Thursday, November 13, 2008

Digitally Divided; thinking about the "Internet For Everyone"

When the web got going, and Wired was the Bible, there was a lot of revolutionary talk. But few of the revolutions were exactly about equality; they were about empowerment as long as you owned a $2000 laptop. In 1994 I sat in his office and asked Nicholas Negroponte what I would need - as an internet savvy journalist - to come and study at his MIT Media Lab, and in particular the Lab's News in the Future group. He listed a series of programming languages, and nothing at all about media: he offered little hope that I'd ever get it, ever understand the future of media. I felt deflated. But not as deflated as when trying to convince old school journalists back at home about the impact the web, and the wired world, was going to have on media, music, politics, pornography (both, all) name it the web was going to change it, I said.

Yeah, right.

The traditional journalists I spoke to thought: geek; the Geeks (who already got it, and had the programming languages) thought wannabee geek, and the nascent muscular technocracy best symbolised by Wired co-founder, John Battelle, treated us confused but enthusiastic in the middle folks with the kind of contempt last seen at the Battle of Saratoga. Here's Battelle, now a super-online publishing grise, in action on his blog last week, it's always been like this:

The part that people don't yet fully understand [this week] is that "vertical ad networks," at the end of the day, are still ad networks. Ad networks are a vital part of the online media ecosystem. They provide publishers with additional revenue on inventory that isn't otherwise fulfilling higher CPM sponsorship programs, and they provide direct-response marketers with additional reach at cost-efficient rates. Vertical ad networks offer a bit better targeting because they focus on a smaller set of sites.

While vertical ad networks may improve efficiency for direct-response advertisers, who determine success based on some variation of cost-per-click, they are not solving the needs of brand advertisers. Ultimately, vertical ad networks serve advertisers and will compete with everyone else who serves DR advertisers, from Google to the other ad networks. The excitement over "vertical" ad networks will erode as CPMs on those networks chase the DR metrics.

My point is that even at the dawn of the web, it had the capacity (as practical medium, and evolutionary metaphor) to divide us all. We atomised. We personalised. We dived in...or we stood by the shore...or we closed our eyes. We invented new language, and we stayed ten minutes ahead or five years (but usually neither) That process of atomisation is now so marked that almost any analysis of the the digital world becomes an immediate argument. There's almost nothing we can agree on - not blogging, twitter, the future of search, libraries, journalism or privacy.

Times change: everyone gets it now (this is irony, of course): we are at best a series of social networks. The Google Generation doesn't know anything else. But somewhere in the middle of this huge shift (it's a kind of digital Long March - now there's a online game to build) in just about every facet of life (from phone communication to the way we make friends, or a living; education, politics & travel) we have uncovered massive flaws in our social assumptions. Our old social networks have eviscerated - largely because our belief systems are now so personal - patchworks of ideas and ideologies based on our relationship to education, work, technology, gaming, books, place...we trust very little but ourselves these days.

I was going to blog about this, the "Internet For Everyone" project, launched yesterday in the USA. The objectives are interesting:

Survey after survey shows American broadband quality and access falling perilously behind countries in Europe and Asia. Getting everyone connected to an open Internet should be a national priority. Click on your state below to learn more about Internet access in your area.

America is the birthplace of the Internet, and home to many of its greatest ideas and innovators. But since Internet access became publicly available, we have failed to deliver its tremendous benefits to everyone. As a result, millions of Americans still stand on the wrong side of the "digital divide." And the damages -- economic, social and political -- are beginning to show.

Since 2001, the United States has fallen from fourth in the world in broadband penetration to 15th in the world today. While American consumers face high prices and few choices, many of our European and Asian counterparts have achieved the goals of universal deployment and competitive markets. Returning to the top of international rankings would translate into millions of new jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in increased economic activity for the United States.

What I'm grasping at is the layer-caking of our views. I'm trying to juggle a world in which Paul Dacre is humbugging for timeless values while others call for the British Regional Press to be subsidised; Obama has an e-mail mailing list of 10 million and the co-founder of Blogger is post-blogging, almost.

I think the British Museum's decision to hold an exhibition about Babylon and - in particular - the Tower of Babel, makes perfect sense. But how do we make sense of the disparities between people? More to the point how do we create social networks that bridge the vast epistemological divides between people that once would have agreed on most things. This really is the democratising of doubt.

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