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Walled Gardens

Prison Break

At the end of the 18th century, the Maharajas were rulers only in name. The British showered them with jewels and Western trappings (like Vuitton tea sets). Grand palaces were created for them, which in effect were nothing but beautiful prisons. Is today’s ultimate trapping – the Internet and its peripheries – any less of a beautiful prison?

A recent FT editorial details the evolution of Apple. 1977 saw the debut of the Apple II; “owners were confronted with a cryptic blinking cursor, awaiting instructions” writes Jonathan Zittrain.  The computer was a blank canvas for the user to do with as they wish. Apple’s iPhone, Zittrain contests, is the antithesis, positing that the incredibly popular App Store was introduced only grudgingly. The chief fault with the App Store is the approval process, which eighteen months later remains byzantine and ad hoc. Zittrain rightly points out that the process excludes many harmful or offensive apps. There is, however, seemingly no specific criterion upon which apps are dismissed. To judge a piece of software on its inherent use as a service or product before it has been allowed to develop can lead to stifling of innovation. Zittrain notes “How worthy of approval would Wikipedia have seemed when it boasted only seven articles – dubiously hoping that the public would magically provide the rest?”

This argument casts Zeitgeist’s mind back to uni days spent studying technological determinism vs. social constructivism. As Ian McLoughlin explains, “The final form a technology does not, therefore, reflect its technical superiority, but rather the social processes which establish consensus around the belief that it is superior”. The Internet, originally a way for the US military to send emails, has grown inestimably beyond anything initially anticipated. Google, believing that an open-source platform will lead to innovation and advantages that they could never have thought of by themselves, have done just that with Android. Open access encourages collaboration, and always produces a more accurate solution than a smaller, more highly-qualified group. The Internet has already moved on once from the so-called “walled garden” era – when ISPs like CompuServe and AOL created their own, proprietary internets with approved material – we should not return to it.

Furthermore, a victim of its own success, the capacity of the Internet is straining under the sheer weight of data it handles. The Net Neutrality policy has been around for years but recently gained headway, finding a supporter in President Obama. There is increasing pressure on ISPs to provide preferential services (i.e. more bandwith) to certain companies, bodies or organisations who deem themselves to need it more (and who can afford to pay more for it). The upshot is a situation where certain information, or views, are more readily accessibly and available than others, “where consumers are at the mercy of the dealmaking prowess of operators and networks”. The proposed acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast has raised concern for some, especially given Comcast’s recent history. The prioritising of messages based on financial favouritism is a slippery slope, and those small and large (such as WPP) may find themselves adversely affected.

UPDATE: Australia is currently in the throes of its own net neutrality debate, according to BBC News.

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