Technological Handcuffs

Don sounds like the Texas businessman from the movie The Jerk with Steve Martin, where he comes in crying tears because he doesn’t have leather seats in his private jet. To write an article about greedy business practices while ignoring your own attitude of ‘I want it, I want it now, and I want it for free’ seems a little hypocritical. Exactly who is being greedy here?

It’s sad that Mr. Norman couldn’t access his Google translator as soon as he wanted. I feel for him almost as much as I do for children who don’t have access to food. But is the real problem with technology our over-reliance on it, or limited access to it? Maybe both, but the first seems like more of a problem than the latter. It seems like his problem is that he is not resourceful enough to work around network outages. I would hate for him to have to use the Yellow Pages or an actual paper map to find a restaurant. To render Dr. Norman stupid because he can’t make an immediate phone call just seems silly. I don’t mean to be overly harsh, but come on man, pull yourself together!

I recently read an article in WSJ Magazine about how it took 6 months to convince billionaire Warren Buffet to get a computer. Bill Gates even offered to send out techs to set it up. Obviously you don’t need technology to be a genius.

Technology isn’t all bad, it makes our lives more convenient. I know, we need to improve connectivity. But surrendering ourselves to our smart phones and the internet turns grown men into big sobbing adolescent wussies.

Don was talking about somethings that I think have become all too apparent in the last year: the natural monopolies that develop around communication technologies (see Facebook, iTunes, Kindle) and the few to control how the many can use tools (Wikileak’s funding being cut off, the internet being shut off by four phone calls by the Egyptian president).

Thirdnorth: I don’t think that Don is complaining about playing with a toy, but how humanity can build our future.

He’s right about how every communication technology has quickly been monopolized by those in power. Printing presses used to require the king’s authority to publish works. Telephone networks and trains require a lot of capital to build and therefore end up monopolized by one (or a few non-competing) company (ies). So far, the internet has been mixed, but always fluid.

Remember when AOL was the internet? Then, we found out we could get the internet direct through someone else. Social networking is the same. Think about it: IRC, AOL IM, MSN messenger, MySpace, Facebook and many others have all taken up the torch, burned brightly for a few months or years and then were never heard from again. However, it is notable that there is only really one at any given time. Think about it: books = Amazon. auctions = eBay. music = iTunes. crap = Craigslist. Anyone can put an auction on their own website, but how will anyone find it? Therefore, it is natural that these goals coalesce into a near monopoly.

The danger moving forward is what Don is talking about. We thought that we finally had 100% open democratic communication technology. Anyone could set up a soap box and they would have an equal voice as anyone else (before search engines). takes as long to type as However, the corporate forces have realized that this is bad for business. They want to widdle the internet down to cable TV +, where we can’t communicate, just receive from a small collection of carefully selected choices.

Doug Rushkoff has been talking about this for the last 3-4 years and his latest book really nails it. You can find it here:

He’s also organizing a conference to discuss what’s happened and maybe how we can prevent it from continuing. You can find it here:

Mr-914, I appreciate the discussion. It sounds like what you’re talking about is a chicken-egg concept. Is it the case that companies have coalesced into near monopolies because consumers have pushed them into those situations through market choices? Have consumers spoken with their wallets and thereby approved of those institutions? Or have companies designed a system that only allows consumers to purchase from a particular online venue?

In Amazon’s case, the idea is that a company can establish an online book service and through marketing and ground-based consumer support, become successful. They are hardly the only online bookstore, though. Barnes & Noble, Borders, iTunes, etc, all have bookstores online, selling e-books and physical books, and there are others.

iTunes has been successful partly (mostly?) because of it’s correlation to the MP3 player market. iPods are successful in large part because of iTunes. But there are other online music stores as well.

In each of these cases, the company had an idea, implemented it, and succeeded because it supplied what was needed to the markets. No one was forced into these transactions. Sure there’s a giant, but that doesn’t mean there is a lack of choices, especially in the online world. Darwinian forces are at play all the time in the business world. Businesses fail or succeed based on their ability to adapt to the market.

