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Napsters, Macsters, and History Speeding Up
Michael H. Goldhaber,
Napster shows how the existence of the Internet combined with highly self-connected communities allow new ways of doing things to be adopted very rapidly, with little thought of the long-term consequences by any of the individuals involved
I have just finished listening to a piece of music I had never heard before, along with a favorite I hadn’t heard for thirty years, thanks to “Macster” software, which I downloaded a few minutes earlier. Macster.com is “Napster” for Macintosh users, and my real interest in this program was to see how easy it would be for me, no teenager, to master. Even though up to about a minute before I began downloading I had never heard of Macster, the whole process went as smoothly and quickly as reading the newspaper.
I f Macster, and Napster, prove anything, it is that with the Internet we now have a very powerful, very rapid machine for cultural, social, political and economic change. Napster already has significantly altered what choices of music can be listened to, how music is heard, the social relations among the listeners, the economic returns to musicians and record companies alike, and the power relations between the record companies and the rest of the world. Quite something for a program written by a 19-year old, and first used little more than six months ago.
A Two-Sided Blade
I was led to these thoughts by a recent well-attended meeting on the effects of technological change organized by Douglas R. Hofstadter at Stanford University, the epicenter of Silicon Valley. The first speaker was the inventor Ray Kurzweil (best known for his reading machines for the blind). As in his recent book, ‘The Age of Spiritual Machines,” he made the point that new “paradigms” are replacing old ones at an accelerating rate. It might have taken 500,000 years for early hominids to realize the advantages of sharpening two sides of a flint blade, but it has taken much of the world barely a decade to realize the advantages of using the Internet. To take my example, Napster has been quite widely adopted in far less time months. Soon comparable shifts will take only one month, then a week, then a day... or so, Kurzweil suggests.
K urzweil and others don’t look much at the ultimate sources of the speed-up. It’s easy to see that some of the impetus comes from the rising interest in getting attention through doing something new and original. But perhaps even more central are the pressures of contemporary capitalism. As more and more people, first Americans, but by now Europeans and East Asians as well, each begin to think of protecting their own personal future lives by investing in stocks, they naturally seek out those stocks that they believe are likely to grow the fastest in value. Inevitably this leads them to invest mostly in new companies, doing new things. Share values of companies in more traditional businesses tend to grow more slowly, since the market for whatever goods or services they supply is already close to saturated, as a rule.
This new investment behavior itself not only rewards but actively encourages change: the latest “new, new thing;” the new kind of dot-com, and so on. Everyone who succeeds in making a splash or getting rich starting a dot-com attracts many imitators, and the game of trying to come up with new ways of doing things becomes more prevalent. It may not be long before investment itself seems less promising than starting one’s own dot com, with everyone who can possibly manage to come up with any kind of new idea feeling encouraged to “go for it.”
F or several years now, in fact, there has been a contest for undergraduates at US universities to come up with new business plans, and many of the contest winners and runners up can expect that venture capitalists will be waiting around eagerly to fund them. Many of these new companies will do little really new, but a sizable minority will be different enough, inventing new ways of carrying out basic human activities, or even defining new activities.
It probably won’t be long until one of them hits upon the idea of automating the whole process of creating a dot-com. Just write down your basic idea, log onto the appropriate web site, answer some key questions, perhaps indicate the type of new connections that have to be created, and the software takes over, helps you come up with a name, generates a list of promising venture capitalists, sets up the web site, and does almost everything else for you, for some small cut of the share price.
So not only is it going to get easier and easier to come up with new dot coms, dot-nets or dot-orgs, but an ever larger number of people will be motivated to do just this and will have access to what it takes to carry it off.
Groping, Not Coping
L et’s suppose that one person in six thousand sets up just one new dot something every year, and that only one percent of these offer significant changes in ways of doing anything that’s important for an average person. Given the world’s present population, that works out to ten thousand significant new dot-somethings a year, or 300 a day, about one every five minutes, round the clock. A Napster every five minutes? How would anyone cope? And how can society change that fast without horrible problems?
