Rapid technological change can be unsettling, writes Milo Yiannopoulos, but there is little reason to suppose that internet businesses will end up as stagnant as the manufacturing firms that came before them.
A few days ago, Nick Bilton wrote a column complaining that the internet is growing up. (Take a few moments to read it.) There’ll be no more “innovation for the fun of it”, Bilton whines, likening the web ecosystem to other industries in which power and money have brought stagnation and corruption. This short New York Times column has been garnering praise from those eager to exhibit their transgressive credentials – and to advertise how wedded to “fun” they are – but it is seriously flawed and it exhibits a naïve understanding of what technology companies do.
He’s right that the internet is growing up. But he couldn’t be more wrong about it being a less fun place now as a result. To begin with, Bilton’s historical perspective is a little off, to put it mildly. He imagines halcyon days in the nascent car, phone and aviation industries that were disruptive and fun, populated with “tinkerers”, until the firms concerned grew so large that regulators had to step in and the companies themselves began to throw their weight around for competitive advantage.
Perhaps he has forgotten about Microsoft, the second-most important software firm on the planet, which has been leveraging its market share and influence in a tyrannical manner indistinguishable from a bullying airline or monopolistic mobile phone carrier for well over a decade already, and which began to do so the very moment it could get away with it. In a piece concerned with the death of fun and the crushing of competitors, he doesn’t mention the company once.
That said, it would be wise to remember that while Microsoft’s business may have long-term worries, and though its internal culture remains comically dysfunctional, in the last five years it has produced some brilliant software and indisputably the best games console on the market.
When Bilton implies that Apple and Google have somehow changed since their early days, asking whether their alleged newly relaxed attitudes to third-party privacy infractions is killing the fun, one has to wonder whether he has really been paying attention to the headlines and listening to the company insiders who are surely at his fingertips. Is it even true that Apple has only recently relaxed its policies to allow intrusive third-party apps to violate your personal data?
A disservice is done to the reader by bloggers who paint internet and software companies of any size as virtuous. The halo around Twitter in its early days, for example, was laughable. Each of these firms has a path to success that requires ethical compromises to be made: their business models demand it. That doesn’t stop them being fun places to work, or prevent them from creating delightful products. But to look at the corporate landscape of the technology industry today and see paradise in decline requires the viewer to don the most opaque of all rose-tinted spectacles.
In other words, Microsoft has always been “evil”, to award them the conventional idiom, just like Google and just like Apple. Additionally, there is nothing to suggest that today’s hot new start-ups with their fresh approaches to manipulating our rampant desires and uncontrollable appetites are any less joyful places than Google was in 1999. The devil has the best tunes precisely because exploiting temptation is so much more, yes, fun.
Returning to the distinction Bilton makes between the internet and other industries, I wonder whether he has properly thought through his choices of example. I mean, take aviation. I can think of few billion-dollar industries being more comprehensively and thrillingly shaken up than air travel. Love them or loathe them, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and easyJet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou are textbook devil-may-care disruptors who have made travel available to millions more people than would have otherwise been able to afford it and driven down the cost of doing business internationally. There are of course similar low-cost innovators in America.
As for mobile phone networks, well, I suspect our columnist is simply failing to see beyond the boundaries of his own country, whose operators are only sluggish to get with the programme demanded by consumers because America’s utility companies have always been so parochial and backwards. Glance over to Africa or Asia and you’ll see plenty going on that challenges the conventional view of mobile networks as oppressive hegemonies.
And consider the automotive industry, within which someone from Bilton’s own beat is making extraordinary inroads. In fact, in almost any industry you care to mention, there are extraordinary things going on at the fringes that promise to uproot the establishment – if only you can be bothered to look for them. Which leaves me wondering what, exactly, Nick Bilton means by “fun”.
Notwithstanding those exceptions to what are, fair enough, pretty entrenched oligarchies, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that the software industry will follow a quite different path to the manufacturing industries Bilton invokes. It is highly unlikely to coagulate in the same way. For instance, in which other industries are initiatives like this one reported on almost every week? Where is the Singularity University for automotive engineers?
This differing velocity – the fact that progress and innovation in software is only going to accelerate, rather than splutter to a halt as in some other industries – need not, I admit, necessarily lead to an entirely healthy prognosis. I know of few industries, to give one example, in which largely talentless but relentlessly mouthy bloggers have undergone Damascene conversions and become actually desirable investors.
(One would hope that if we are correct about the internet’s ever-quickening maturation, such aberrancies will soon correct themselves, and come to be seen as adolescent growing pains. There is certainly something adolescent about the needy and attention-seeking cabal of tech bloggers currently running the show.)
But the transformative power of software is unique in the history of global economics, and its effects are only just beginning to get truly interesting. The speed with which platforms and services can now be deployed and the hopelessly Sisyphean task before governmental regulators as they look out on an ecosystem innovating and developing more rapidly than they can hope to comprehend suggests that, unlike in the case of cars or planes, the new transactional and social norms online will be defined even more entirely by corporations and not by governments.
That’s a scary thought, particularly to those with European sensibilities around privacy, when you consider how blithely Facebook and Google treat our personal data. Then again, who can say that the public sector surveillance culture taking root in most supposedly liberal western democracies is any better?
When all is said and done, I think I trust a corporation whose bottom line depends on maintaining the trust and good graces of its users over a bloated government levying compulsory taxes, whose primary function is its own engorgement and self-justification – which is of course the unhappy position we in Britain and America now find ourselves in.
I am glad the industry is growing up. It means that while ever-more people will experiment and be showered with the largesse of angels and idiotic government quangos (generating hugely enjoyable variety and diversity), fewer of them will be indulged by venture capital and growth equity further up the food chain unless they really know their stuff. Investors will get savvier as critical portions of the investment market contract around the smarter players. Entrepreneurs will raise their game accordingly. And the journalists who cover them both will, we can only hope, follow suit.
There are indeed some worrying signs about the trajectory of the internet industry. But they aren’t any of the things Nick Bilton thinks. By fetishising a narrow definition of fun, he is missing the bigger picture: the possibilities are so great, and the barriers to entry so low, that it would take a global outbreak of enforced lobotomies to avoid the inevitable, rapid, occasionally disorientating, sometimes troubling but always exhilarating innovation coming from Silicon Valley and beyond.
Far from becoming moribund and devoid of innocence and joy, the internet industry has never been more vibrant, more creative or more exciting. Even the influx of charlatans, wannabes and needless distractions, particularly the governmental public relations campaigns like Britain’s Tech City Investment Organisation, provide rich pickings for debate and at least remind us of the gravity of what is happening all around.
The feedback effects on our culture from the social software revolution are both intellectually challenging and morally ambiguous. Every day we are presented with new apps and services with the aspirations to profoundly change the way human beings communicate and understand their relationships with one another, as Facebook has done, or permanently alter the nature and content of discussion in the public square, as Twitter has.
Teaching ourselves how to navigate this new world – a world that is changing so quickly that many of us are left breathless simply keeping up with it while not relinquishing our humanity and while keeping control of our appetites – is to be the chief preoccupation of our lives for the foreseeable future. And there are more plucky young entrepreneurs brimming with that special brand of enthusiasm and hubris throwing digital spanners in the works than ever before.
To me, that sounds like more than enough fun to be getting on with.