Where it becomes tricky is when a company becomes the only institution that can, or is allowed, to provide a service or product. This usually happens through legislation or regulation within an otherwise open market. In the 20s and 30s, for example, steel giants worked closely with government officials to effectively squeeze smaller players out of business. This type of coordination still happens today, but it is counter to free and open market principles.

The whittled down internet you’re talking about hasn’t happened. In fact it’s just the opposite. There are so many choices for websites to visit that the internet is predicted to run out of domain names. Facebook doesn’t censor your posts. Most discussion boards are open to anyone to say almost whatever you want (usually keeping discussion free of vulgar language or cursing). There doesn’t seem to be a clamp down on communication. I am just as free to say what I want as others are to ignore it.

It sounds a lot like Don is calling for some kind of regulation of the internet and ISPs. Canada has just proposed it’s own net neutrality laws. And it has the potential to do exactly what the steel mills in the 20s and 30s did to the smaller players.

How monopolies form is irrelevant. Once they do form, they have and will always stifle innovation and competition through their power. They are impervious to natural market forces because of that power. There is no example in history of a benevolent monopoly and there is no reason to think one could ever exist.

There are many things to dislike about proprietary technology. I refuse to use itunes because of it. Right now, I can buy a plain old mp3 from Amazon. But there is no doubt if the Apple way were the only way, we would all be screwed.

While Norman’s article does come off a bit of a rant, it does raise red flags to what could happen in the future. To think corporations will act in the best interest of the consumer is assinine. As a single consumer, we have little power. Collectively, we have little power against monopolies. Antitrust laws are a necessity and have been in existance for 1000s of years to promote unrestricted competition.

iab: spot on. I think Don is ranting because it is more interesting to read something passionate than moderate (boring).

Monopolies: To clarify, I specified Amazon more for their Kindle than their online retail environment, although both are potential monopolies. Indeed, digital books will eventually be dominated by one standard or another (ie, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, etc.) Sometimes, standards are open, sometimes they are closed…

I agree that monopolies form naturally. They are efficient. However, just because something forms naturally because of market forces, doesn’t mean that it is good. Nazis were elected in Germany, just because democratic elections are generally good, doesn’t mean the long term social implications will be.

Similar to Nazi Germany, once in power, monopolies are hard to defeat.

Looking back, the phone company in the US was highly monopolized. However, the government made a deal with Bell: we regulate your services, your pricing (public service commision) or we break you up. That deal made an excellent phone service for decades until the phone company backed out of it by dropping their quality of service. The government then stepped in and broke them up, but by the 2000’s, it had largely re-monopolized. Now, they are largely unregulated and still have poor service.

I think, societies should make new agreements with these monopolies & other industries that are trying to wall off their market share. Cel phones should be free & open. I should be able to register my iPhone with any company. Facebook can be the default social networking site, but they shouldn’t be able to sell my data.

Competition: This always comes up as the solution and sometimes it is. However, sometimes it is near impossible. Barriers such as initial capital, bullying and regulation essentially close off competition. A good example is Bing. Huge capital being spent to offer a quality service that is doomed to failure because Google is the monopoly default.

Lastly, I largely agree with thirdnorth that we have nothing to worry about. I’m an optimist. However, we should be vigilant.

Agreed, antitrust laws are good things. But in terms of the internet, there doesn’t seems to be a need for those types of laws. I’m not arguing for a dissolution of regulation as a whole. But there is already a framework in place to prevent the creation of a monopoly, at least in theory. Apple gets a lot of crap, but it is far from a monopoly. Sure they have a strangle hold on their hardware and software. Isn’t that their right? They own the software and the hardware, and the can sell it however they want within the law. It doesn’t keep you from buying other products. You can buy mp3 players and music from anyone. I agree, if Apple were the only one, we’d be screwed, but this is not the case. And as far as PCs, they control under 10% of the market.

There are thousands of ISPs in the US. Hardly a monopoly there either. The arguments posed by Don and the internet freedom movement seem to be based in paranoia at this point. Vigilance goes a long way, but let’s not kill flies with shotguns.

