the internet is a series of tubes

Between my 18th birthday in 2006 and my 20th in 2008:

  • thefacebook became just Facebook
  • Twitter was founded (and I’ll never forget thinking what a horrible idea it was hearing this on NPR).1
  • Youtube came into being and was bought by Google.2
  • Amazon Web Services releases its first product, AWS S3.
  • The iPhone was introduced (and to everyone’s shock and horror, didn’t support Macromedia Adobe Flash. It was a big deal, trust me.3
  • The first public specification of HTML5 came out in early 2008. Google Chrome followed a few months later.4

I mention all this because it was 2006 when Ted Stevens, the late senior senator from Alaska declared the internet to be a “Series of Tubes."5 Between that speech, the music video remixes, and Adam Sandberg+Chris Parnell’s Lazy Sunday, we were off to the races.6 And, oh yeah, Time Magazine made “You” the person of the year, complete with a shiny cover that was supposed to look like a mirror.7 AKA, the last time Time had much of any meaningful influence on the Zeitgeist.

It’s a strange thing, how much we (as a society) just kinda all jumped into this morass, myself (shamefully) included. I remember the September 2006 boycott across the US with college students upset about Facebook’s introduction of the newsfeed.8 And then, later that same month, when FB opened itself up to anyone.9 “MTV U,” which blared in the dining halls across Oklahoma State University, gave it all a fair bit of coverage. But both incidents were seemingly forgotten in a week.

So we started posting our photos and our whatever, loading it all into FB. And then Google Drive. And Instagram. You get the idea. Whereas in the second iteration of the net (roughly 1994?-2006?) folks would talk about how concerned they were about privacy, people started shoveling data into the social media machine. Time’s 2006 article naming “You” the person of the year framed it thus:

The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.

While also noting:

Sure, it’s a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary. Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred. But that’s what makes all this interesting. Web 2.0 is a massive social experiment, and like any experiment worth trying, it could fail. There’s no road map for how an organism that’s not a bacterium lives and works together on this planet in numbers in excess of 6 billion. But 2006 gave us some ideas. This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person. It’s a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them. Go on. Tell us you’re not just a little bit curious.

Yeah. We sure did beat the pros at their own game. Uh huh. The final victory of democracy and privacy over unrestrained capitalism. How could anyone forget Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin, et al. raising the white flag over Palo Alto?

Nope. Instead, in doing all of this, we abandoned a lot of what makes computers great and useful. We moved everything to platforms in the cloud, these great new “free” services.10 It didn’t occur to most folks, myself included, that customer “analytics,” basically, tracking how much time you spend on a given service (or worse, tracking cookies that tell Facebook/Google etc. which sites you’re visiting), is how they’re actually making their money. Why yes, I do feel like an idiot after writing that.

And so that’s where we are.

You’re probably saying, “well no shit, Sherlock. You just now figured it out? What took you so long?” which is a fair question.

If this blog is really anything, it’s just an attempt to piece together some thoughts I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while now. About privacy. About technology. Probably occasionally also about WMATA, aka Washington DC’s regional transit agency.

It’s about a world that is moving far far far too fast for the cognitive bandwidth of most engaged citizens.

At least it’s not Twitter, I guess.

…and if you liked this post, please don’t forget to share it on Twitter, Facebook, and Panopticon…

  1. See also ↩︎

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  4. 22 January 2008, specifically. See also: ↩︎

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  10. See also this classic rant from and about Google+ ↩︎