Tuesday, November 10, 2015

We don't know what tubes we are using

I can't remember if I told this story before, but years ago, when I was fresh out of Reed College, I was looking at a UNIX display at a trade show. The booth guy walked up to me and stated that he worked for the company that provided UNIX. I immediately assumed that he worked for DEC - Digital Equipment Corporation, the manufacturer of Reed's PDP-11/70 computer that ran an operating system from (the old) AT&T.

(Say along with me: "UNIX is a trademark of Bell Laboratories." But I digress.)

But I am not the only person who sometimes concentrates on surface things and ignores the plumbing underneath. Remember a few years ago when people couldn't log into Facebook? They'd go to their computer, type in "Facebook login," but instead of going to Facebook, they'd go to a ReadWriteWeb article. That's what happens when you go to Google and that ReadWriteWeb article (temporarily) becomes the top search result for "Facebook login." I have previously written about the system ignorance exhibited in that episode - not the ignorance of the people who thought that you could use Google to login to Facebook, but the ignorance of developers who design things that are intuitively incomprehensible.

And today, five years later, we still don't know what we're doing. Loic Le Meur shared this:

Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.

Leo Mirani argues that this ignorance is a critical issue.

The expectations and behaviors of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the internet evolves. If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.

One example, not from the developing world, but from the developed world:

Salix Homes manages government-owned subsidized housing in some the poorest parts of Salford, a deprived area in the north of England. Salix recently decided to accept complaints and rent payments from its tenants on Facebook.

“We took the view that let’s go where people are rather than force them to go to our website,” says James Allan, the firm’s marketing manager. As a result, interactions are up 90% while traffic on the website has fallen.

Allan is not in the business of deciding whether Facebook’s omnipresence among less affluent internet users is a good or bad thing. It is simply a thing.

Of course, if Facebook becomes a dominant platform over the next few decades, then the US, the EU, China, and others will eventually take action, and Facebook may be broken up (into "Face" and "Book," presumably).

It's happened before. The AT&T that provided my college with UNIX was broken up, Bell Laboratories became part of Alcatel-Lucent, and AT&T was eventually bought by one of the divested parts, SBC Communications, which renamed itself AT&T.

And all of these companies will deliver their services via - well, I'll let the late Senator Ted Stevens explain it:

The regulatory approach is wrong. Your approach is regulatory in the sense that it says "No one can charge anyone for massively invading this world of the internet". No, I’m not finished. I want people to understand my position, I’m not going to take a lot of time.

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck.

It’s a series of tubes.

And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Now we have a separate Department of Defense internet now, did you know that?

Do you know why?

Because they have to have theirs delivered immediately. They can’t afford getting delayed by other people.

Now I think these people are arguing whether they should be able to dump all that stuff on the internet ought to consider if they should develop a system themselves.

If you access Facebook via a drone, and you don't leave the Facebook ecosystem, perhaps Stevens hit upon the solution.
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