Exclusivity is not a sin it’s a fact of life. It goes along with citizenship, ethnic groups, sports teams, corporate environments, car clubs, colleges, bottom up mass social movements, etc. Who cares if a company asks that you join a ‘garden club’ in order to receive certain benefits? If you don’t like it, don’t join it. Social movements are widely considered to be righteous no matter the means or the outcome. Mr-914 took the words right out of my mouth with the Nazi comparison. The effects are not always desirable. There are moral standards that shouldn’t be crossed. We should be careful when claiming that the rights of some individuals outweigh the rights of others. Allowing Apple, Microsoft, ISPs and every other business the freedom to provide whatever products they think the market needs does not infringe on our right to buy or not.

Maybe it’s more efficient to open up everything like cell phones and e-readers, but with so many choices out there, I don’t really think it matters. Apple opened the iPhone to Verizon’s network with a thud. I’m sure it will gain ground, but after all the gripes and complaints, it wasn’t really that big a deal. Although that may change when the iPhone 5 comes out…

If we take the airline industry as an example, deregulation spurred competition as dozens of new airlines popped up and lowered the cost of airfare. Regulating the internet or the information industry will inevitably stave off competition and drive up prices.

The monopoly on Nazi-comparisons is also hard to defeat :wink: (But nowadays it is somewhat harder to identify the evil ones.)
When it comes to infrastructural services, regulation is needed. Otherwise you can’t prevent market failure because of companies maximizing their profits on customer’s dependency. Year after year, new cases of collusive pricing find their way to daylight.

I don’t understand why the internet is exempt from antitrust. Far from it, especially since it is the fastest growing source of information. Information is power which can be used to squash competition.

I am certainly not saying Google is a monopoly, but it certainly can become one. There are “white hat” and “black hat” seach optimization techniques. Google frowns upon the “black hat” versions. But what if Google decides to allow certain manufacturers use of “black hat” techniques and other manufacturers only the “white hat” techniques? How is that free competition?

Things exactly like that are the reasons for antitrust and of course should apply to internet companies.

On a side note, this is a good read on black and white hat techniques, Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets - The New York Times

I’m in the midst of reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand…some very similar tie-ins happening here…

regarding normans post, i felt that he did get some points right and some not.
he mentions that he can´t use certain things on his smartphone because he didnt have internet access, while this would be true for some apps. there are some that he mentions which function very well without access to the internet. e.g. the calender of course, also dictionaries and even gps, which functions very well. for dictionaries and the gps of course, some material must be stored on the phone in advance, but that shouldnt be a problem at all.

on the other hand, he is talking about the future and that he is seeing changes that could go in the wrong direction if continued without a second thought. i myself think that he has a valid point here. we don´t know what kind of code standards there are going to be for the information systems, but just think of it this way, that like apple just never allowed flash on their devices i´m talking about default settings, don´t know if you can jailbreak this) maybe the next generation will split even more.

worst case, your websites have to pay a fee to be able to be viewed from certain devices.

that can be the future if the wrong decisions are going to be made. And if the internet/phone provider and manufacturer work together for the profits you have one hell of a ally to compete with as a customer

i paid for books from amazon(kindle app) and also for apps on the iphone. and i probably will have to pay again if i want to use the some books/programms on new devices… from vhr to blue ray i get at least a better quality.

just some thoughts of mine

You’re already paying for the use of websites because content producing companies (e.g. newspapers, magazines) shut down mobile access to their sites and now sell you an app to access the very same contents available for free on a desktop browser. The other way around, you have to pay a considerable fee to apple if you want to release a for-free-app in their appstore (and they probably won’t even authorize it). So, one party (company or customer) always has to pay. It’s a ridiculous system, based on artificial scarcity and the main reason why i haven’t got an iphone or ipad.

IP: I would love it if the richest .1% of society moved to some remote mountain. Then we could test their theory that society would fall apart & we would have a global Lord of the Flies. My bet is that absolutely nothing would change, except that we would now realize that they didn’t really contribute nearly what they thought they did.

thirdnorth: The internet providers are trying to corner the market. Here in Canada, I have a smaller provider that can currently provide me with a bandwidth unlimited account for less money than I can purchase a limited account from the big companies. Guess what, they just banned the practice (although the government is looking to reverse the decision).

