Emerging Technology: The Internet

The look of truly democratic media: rude, funny, creative, and fickle as fashion.

By Steven Johnson|Saturday, July 29, 2006
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS

Three years ago, when I wrote my first column for DISCOVER, many of the popular sites on the Web didn't exist. The social-networking MySpace—the bane of parents everywhere—is the fourth most visited site on the Web but just two years old. The explosively popular YouTube was launched just last year. The file-sharing service BitTorrent, which may account for a third of the data flowing over the Internet, only recently hit its stride. Entire genres of Web sites have gone from esoteric to mainstream in just a few years. In 2003 there were about half a million blogs. Today there are 30 million.

The iTunes music store was launched just as I was writing my first column, when the iPod was a year old. Together they have ushered in the most dramatic transformation in the way people purchase and listen to music since the introduction of the LP record more than 60 years ago. TV and film are headed for similar disruption.

There is an unnerving sense now that technology is driving the culture rather than the reverse. Machines and sites and software are breeding at an exponential clip, and we hapless humans race around trying to adapt. We're responding not just to a surfeit of information but also to a surfeit of new tools for managing information. It's not enough to keep up with a dozen bloggers and their daily posts. Now we have to keep up with the RSS blog subscription software that was released only last week.

It's too simplistic to say what we're reeling from is technological determinism. Most of the innovations of the late 20th century, like computers, CDs, and color TV, came from large-scale industrial engineering and manufacture. But almost all the profound technological innovations of the past 15 years have come from software, not hardware. Software is intrinsically more malleable—and more readily transformed by individuals and small groups. Just think of the Web, the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, a single researcher at a Swiss physics lab. A shockingly large number of the significant innovations of the past decade have come from just a few individuals, including those who created Google, Napster, BitTorrent, and Blogger.

The breakthroughs show us that software is capable of remarkable shape-shifting. The World Wide Web that dazzled us in the mid-1990s was essentially a static series of text pages connected by hyperlinks. We thought the Web was an ideal platform for self-publishing until Blogger came along and showed how much better it could be. We thought the Web was an ideal platform for virtual communities, then Friendster and MySpace showed up. Today the Web has become a development platform for almost any kind of software, including e-mail programs, mapping tools, and calendars.

If technology sometimes seems as if it is controlling our lives, remember that we have the power to manipulate it. We are not slaves to machines, because the tools for programming them evolve as quickly as the machines. A great example is the explosion of online services dedicated to face-to-face encounters with other people, like online dating sites and the Meetup service that played a pivotal role in Howard Dean's presidential campaign. We assumed that software chained us to a computer; then programmers created sites designed to get us out of our cubicles and into the real world.

Something fundamental has changed in the minds of consumers as well. Radical shifts in technology once required a process: evangelism, training, then slow adoption. But for those who grew up with the shape-shifting of software, innovations unfold with the rhythm and passion of fashion—a constant, surging quest for the latest thing. Even the most ardent supporter of blogging could not have predicted 30 million blogs. Having a MySpace.com presence went from hobby to mandatory for every teenager in less than 16 months. The ease of producing software is matched by a hunger for innovation among consumers. They're blogging, podcasting, gaming, and building virtual worlds. So many people have been willing to adopt new tools in such a short time because the tools have been designed to give them a voice, to allow them to shape media.

OK, so this is hardly a utopian development. Democratizing media also means that idiots and racists and pedophiles and all the people out there who happen not to share your political viewpoint have access to the most powerful printing press in history. Parents find MySpace shocking partly because it makes visible teen interactions that were once conducted below the radar of our awareness.

So the way you feel about the rise of all the new technologies comes down to the way you feel about human beings. If you're a misanthrope, these trends are alarming. If you feel that most people are benevolent and that they tend to share good information when given the chance, then the rise of democratic media will strike you as positive. Whether you approve or not, you're going to have to get used to it. The gatekeepers no longer control media the way they used to. The future brings to mind the words of James Joyce in Finnegans Wake: "Here comes everybody."

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