Remember The Frontier

Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty. Crime and Puzzlement, John Perry Barlow, 1990

I hear it again and again: “I’m done with software. There’s nothing left to build. No one’s working on anything interesting.” There’s little I dislike more than this sentiment, but I get it. I’m feeling slightly jaded myself. Sometimes I look around and I can’t find the frontier.

So let’s remember a few things.

There is more information available at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system, yet people find a walk among trees relaxing and computers frustrating. The Computer for the 21st Century, Mark Weiser, 1991

Computers used to be new, and new things require metaphors to help us understand their purpose. At some point, we began to take those metaphors for granted. Let’s not forget that our screens and computers and the software that runs on them were designed by humans, that they don’t have to be tomorrow what they were yesterday, or what they are today.

Today when we think of computers and screens we feel anxiety bubbling up within us. We feel like we’re drowning. There’s so much to consume! How are we ever going to consume it all?

Don’t blame computers, blame design and blame history. Not bad design, just design for a specific purpose — generally speaking, we makers have kept ourselves busy making a home for traditional forms of content distribution, meaning: broadcast publishing. In a manic rush we’ve spent the last decade gathering up as much user attention as we could. Let no rock go unturned, no inconsequential feature unexplored. Everything needs to be bigger, faster, more, more, more.

We took a medium designed for human connection and created the most valuable broadcast publishing platform of all time. That’s where the money is, after all. No matter how sophisticated our ad technology, advertisers pay for eyeballs, and so we build websites and apps to aggregate as many eyeballs as possible under one corporate roof. We make design decisions that prioritize engagement and network size above all else.

It’s strange if you think about it: communities and conversations lose much of their definition and sense of identity as they grow in size. There are serious UX tradeoffs that come from growth. But more is better, old habits die hard, and advertising is a nasty addiction.

The reverse chronological stream of “the social web” made sense to us because it embedded content within conversation. It gave us “content objects,” around which we could engage with people whom we liked and admired. But now the very companies that made the stream ubiquitous are retrofitting it to accommodate a different style of conversation: broadcast. Why? Because that’s what advertising understands.

What happened to our frontier?

We used to have a map of a frontier that could be anything. The web isn’t young anymore, though. It’s settled. It’s been prospected and picked through. Increasingly, it feels like we decided to pave the wilderness, turn it into a suburb, and build a mall. And I hate this map of the web, because it only describes a fraction of what it is and what’s possible. We’ve taken an opportunity for connection and distorted it to commodify attention. That’s one of the sleaziest things you can do. What Screens Want, Frank Chimero, 2013

I don’t think you can understand the computer and the Internet without understanding the cultural context in which they were designed. They remain the most empowering technologies in history, but embedded within them is a historical paradox. Born in World War II academic and government research labs, these technologies emerged by the grace of major corporations and the State, but on the back of engineers and artists whose spirits were infused with counterculture.

Xerox Parc, 1972. From Stewart Brand’s “Spacewar,” Rolling Stone

The counterculture raised their voices and arms against a world in which faceless corporations and militarized states filled their coffers and expanded their powers at the expense of their customers and citizens, yet it was those very institutions that made the computer and the Internet possible.

That paradox stays with us to this day. The Internet is a place for humans to connect. What is at stake today is the style of that connection.

It can be a place for personal expression, a place that prioritizes creativity, a generative place; or it can be a place that looks a lot like the places we’ve had before: the media places of the 20th century, defined by hierarchy, uniformity, isolation, anxiety, and fear. Today it is both.

Resolving the paradox

Let’s not forget that the Internet belongs to us and that the companies who track us, shout at us, buy and sell us — they are our guests, staying so long as it pleases us. Let’s not forget that computers are a lot bigger than our laptops and our phones, that the Internet is a lot bigger than the web, that the web is a lot bigger than Facebook and Twitter, and that most people live outside of New York City and San Francisco.

We’re today surrounded by large public companies who care first and foremost about increasing the wealth of their shareholders. The requirements of those shareholders are only sometimes in alignment with the requirements of their users. Let’s not assume that these companies will be the source of the next great technological breakthrough. In fact, it’s likely that they won’t be.

New and brilliant and transformative and beautiful things don’t come from shareholders. They don’t come from research analysts. They don’t come from pundits or the press. They come from the users who are builders, who come together in order to create something meaningful, lasting, and delightful.

Just because computers today fill us with anxiety doesn’t mean they have to tomorrow. We are only just beginning to shake 150 years of media habits and business models, both of which have for some time been dominated by broadcast. We are only just beginning to imagine what “consuming media” looks like in a networked, mobile, always on, always connected society — those characteristics are, after all, only a few years old. It might not look like today’s consumption at all.

We are lucky enough to be born at a moment of dramatic transformation, and it’s at moments of transformation when old rules are broken and new rules are made. The Internet isn’t over, it’s just getting started. We have a responsibility — to the past and to the future — to buck the trend, to challenge tradition, to guess and second guess, to make new rules in the spirit of openness and invention.

Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. Spacewar, Stewart Brand, 1972

Let’s not forget that the Internet can be weird and unpredictable.

This essay was originally posted on my personal blog. Thanks to Alex Rosen and Nick Chirls for their feedback.