The Internet Bubble

Don’t misunderstand. I believe in the Internet. It’s deeply embedded in my life. It makes so many things so much easier than they used to be. It’s the source of my paychecks. But the Internet is a bubble. Still.

Most of the people I deal with on a daily basis would laugh at that thought, but hear me out.

The Internet is a bubble in three ways:

1. A lot of people don’t use the Internet much. Most people don’t use it at all.
I rely on numerous web tools and services to get through my week. I use Yelp to decide where to eat, find a plumber, get the phone number of my local pizza place. I use Google Maps to get me from place to place. I use Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Gmail, Dropbox, Confluence, GoToMeeting, and other tools to collaborate with my colleagues and communicate with my clients. I use Twitter and Facebook to speak my mind. I use Flickr to organize my photos. I use LinkedIn to find new projects. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Those of us in “the industry” tend to think we represent the norm, but many of my friends – and most of my family – couldn’t describe what Twitter is, much less Foursquare. I’m not talking about Ted Kaczynski types, holed up in shacks in the woods somewhere. These are professionals who are savvy about stuff. Some even have careers doing Internet stuff. These people use email a couple times a day or less, ditto Google. They’re 50/50 on Facebook. They don’t live and breathe this stuff. They don’t keep their eyes peeled for the next new thing.

When it comes to the third world, we go beyond distorted assumptions. We simply don’t factor these people into the equation. But the World Bank puts the total number of Internet users at 1.8 billion (2009), which means that more than 2/3 of humanity doesn’t use the Internet at all.

We live in a collective “industry” bubble.

2. The Internet encourages us to live in our own isolated bubbles
I’m not saying anything new here, and indeed the same things were said about the telephone, radio, and television, but the Internet isolates us from each other. For example, my wife and I are expecting a baby. We don’t know how to diaper a baby, and in pre-Internet times, we would have turned to a sibling or parent or close friend to teach us. Now our first impulse is to try YouTube. Similarly, I want to learn how to set up a router (the woodworking kind), and in the past I would have gone down the street to my friend Mark’s house and asked him to teach me. But even though he lives just a few houses down, my first inclination is to go to YouTube. There’s no denying that this kind of shift represents diminished community.

We live in our own isolated bubbles.

3. It could actually kind of go away
The entrepreneurial types in the tech industry like to paint a rosy picture of the future, where everything’s connected, everything’s social. They see technology’s upside and plot its trajectory into the next decade or two, but they’re usually myopic. They mostly fail to consider the likelihood of skyrocketing oil prices, climate change, food shortages, etc.

What will our relationship with the Internet be like if we need to worry about food, water, and power? What if power blackouts lasting several days become a regularity?

We live in a temporary bubble.

2 Replies to “The Internet Bubble

  1. As pessimistic as I’ve been in recent years, I think I disagree on all 3 points.

    #1 has a narrow view of what the internet is. Most people don’t log on to consumer web sites, but I would expand “the internet” to include things like mobile phones (even voice calls use the greater internet now), shipping/logistics systems that delivered the food you’re eating, the scheduling system that set up their dentist appointment, etc. Even if people aren’t using the internet directly, they are somehow dependent on its existence in their daily lives, just like you can contribute to oil dependency without owning a car.

    Replace “the internet” with “the consumer web” and the point totally holds though.

    I think #2 depends on personalities and preferences. For me, the internet makes me much more social. I’d be social in any case, but the ready availability of communication tools makes it easy to do things with people as often as I like.

    The internet, specifically the social parts, do change change our social groups from being location-based to being affinity-based. I’m closer with certain people around the world than I am with my neighbors. In some cases I like this because I can pick the people I interact with. In other cases it keeps me from meeting people nearby. For lots of people this is literally a life saver. Gay kids in small towns, deaf people who can’t have a face-to-face conversation but can thrive on IM, etc. But for a lot of people it does end up being ultimately isolating.

    There’s a huge gap between online interaction and physical human interaction. After spending 15 years on the internet I’ve been trying hard to replace the former with the latter as much as possible.

    #3 is a good one to keep in mind, but I think this also applies to the more frivolous parts of the consumer web. People who are actually starving care about nothing besides getting some food, but as soon as they rise above that level they start wanting things that the internet can really help out with, like freedom from dictators and communication with their family.

    The whole “internet industry” is certainly still in the early stages, and nobody knows what it will end up looking like. I hope that we’re in the tool-building phase right now, and the high prices associated with that are the main reason why big companies (and companies that intend to become big) are dominating. I hope that prices will continue to drop and people will keep taking on more responsibility for their own online experiences.

    I hope the internet ends up a little like New York City, which is both the home of the largest corporations and the home of small, independent businesses. It’s also a place where you can meet up with any affinity group you could ever think of, and also make a good living playing a trumpet in a subway station

  2. Great comment Jonathan. On #2, you make a good point. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Internet has made it easy to maintain a large number of relatively shallow relationships, and it can augment our real-world friendships. On the other hand, it has lessened both our need and our opportunities for quality in-person interactions.

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