First, at the personal level, which of these innovations should you bother to investigate or learn how to use? Do you just proceed at random? One proposed solution is that you rely on certain experts who have offered you wise suggestions in the past to point you towards new sites worthy of your attention now. But the past is the past; the experts might have done well for you in a different environment, but the constant flux of dot-somethings changes the environment, and challenges the abilities of even experts to catch up; so you need newer more up-to-date experts who still know what you are likely to want to help you. In fact no such experts exist, since they cannot keep up any better on the whole, and you have no means by which to identify anyone who by some miracle has stayed on top of all changes. It doesn’t matter to this scenario if you decide to rely on friends or members of communities who share common interests with you, because the friends are only friends in the earlier situation, the communities of common interest keep dissolving as new situations arise, and in them different aspects of who you are keep coming to the fore.
Leave it to a Machine?
T hough Kurzweil and his fellow predictors of “post-human” life don’t put things in quite that way, they do agree that ordinary humans will have trouble deciding how to adapt. To get around such situations they suggest we shall have to rely on intelligent computers themselves, each now more intelligent, it is supposed, that any single human being or even than the entire human race.
But how can you meaningfully rely on a computer for this? You can rely on the electronic fuel injectors in your car to know when to inject fuel because they are programmed to do just this one task, and you, stepping on the gas, decide when it should be done. How hard you press on the pedal depends on what you decide about how fast you should go. You remain the one who determines where you want to go. But in the situation of endless newness, where you want to go is itself at issue. No machine is capable of deciding what you want if you don’t know yourself.
All right then, let’s suppose that the computer knows basically who you are, what you are about, and what your values are; it then can plot out the best course of action consistent with that knowledge. But this too is patently absurd.
Y our identity itself is a result of your actions and responses in a given human environment and culture. Suppose you had been born 100,000 years ago. What would your values and goals have been? There is no telling; in such a different environment you would not have been you. Anyone, even with your same exact genetic constitution, would have been an entirely different person.
As society changes, individual people cannot remain the same, since to a good extent you can only make sense, even to yourself, against a certain background consisting both of possibilities and of others’ actions and expectations. These themselves will all be constantly changing in the world that seems about to unfold. Even if the machines that you might rely upon try to help you decide what course to follow, they will already be programmed, even if self-programmed, for an environment which already no longer exists.
The Transvaluation of Values
V alues themselves cannot help you, as they are no more permanent and unchanging than likes, dislikes, and cultural norms. If society changes, values change. One such change that I have considered with some care is that which revolves around privacy, which is typical of many others...... In feudal times, privacy was not terribly realizable nor terribly important. You didn’t have much opportunity to keep secret what your religion was, for instance, because perforce it would have to be pretty much the same as your neighbors’. Nor would it make much sense to hide your income, since the vast majority of people had no cash income, and their wealth was readily apparent from the richness of their fields, the reserves in their houses, and the like. Living, as most did, in some small village, meant your life was an open book, and it wouldn’t have occurred to most people to object to that.
Several centuries later, at the heart of the industrial era, privacy had become an important matter. What went on inside the walls and behind the curtains of your house was private, and that privacy was basic to the workings of the whole system; you went to work in a factory so that you could take home wages that would permit you to live a private life, and if no privacy were available, such life would have little meaning. What you earned, where you kept your money, what you bought with it was your and your immediate family’s business and that of no one else.
Now, however, in the throes of the transition to the attention economy, standards of privacy are rapidly changing. To get attention, you must use all you can about who you are; privacy in the sense of not being too self revealing can seem a very antiquated notion, as you long as you can arrange that no one can get your attention when you don’t want to give it.
T he privacy that is valued is precisely the privacy of not having to pay attention, not the privacy of not getting attention. Many of us don’t want dot coms to be able to gather information about us, because we don’t want our e-mails to be crowded with sales pitches that sound important enough to make us take a look since they are based on a crude analysis of our likes and dislikes. If they really did tell us something we wanted to know, we would have little reason to mind.
