 1996