In the early 1990s, this guy predicted how the Internet would turn out

Originally published at: In the early 1990s, this guy predicted how the Internet would turn out | Boing Boing




It is all the AOLers fault.


And it wasn’t just the bit about lousy social trends. He got the over-dominant e-commerce behemoth trend right, too.

In 1994, I coined a term—the cybernetic Walmart effect—that never gained much traction but that has proven somewhat prophetic. During the 1980s, Walmart and other big-box stores had begun to decimate the downtown shopping areas of many small towns and cities. And I foresaw that in the absence of countervailing policies, Internet commerce was going to deepen that dynamic, challenging not just mom-and-pop retail shops but local economies more generally.
Contrary to all the hype about how local businesses were going to thrive by selling globally, I wrote that before long online commerce would shake out into dominance by a few very large companies.

(And that’s just the first page of the interview - well, it bleeds into page 2, and further down on page 2 there’s an even better analysis of this.)

PS @frauenfelder Mark, it’s ‘effects’ not ‘affects’ in this context.

ETA ok. so now I’m at the end of page 3 (of 6) and already I’ve come across 2 or 3 more eminently quotable sentences I’d have liked to post here - especially about democracy (and the difference between a consumer and a citizen). Just go read it, people - strongly recommended!

FETA Ok, I got to the end. This sort of analysis ought to be required reading in all schools, as a start… and I obtained a new definition of ‘agnostic’, too.


I’m sure it’s cold comfort to him that the internet at least made a pretty fun social trend out of bushy moustaches for a while… (don’t tell me if that got all gate-y)

Actually, Bill Gates/Microsoft was pretty much blindsided by the popularity of the Internet, and probably would have liked if it were shut down. They were late to the whole thing – we remember Internet Explorer as eventually winning (at least until things like Firefox and Chrome showed up much later), but we forget how it looked at the time. Instead, Microsoft bet nearly the whole company on the success of multimedia CD-ROM products like encyclopedias, reference works, and educational programs, which were briefly popular, but were ultimately killed by the Web.


Relinking the interview here because it’s a really interesting read:

BSN: Around that time in an article titled “Cybersobriety,” you came up with a wonderful twist on an old nursery rhyme: “This little piggy went to market, Another piggy shopped online from home, The second piggy paid no sales tax, So why do both feel disempowered and alone?”

Sclove: Right. By “disempowered and alone,” I was making the point that if Internet commerce is allowed to hollow out local economies, that’s also hollowing out face-to-face social life and civil society generally, which are building blocks for a healthy democracy

I remember writing 20 years ago that corporations already had a lot more data about us—and it was clear they were going to get more—than we had about them. There are limits to corporate transparency because they have trade secrets and employee nondisclosure agreements. That produces a tremendous power asymmetry in decisions about technology, because the really important decisions are often the design decisions that set the agenda of what you’re later going to be able to deliberate about in public settings.


This is the flipside of what I discussed in the other topic, because we weren’t careful.


See: Eternal September - Wikipedia

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I still remember the very first publicized case of spam on the Internet. Cybersell marketing immigration visas and credit repair on Usenet. And it was such a big thing.


I’m not clear if you are suggesting that some level of “care” could have enabled us to anticipate these poor outcomes and regulated? a better result? I’m not even sure what the better result would have been, never mind foreseeing the problems.

I still can not separate all of this from its context, meaning capitalism. As with many other seemingly unrelated situations, there will always be those that assert themselves into systems to attempt to make the outcome benefit them. Almost everything is corrupted in this way. The internet is no more spoiled than medicine or education. The challenge is to remove the profit motive and dispel the myth that creativity and drive only emerge from a desire for personal wealth and power over others. It’ll take more than care to do that.


Yes. More vigorous protection of Net Neutrality, standards-based interoperability regulations, and a more expansive interpretation of what constitutes a monopoly (beyond impact on consumer prices) would have together blunted the impact of Facebook and Amazon. All of these things were being discussed by politically aware technologists by the early 2000s but a combination of corporate greed and government inaction/disinterest led to the outcome where we as a society were not careful about the electronic frontier (as in EFF).


And as all those regulations were corrupted, just as regulations in other systems are, by the greed and disinterest you describe - like the inability to pass voter protection? I’m not convinced the ideas put forward, and compromised execution of those same ideas are nothing more than degrees of corruption. We got the things you describe in as much as they were thought of. Just so happens that the corruption in this case didn’t let them get off the ground.

Care is not the operative word. We have to fight for these things. The disinterest and inaction starts with our. Greed is all to happy to take action where we stand by.

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It’s easy to be cynical, but let’s not forget the overwhelming good done by the Internet. It has made possible every recent positive social movement as well. Remember that the Arab Spring made everyone think Twitter was going to revolutionize socialism for a few weeks there.

I think of the Internet as simply magnifying everything people already do. It turns up the volume on all our activity, good and bad.


I remember seeing an interview with Steve Balmer in the late 1990s where he basically admitted they were too busy with Windows 95 to pay attention to that whole “internet” fad at the time.




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