The Flow of Information is Slowing Down
Over Thanksgiving, I was reminiscing with friends about the early days of the internet. My own memory over the first time I saw the internet was with my parents; my dad was in graduate school, and my mom called me and my brother in to his office to show us something on his computer.
He was looking at an article from the library of a different university, hundreds of miles away. My parents thought it was amazing, my brother and I kind of thought it was boring. The best thing about my dad’s computer was, occasionally when he wasn’t using it he let my brother and I play games on it; we had no real interest in boring walls of text, no matter how far away they were.
But, I often think back on that memory nostalgically now; the initial point of the internet was to share information with people, it was so generous with intent and I think many of us took that for granted in the early years. For decades, “sharing information” felt like the primary purpose of the internet.
It doesn’t feel like that anymore.
Today, the internet feels more like a vehicle for powerful companies to attempt to deepen their control over culture. Wikipedia feels like an anachronism that survives simply because it got baked in early; I have a tough time imaging something that big and that free being created nowadays. But… that’s how the internet used to be; a free source of knowledge.
Something I hate about searching Google nowadays is so much of the information I’m looking for is behind paywalls. You want to know something? If someone is going to lock the their info behind a paywall, I don’t think they deserve to be on the front page of Google.
“But how will The New York Times survive without a paywall?”
I don’t give a fuck; figure it out. Education should be free, and we need to get there as a society so we don’t boil the planet, or die drinking bleach. The problem is, all the propagandists are giving their information away for free, and the upper classes have impoverished the lower classes of our society. If we don’t make good information free, we will be living in a population primarily informed by propaganda, because the people who need the information can’t afford to pay for 10 different paywalls.
Truthfully, living in a population informed by propaganda is basically where we’re at now, and you should’t make the assumption that you’re immune from it. “Why does the working class keep voting against their own interests?” we ask. But, how do you know that you’re not voting against your own interests? Where do you get your information from, and most importantly, who is paying money to get you to read that information?
If we add to the fact that the US conservative government (and, I’m referring to both the dems and the republicans when I say that) has allowed many of the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) and FAANG adjacent companies to basically have unchecked monopolies in certain areas (especially areas relating to information flow) we are living in a kind of informationally controlled capitalist dystopia. If someone can’t make a buck on you learning something, you’re unlikely to learn it. And, these companies are so aggressive with their mergers and acquisitions that any time a company comes along that threatens to break their monopoly, they basically just buy it so they’re no longer a threat.
As a simple example, consider Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012. Effectively, at some point the youths started preferring visual media (e.g. photos and videos) over written media, and Instagram was a risk to Facebook’s business model, which was primarily text based. Effectively, Instagram was an existential threat to Facebook, which (if you’re a consumer) is good by the way. If you believe in the true capitalist model, then competition forces the quality of goods to be higher. In the traditional model, if Instagram was offering a superior service to Facebook, then Facebook would have to figure out how to increase the quality of the services they provided or go out of business.
However, in our current environment, Facebook just purchased Instagram neutralizing the threat of innovation, and effectively forcing the market to adapt to inferior products. This is somewhat illegal under American law by the way, and you can read about Zuckerberg’s emails detailing how he essentially knew this behavior was anti competitive here if you want.
But, this type of anti competitive behavior has been happening for decades by now, and culturally we’re suffering from the results. Services we used to rely on to get high quality information (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) are breaking down. I know it seems like Elon Musk is exploding twitter, but truth is, something there was going to break because something was off with Twitter, and we all knew it. Same thing with Facebook, same thing with Google — these services aren’t working as efficiently as they used to, because they have become disproportionately cluttered with advertising interests, and the people working there care more about improving the stock value of the parent company has than providing high quality services for their users.
In a society where the anti-trust laws were functioning effectively, these companies either would have been broken up by now, or certain mergers wouldn’t have been allowed or whatever, and we’d have competing companies offering competing services (remember when there were more search engines than Google? That’s what it would look like.) As is, as individuals, we have comparatively worse access to information than we had a decade ago. That’s because the companies providing us these services have monopolies so that means they don’t need to keep their value proposition high — or, phrased another way, they can feed us shitty information, and we have to take it because there’s no one else around for us to turn to.
Only thing is, things can only go on so long like this before things begin to break down — and, I think stuff’s starting to break down right around now. Mass firings in the tech world in particular are interesting, because one thing that the FAANG/FAANG adjacent companies used to do was hire all the engineers capable of competing with them and basically pay them to do nothing. Facebook, for example, hired way more engineers than it needed because the point wasn’t to improve Facebook, but rather to stop high quality engineers from founding competing companies. Only thing is, the bottom just fell out and it’s not making enough money anymore to literally keep paying people to do nothing anymore.
Frankly, I think we could be about 1–2 years before a new generation of tech innovation begins back up again, but in those interim 1–2 years our tech services are going to fucking suck. Twitter’s breaking down, probably Google and Facebook will break down somewhat and it will be harder than ever to access high quality information. TikTok is doing well, but like… is owned by China? Does that matter? Maybe.
Unfortunately, information access is so important that its breaking down might actually hinder or prevent a tech renaissance. But, if it doesn’t — if we manage to scrape through somehow — I think 10 years from now we’ll be in a much better place. However, in the meantime, I think we really need to value and support services that are offering free, high quality educational services to people. For instance, I just gave Wikipedia $5 — which I rarely do, but honestly, I’m so glad they’re still around. We have to stop rewarding people for paywalling their content, or for serving up advertisements in the same spaces they serve up real information; we seem to know we’re drowning in misinformation, but we don’t usually cite tech anti-trust behavior implicated as a potential source. I think it’s a major source of our current misinformation though, and I think as this tech suffers due to larger economic factors, we’re all likely to see our information quality dip even further because we allowed them so much informational control in the first place.