On the dark side of the Internet: Part II

Continued from On the dark side of the Internet: Part I:

Copyright and culture

Keeping emphasizing about “200 years of intellectual property law” (p.145) is a joke. It’s like talking about hundreds years of monarchy to justify the king against the republicans. Arguing that something exists for a long time does not make it more legitimate.

I think there’s no doubt that intellectual property should be protected and plagiarism is immoral. I hate someone repost articles from other blogs without any permission or even with no source link, which is commonly seen across Chinese websites.

However, this does not imply that our current mechanism of copyright protection is the perfect solution to the problems. I believe that copyright is now overly used as a tool for big companies making money by dominating the market, instead of promoting culture in order to benefit everyone including the creators.

This is not a problem of the Internet. In other words, the Internet (or Web 2.0) does not provoke the theft of intellectual property. It’s the drawback of copyright policies that created piracy, then the efficiency of communication over the Internet makes big media companies much more difficult to maintain their dominance.

Here’s a graph showing how the copyright term in the US is expanded again and again and again over the last centuries (courtesy of Wikipedia):

We really need to reconsider our way of protecting creativity. There’re plenty of books on this topic [3] and I’m not an expert on that.

The media companies described in the book were so obsessed with copyright protection that they totally forgot that there were more possibilities. Hulu, for example, is the answer for the Internet by several US media giants, followed by VEVO. People can enjoy the premium content on the Internet legally and for free. And media companies can still generate revenue from advertisements.

Another example is about how YouTube, which is considered the public enemy of media companies, works with copyright holders like Sony to monetize from illegal uses of copyrighted material. This sounds like a surprisingly crazy idea. But it’s clever enough to make everybody happier than we otherwise could have been.

Moreover, the huge success of the movie Avatar showed that with the help from 3D and IMAX technology, cinemas can still attract customers by its experience.

Copyright law is a old way to protect intellectual property. If it won’t work any more, we should be able to find a better way.

[3] To give an example: Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig.

Privacy issues

An age of total digital surveillance is coming, said Keen (p.183). Now we have Cloud Computing and we take our GPS data trackers everywhere, are we pushing ourselves into jeopardy?

I agree that privacy is important to everyone of us. Unless the world became ideally transparent (everyone knows everything about everyone else), we need this kind of information asymmetry to protect us from potential intrusion.

But there’re two sides of the problem: what is considered privacy and to what extent should we protect it?

For the first part, I would argue that there’s actually no distinction between privacy information and non-privacy information. Every detail of everything about us is telling a story of what this person is like. Sherlock Holmes could find out the occupation of some passers-by with just a glimpse. The reality is perhaps much less legendary but an experienced theft might know if you’re on a vacation by looking at your mailbox.

Everything you’ve done made a difference in this world and they are the evidence of how you’re living in this world. Some information could be less straightforward than others. But when a large amount of information is gathered, nothing could be too private to be found out.

That is to say, the only way to guarantee absolute privacy is to isolate ourselves from the civilized world entirely, which, however, is unlikely to be a good choice for anyone. We have to give away part of our privacy to enjoy the benefits from our family, our friends, our community and our society. A close friend who knows you more could help you more than a stranger. The more connection we have with the rest of the world, the more we can get from others, but the more information about ourselves are available to the world.

Therefore, when we are making friends with our classmates, we are risking some of our privacy. One of them might gossiping around the school about how you fell asleep under the dean’s nose. Similarly, when we are opening an account in a bank, we are risking part of our privacy since an ill-natured clerk could give your information to some travelling salesmen. These unfortunate situations are rather unlikely to happen. But you don’t really have to trust people around you or any organization, though this can make your life much more difficult.

The same logic holds true for the Internet. Google claims that they collect your information because they need it to personalize your experience using their product and making their products better. This is true. But it’s also possible that their database could be hacked some random day, just like Sony PlayStation Network [4]. So if you don’t trust Google, why are you still using it?

Because we all want to live a better live. By collecting your personal information, you’ll see less irrelevant advertisements from Google, and Netflix or Amazon can recommend movies or books you might be interested. The Internet is becoming one of the supporting industries of our world, just like financial institutes.

I’m not saying that Google can do whatever it wants. In fact, people at the Internet companies are more and more aware of the significance of the privacy issue. If consumers no longer trust their product, they would lost their users and the company would end up in serious trouble. As a result, more trustworthy companies will arise and substitute irresponsible ones.

In summary, the Internet is collecting our personal information. While we embrace the convenience technology brings to our daily life, people will learn that we are not supposed to take candies from strangers. If we take our privacy very seriously, the Internet companies will also take it seriously, and the age of total digital surveillance would never become true.

[4] Personal details from approximately 77 million accounts were stolen as the result of an “external intrusion” on Sony’s PlayStation Network and Qriocity services in April 2011.

What we should really worry about

I couldn’t agree more with Keen on one part: “we are easily seduced, corrupted and led astray.” (p.196)

There’s no fundamental difference between the Internet and any other type of technology. Yet it’s the newest one and probably the most powerful one we’ve ever invented.

The communication is faster than ever. One video, one picture or one phrase can go viral in just several hours or even less. The greatest ideas can travel around the world at the speed of light as well as the most dangerous conspiracies.

Our respect and appreciation to talents and intellects won’t die because of this. On the contrary, more people could enjoy better work with less cost. But the problems of humanity could also be scaled by the Internet into big troubles of our world. A few of them is already discussed in the book: gambling, pornography, addiction, junk information, narcissism etc.

However, the solutions to these problems are never simple. Regulations and rules of the Internet work, but this is only an expedient.

Warp-up

“We need to find a way to balance the best of the digital future without destroying the institutions of the past.” (p.185)

This book is good at pointing out the problems of the Internet. But the mistake is, there’s no trade-off or balance between “past” and “future”. Technology revolutions are one-way tickets. There’s no turning back, or half-way back.

The past could never be wiped-out by technology advancement, because every piece of technology is invented on the basis of the legacy of the past. But the past way of thinking is destroyed as soon as the rule of the game is fundamentally changed. What we need is to rethink the past, to find out what we could learn from this revolution. It’ll become clear that some problems and doubts are just misunderstanding of the present and the future. We have to think beyond the past and present to find the real solutions to real problems.

The Internet is not an alien invention. It’s deeply rooted in the human society which is developing and improving continually. The dark side of the Internet reflects the dark side of our society. Imperfection is highlighted by the rapid change of our world. Even if we could blame the Internet for these issues, technology alone could not solve them.

Therefore, the Internet is not a new threat to our culture, nor is rock’n’rock, TV, computer games. Our major threat remains the same: ourselves.

(All page numbers from Currency 2007 edition)