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Counterfactuals – Net.Wars by Wendy Grossman

Originally published on pelicancrossing.net

On Tuesday evening, virtual reality pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier, in London to promote his latest book, Dawn of the New Everything, suggested the internet took a wrong turn in the 1990s by rejecting the idea of combating spam by imposing a tiny – “homeopathic” – charge to send email. Think where we’d be now, he said. The mindset of paying for things would have been established early, and instead of today’s “behavior modification empires” we’d have a system where people were paid for the content they produce.

Lanier went on to invoke the ghost of Ted Nelson who began his earliest work on Project Xanadu in 1960, before ARPAnet, the internet, and the web. The web fosters copying. Xanadu instead gave every resource a permanent and unique address, and linking instead of copying meant nothing ever lost its context.

The problem, as Nelson’s 2011 autobiography Possiplexand a 1995 Wired article, made plain, is that trying to get the thing to work was a heartbreaking journey filled with cycles of despair and hope that was increasingly orthogonal to where the rest of the world was going. While efforts continue, it’s still difficult to comprehend, no matter how technically visionary and conceptually advanced it was. The web wins on simplicity.

But the web also won because it was free. Tim Berners-Lee is very clear about the importance he attaches to deciding not to patent the web and charge licensing fees. Lanier, whose personal stories about internetworking go back to the 1980s, surely knows this. When the web arrived, it had competition: Gopher, Archie, WAIS. Each had its limitations in terms of user interface and reach. The web won partly because it unified all their functions and was simpler – but also because it was freer than the others.

Suppose those who wanted minuscule payments for email had won? Lanier believes today’s landscape would be very different. Most of today’s machine learning systems, from IBM Watson’s medical diagnostician to the various quick-and-dirty translation services rely on mining an extensive existing corpus of human-generated material. In Watson’s case, it’s medical research, case studies, peer review, and editing; in the case of translation services it’s billions of side-by-side human-translated pages that are available on the web (though later improvements have taken a new approach). Lanier is right that the AIs built by crunching found data are parasites on generations of human-created and curated knowledge. By his logic, establishing payment early as a fundamental part of the internet would have ensured that the humans that created all that data would be paid for their contributions when machine learning systems mined it. Clarity would result: instead of the “cruel” trope that AIs are rendering humans unnecessary, it would be obvious that AI progress relied on continued human input. For that we could all be paid rather than being made “wards of the state”.

Consider a practical application. Microsoft’s LinkedIn is in court opposing HiQ, a company that scrapes LinkedIn’s data to offer employers services that LinkedIn might like to offer itself. The case, which was decided in HiQ’s favor in August but is appeal-bound, pits user privacy (argued by EPIC) against innovation and competition (argued by EFF). Everyone speaks for the 500 million whose work histories are on LinkedIn, but no one speaks for our individual ownership of our own information.

Let’s move to Lanier’s alternative universe and say the charge had been applied. Spam dropped out of email early on. We developed the habit of paying for information. Publishers and the entertainment industry would have benefited much sooner, and if companies like Facebook and LinkedIn had started, their business models would have been based on payments for posters and charges for readers (he claims to believe that Facebook will change its business model in this direction in the coming years; it might, but if so I bet it keeps the advertising).

In that world, LinkedIn might be our broker or agent negotiating terms with HiQ on our behalf rather than in its own interests. When the web came along, Berners-Lee might have thought pay-to-click logical, and today internet search might involve deciding which paid technology to use. If, that is, people found it economic to put the information up in the first place. The key problem with Lanier’s alternative universe: there were no micropayments. A friend suggests that China might be able to run this experiment now: Golden Shield has full control, and everyone uses WeChat and AliPay.

I don’t believe technology has a manifest destiny, but I do believe humans love free and convenient, and that overwhelms theory. The globally spreading all-you-can-eat internet rapidly killed the existing paid information services after commercial access was allowed in 1994. I’d guess that the more likely outcome of charging for email would have been the rise of free alternatives to email – instant messaging, for example, which happened in our world to avoid spam. The motivation to merge spam with viruses and crack into people’s accounts to send spam would have arisen earlier than it did, so security would have been an earlier disaster. As the fundamental wrong turn, I’d instead pickcentralization.

Lanier noted the culminating irony: “The left built this authoritarian network. It needs to be undone.”

The internet is still young. It might be possible, if we can agree on a path.

Illustrations: Jaron Lanier in conversation with Luke Robert Mason (Eva Pascoe);

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard – or follow on Twitter.

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