John Naughton’s column in The Observer today cites one of my favourite recent books, Timothy Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. The column’s subject is the possibility that the internet as we know it has come to the end of the road of innovation, and is being locked down by large businesses through an insane IP regime and patent wars, strangleholds on infrastructure and (for most information companies) dysfunctional business models. Naughton writes:
“The biggest curb on innovation is the fact that the technologies that might serve as the springboards for next-generation surprises are increasingly closed and controlled.”
It is, he suggests, the culmination of one of the cycles of innovation and ultimately control identified in Wu’s book. His key point is this: “Industry structure…is what determines the freedom of expression,” (p155, hardback edition). These issues of competition and market power are not minor matters in markets so intimately linked to the power of ideas and thought.
Serendipitously, I also read this week a terrifically interesting article from (a new to me discovery) the Hedgehog Review, Why Google Isn’t Making us Stupid … Or Smart. It starts with a description of the intellectual debate about the effects of books. Leibniz turns out to have been the Nicholas Carr of that discussion: “the horrible mass of books keeps growing.”
Author Chad Wellman concludes:
“As we saw with Enlightenment reading technologies, knowledge emerges out of complex processes of selection, distinction, and judgment—out of the irreducible interactions of humans and technology. We should resist the false promise that the empty box below the Google logo has come to represent—either unmediated access to pure knowledge or a life of distraction and shallow information. It is a ruse. Knowledge is hard won; it is crafted, created, and organized by humans and their technologies.”
The key word in that last sentence may be ‘organized’ – the commercial and political structures we place around the information technologies determine what we know.