As the case of privacy shows, therefore, as circumstances change, values change right along with them. If circumstances, meaning the whole social, cultural and economic environment change very rapidly, then values become utterly uncertain and have to be forged anew along with and as fast as everything else. Even machines, no matter how smart, cannot anticipate new developments and therefore can hardly prepare for tomorrow’s changes. Even with machines to aid us, everything would be in constant flux, and we would find ourselves increasingly able to act upon nothing other than random impulse. We might each join new communities, but just as quickly abandon others that seem to have less momentary appeal. In such a world, where nothing is stable, nothing has much meaning either. We can lose sight of who we are very quickly, and there is nothing that will root us again, as long as the speed of change continues to accelerate.
A Hell of A Ride
T hat leads us to the second challenge, a speed of change in which nothing can be taken for granted. All that we know and makes sense to us, all that gives us individually and as a society some means of making sense of our world, al that permits us to know, to some approximation, our place that world all this changes as fast as we can possibly register, and then faster
Such a speed of change has to be pure hell for everyone involved, a roller-coaster ride that keeps speeding up, keeps having new kinds of dips and never lets up. In such a world we cannot rely on anything or anyone. Such change surely, is very undesirable. Whatever good it may lead to in detail, we need some way of limiting it. How short of an utter social breakdown can this come about?
Or Is It?
L et me backtrack. I have posited these changes arising from thousands of individual acts that set up the equivalent of endless new dot-coms every day. But if the new dot-coms so swamp our abilities to make sense of them and rationally choose among them, wouldn’t the kind of change that results from them be automatically self-limiting? Do we not have to worry because we will in fact not adopt changes at such a rapid pace, no matter how many such possibilities are offered us?
This is where the Napster case comes in. Napster shows how the existence of the Internet combined with highly self-connected communities such as college campuses or high schools allow new ways of doing things to be adopted very rapidly, with little thought of the long-term consequences by any of the individuals involved. Only after the new methods and associated implicit values become widespread is there likely to be much debate about their effects. The adoption is not individual so much as social, and no matter how intelligent the individuals in a social organism are, it does not follow that similar wisdom or intelligence is held by the totality, when there are no explicit mechanisms for social reflection and debate in advance. As I pointed out in my ‘80’s book “Reinventing Technology,” technological innovation is a form of law-making or legislation. Good legislation usually results from wide public deliberation. That is absent here.
But we can learn still more from the Napster case. It shows why there is in fact some limit to the speed of adopting the new. As I discovered, N apster software takes little attention to download or to learn how to use. As user friendly software and easy use of the Internet continue to be perfected, we can expect the amount of attention needed to adopt any similar transformation will continue to shrink towards very little. But Napster and its relatives (such as Macster) would have little impact were it not for the fact that they create a great deal of buzz and that they change how attention is paid on a wide scale. If teens and the rest of us didn’t devote considerable attention to music anyway, then Napster, even if widely adopted, would not have had much real importance, whether culturally, socially, politically or economically.
The same is true for other recent, rather swift changes, such as day trading of stocks or Internet pornography. What matters by definition has to occupy considerable social attention, which links together lots of individual attention. Since total attention is limited, then, even though innovations are adopted without careful thought, the speed of meaningful change cannot keep accelerating forever. Changes may be fast relative to the past, and changes may suck up a larger fraction of our attention than they have before, but it makes no sense to expect an infinite speed-up in the sort of changes that make any significant difference (as Kurzweil posits).
Roughly, we may even put numbers on what constitutes meaningful change. To matter, a change has to take up at least two percent (or five per cent or one percent) of the available attention of at least a few percent of the world’s population, for some considerable period, if not for life. That means we will never get to the point of averaging more than one significant change a day, if that. Still speedy change, but not infinitely speedy.
