Saturday, May 12, 2012
I read a very good article in the Guardian newspaper a last month about how the internet has changed from an anarchic open space to tightly patrolled walled gardens. The article is quite large and you can read it in full by clicking the link above. However the gist of it is this...
Personal computers are "generative": they can be programmed to do more than they were set up to. Smartphones, on the other hand, generally can't be programmed directly by the user. For the most part, they're appliances, as limited in what they can do as a coffee maker. Facebook does not let Google or any other site index the vast majority of its content; a tiny file called robots.txt on its homepage stops search engines from grabbing details of photos, feeds or other data.
John Battelle, who runs online advertising network Federated Media, says Facebook poses an existential threat to Google. "The old internet is shrinking and being replaced by walled gardens over which Google's crawlers can't climb," he noted earlier this year, as Facebook prepared its flotation.
In the same way, Apple's iTunes store is available on the web, and Google can index it, "but all the value creation in the mobile iPhone and iPad app world is behind the walls of Fortress Apple. Google can't see that information, can't crawl it, and can't make it universally available."
Zittrain has expressed fears about how the devices we use to connect to the net have moved away from being fully capable personal computers – where in theory you can write programs that can use any capability of the computer – towards appliances such as the iPad or iPhone, with tightly limited functionality and access to the underlying operating system software, where only "allowed" programs can be installed from a vendor-maintained store. He calls such a process "tethering".
Even Microsoft, which ushered in the era of the personal computer running software that in theory could be used to write any program, is heading in the same direction. Versions of Windows 8, to be released in the autumn, will also use Metro Store for apps, which Microsoft will control.
Media commentator Jeff Jarvis says Apple's iPad is "sweet and pretty but shallow and vapid ... I see danger in moving from the web to apps," he said. "The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again."
The same broad criticism is applied to smartphones, where not just Apple's product, but almost all platforms prevent any sort of easy access to the underlying code; there's no "command line interface" for a smartphone, no black screen and blinking cursor as you can find on a Windows or Apple computer, if you look hard enough.
...So, what is it that people actually want? A simple, easy to use, safe appliance or the freedom of the internet. You can't have both and as trends catch on it is so easy for vast numbers of users to become residents in these walled gardens that control what content you can view. With this shift of focus by the majority of internet users into these walled gardens we could develop an online society where the average user is afraid to roam the internet and stays totally within the walled gardens. Then the more adventurous and liberal internet users like myself could find that most of the valuable content has migrated to the walled gardens and the only way to get our quality internet fix is to migrate our online life into a walled garden. Trouble is once inside any walled garden your input is closely policed and if anyone can raise an objection to your postings then the moderator of the walled garden can boot you out of the garden for ever. Matthew down on the farm knows this from his own personal experience as he has been booted out from 2 different walled gardens because he posted his opinions frankly, calling a spade a spade. The general internet has freedom and you can exercise your own freedom of speech and expression. The walled gardens are safe but are open to censorship. What is the point of being in the general internet if the user base is declining and the majority are migrating to the walled gardens? If you want to be in with the action then you may have to join a walled garden but you will lose a lot of freedoms. I do not think that the vast majority of Facebook and Twitter users have thought this through and their continued use of these walled gardens encourages other people to follow rather than to be left out of the party. It is a case of conform to join in or else you will be outlawed to the wilderness of the general internet.
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