Also, the providers are stuck in the same position as the telephone was before. My provider doesn’t own any phone lines or buried fiber optics. The phone company or cable company owns that. However, for internet, the government requires that they allow access to other companies to provide internet service. If that regulation didn’t exist, I’m 100% sure that only the local phone and cable provider would supply internet & that the rates would start going up.

Me: I don’t have a cel, except an American one that I activate with pre-paid cards when I vacation in the US. I didn’t have cable before I moved in with my gf. I would cancel it again if it was up to me.


thats what i am trying to say. as the normal consumer you can still work your way around by using the free ones, which are most of the time just as good as the others, at least for newspapers and information. But this could be just a phase and in five years, maybe with some new generation or so, this could be all gone because the normal consumer is showing a lot of willigness to pay for stuff which is right now free available. right now im not paying for anything that is free to view with regular browser but i hope it stays this way though i doubt it…


Could be. Didn’t work so well for the Soviet Union, though.

Because they also sent away the smartest people (who were the inconvenient ones - thinking is not limited to economical productivity).

I’m anxiously waiting to get to a book called Red Plenty. It’s about the accomplishments of the Soviets. Mind you, it isn’t a good comparison to the contemporary US, Canada, Japan or Europe. Russia has always been 100 years behind Western Europe, so perhaps the Soviets suceeded in that they managed to get Russia up to being only 30 years behind (maybe even ahead, at least technologically, in the 1950s).

It should be remembered that the Soviet’s overthrew a king in 1917. The French has done that in 1793. The British killed King Charles for disobeying parliament in 1649. The Americans declared independence in 1776. Like I said…at least 100 years behind.

There a number of theories around the Soviet fall as well. It’s worth remembering that NATO intelligence was shocked at the collapse of the Soviets and Eastern bloc countries. They thought that the societies were successful enough to avoid the popular uprisings that eventually overthrew their governments.

One theory that I’ve heard from Ray Kurzweil and other technologists is that the networks of communication advanced enough that the government could no longer effectively spy on and stop the plotting against it. This allowed the strikes in Poland and the coup d’etat in Moscow.

Another theory, that I’ve heard from more open-minded conservatives, is that it was our accidental technology boom that allowed us to outrun the Soviets. ie…the computer & communication revolution of the '80s. Of course, if it wasn’t for big government funding military research and universities, perhaps that would have never happened.

As an aside, I’m fascinated by the Soviet Union because of my fear of them as a child. I can only imagine how scared some children of the '60s were by the propaganda of evil, godless Soviet killing machines. I grew up in the '80s when we were supposed to be beyond that.

Now, I’ve actually met people who grew up under communism in Romania, the Soviet Union and Cuba. Most speak highly of it. Instead of a hatred of the injustices, I always sense more of a disappointment in the low expectations of the state industries. I guess that’s how I feel about capital today. Since we stopped “sacraficing” to win the cold war, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made the kind of spectacular social progress that was always promised.

That’s very interesting. I also know people who’ve grown up or lived under similar situations, and their attitudes towards it are the complete opposite of the people you know. One woman I went to school with was from the middle east, and while not the typical communistic government, they were still very totalitarian. She was very glad to have left and vowed never to go back. Another talks often of how glad she was to leave eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. I’ve always wondered how someone could live through such difficult situations and injustice and not despise and resent those who imposed it upon them.

Like you, I do have a fascination with Russia, more because of their history and geography than their politics. One of these days I’ll take a couple months and do a motorcycle ride from one end to the other…

When I went to french classes for immigrants in Montreal, 90% of the class were from Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon. They all despised the leadership & oppression of their governments. They did feel held back, especially the women.

There was also a Cambodian who was just deeply scared. He had to hide in the jungle with his sister to avoid being killed by the Khmer Rouge (admittedly, a communist government). However, I believe that the Khmer Rouge’s violence was based more on racism than on political oppression.

The Cuban student moved to Canada because she fell in love with a Canadian. She was rather apathetic about the Cuban government. She said she didn’t mind living there.