Still, We Need Brakes
T hat the speed of significant change is limited may still prove small comfort for those who are deeply affected by many of the changes that do happen. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that change will be slow enough for the average person to retain a meaningful sense of social place. These problems, again, cannot be handled simply by turning our planning over to computers nor by turning our selves into computers. It can only be handled by improvement in social methods of reflection on changes, by new means of “anchoring” social identity, and possibly by a movement for taking the sum of changes at reasonable speed. The last would entail a moratorium of some kind not on innovation per se but rather on its rapid social acceptance so that the effects of each change can be mulled over and digested.
Ironically, the moratorium itself would require rather rapid acceptance of a new social norm. But his new norm is surely not unprecedented. All societies up to now have had built in factors that helped lead to inertia when it came to change. Now we may have to invent social means of building such inertia into ours.
We probably can. The very same properties of the Internet and of today’s society that allow the rapid transformations I’ve been discussing can be very well suited to creating the kind of social quorum needed to take change more reflectively and more carefully. What is needed a deliberately social innovation. It would involve building new mechanisms for critical discussion, spreading the word about the need for integrating changes more carefully in to existing social fabrics, and offering more, not less, chance for new, well-supported social identities to take root.
T here is one important area in which such a development will hasten a change that is both inevitable and difficult. The fact that western and especially American capitalism relies right now on ever-greater growth ultimately puts it at direct odds with any movements to slow changes, as well as with the inevitable limits to the absorption of change. Investments that result in slowing change are unlikely to be profitable.
For the attention economy, however, things are different. Taking part in deliberating efforts or building good structures for stable social identity can be just as effective as means for obtaining attention as flashier kinds of hi tech innovation, once the case for them can be made effectively.
O f all the problems related to our era of rapid technological change I think the broad socio-cultural ones I have considered here are the most important and worrisome. But another speaker at the Stanford seminar singled out different worries. Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and a foremost innovator himself, now believes that new technologies are going to permit a kind of terrorism on dangerously global scale. He believes it will soon be possible for one person to prepare and spread unstoppable biological pathogens throughout the world, thereby decimating humankind.
That fear of Joy’s can be added to a long list of public worries about terrorist threats, either with stolen nuclear weapons, or, as was actually attempted by the Japanese Aum-Shinrikyu cult, nerve gas attacks on confined populations, such as those in the Tokyo subways. So far, I must note, these cults have been far less deadly than those, such as the Interhamwe group in Rwanda, who inflicted genocide with no technology more sophisticated than radio communication. Or take the similar brutality of the rebel followers of Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, hacking off arms and legs of non-belligerents with primitive weapons. Thus, the fear of a new breed of high-tech terrorists seems somewhat paranoid to me; no one (except governments) has ever done much real damage with heavily science-based weapons.
I f we do fear future terrorists, or future Nazis for that matter, we ought to focus the conditions of social alienation that give rise to such groups. While the origins of evil can never be fully understood, we do know well that extreme movements always seem to come to life in periods and places experiencing major disruptions of long-held patterns of life, where no good alternatives present themselves to take up the slack. In the case of the Nazis, the rapid industrializing and modernizing of Germany following its establishment as a unified nation in the late nineteenth century, accentuated by the chaos of World War I, led to social upheaval, widespread alienation and the search for scapegoats.
While we can hardly hope to live without some rapid change, and we probably can’t evade the ultimate end of capitalist rapid growth, the challenge for the entire human race is to find ways to keep the disruptions from being too great. That, rather than steps taken to hunt down or defend against terrorist or genocidal acts themselves, will probably be the most important thing we can do.
Just Do It
As capitalism’s survival has come to depend on hyper-rapid growth, the most severe disruption the greatest pain occurs in places where industrialization is still the main event, in the third world. The most deeply affected don’t have electricity, much less the Internet. Yet innovations and movements that arise on the Internet are likely to be their best hope.
Nothing prevents Internet-based innovations that knit the world together rather than tearing it further apart. It’s only a question of figuring out how to make them and doing it.