Getting older has a strange way of subconsciously convincing one that we’re still in our youth. It’s only when feeling the strain of tying shoelaces or getting down to sit on the floor that we are reminded we’re no longer in our prime.
Then there are the youthful memories that tell us that things are no longer what they used to be. Who can remember queuing at Doug Hollings’ Civic Theatre, opposite the snazzily named Ritz Milk Bar, on a Saturday afternoon to buy a movie ticket and a generous bag of aniseed balls for a mere one-and-thrippence (about 13 cents)?
On the other hand, I don’t recall seeing stagecoaches pull into the Telegraph Hotel stables or the sight of the original Māori market gardeners tilling the soil on the Waitohu plateau. But then, nor can I remember a time when there were no cars or telephones, but I do recall my first mobile phone, appropriated called a brick.
Fast forward a few years and today’s youth, of a certain age, have no recollection – or comprehension – of a world without the internet, social media and all its associated technology.
Perhaps it’s a fair indication of the internet’s massively transformational powers that, I suspect, most people of every age struggle to recall a time before email, social media and smartphones took over the world. But its lifespan is little more than a generation.
While the first long-distance networking between computers was accomplished in a 1969 experiment by research teams at UCLA and Stanford, it wasn’t until computer scientists Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn invented the internet communication protocols in 1980 that the internet took its first basic spin.
In the early days, internet pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee proclaimed it as the dawn of a new age of media democratisation and super-charged information sharing. In his mind the internet should remain open, free and responsible, just as people should treat and respect any community.
The story, back then, was one of the internet at last breaking the shackles of tyrannical corporate media control. It certainly looked that way for the first decade when the internet was open season for millions of community-building initiatives and small start-ups taking on the world.
But inevitably, the algorithmic search controls of self-appointed tech corporations moved in to occupy the space left by the previously dominant press barons.
Fast forward to 2021 and the internet barons are the richest businesses on the planet with massive control of the infrastructure. That’s certainly not all bad news but we are seeing how that amount of concentrated power is not always to the benefit of citizens.
One of the more interesting trends is that while the internet continues to expand (more websites, activity and users), there’s an escalating decline in web diversity.
Long term and extensive university studies in Australia show a dramatic consolidation of attention towards a shrinking (but increasingly dominant) group of online organisations. For example, links spread around a host of content generating websites is in relative decline, while more links are going to platforms such as YouTube.
So while there’s still growth in the functions, features and applications offered on the web, the number of entities providing these functions is shrinking.
This increasingly centralised control and decreasing diversity can only signal bad news. After all, any ecosystem eventually suffers through a lack of diversity. Much like any infrastructure that relies on connectivity and interdependence, moves towards a monoculture eventually causes a withering on the vine. And because the internet is so integral to all that we do in communities, business and social interactions, this has massive implications for society as a whole.
Remembering a world before the internet does seem much harder than recalling a cheap movie ticket and bag of aniseed balls. It is just as impossible to think of a future without the internet, so it should be in every citizen’s interests to recall its original promise and reassert our rightful control.
Fraser Carson is a former member of the XŌtaki Ōtaki College Alumni Trust and the founding partner of Wellington-based Flightdec.com. Flightdec’s kaupapa is to challenge the status quo of the internet to give access to more reliable and valuable citizen generated content, and to improve connectivity and collaboration.