Technology | Opinion
What if we’re in an internet Golden Age that leads to a post-internet age?
For decades, the internet has been an integral part of our lives. It has revolutionized the way we communicate, access information, and do business. With the rapid advancements in technology, it seems now like the internet will only continue to grow and expand its reach.
The internet’s growth has been exponential since its inception.
In 1994, only 0.4% of the world’s population used the internet, according to data from The World Bank. By 2020, 60% of the world’s population used the internet. Our World in Data shows the growth of just social media platforms since 2004:
Considering this meteoric rise, most people would balk at the idea that the internet will decline. But what if this really was just a Golden Age that will at some point decline into a post-internet age?
In fact, that Golden Age may have already come and gone.
First, let’s talk about where we are and where we came from and see if that can guide us to where we might be headed. While most people point to the aforementioned exponential rise of internet use, I’d like to tell a different story—the story of failure.
If you look back across the previous century, you’ll see an abundance of failed predictions about future technologies. Flying cars are a great example. From 1923 onward, people have been predicting that we’d all have flying cars.
As late as 2014, Fast Company reported that a company did create a flying car that was set to launch in 2016 and change the world. That didn’t happen and hardly anybody noticed.
Just because a technology exists, doesn’t mean it will be popular. I’m sure Myspace is still lurking around somewhere in the bowels of the internet.
Jetpacks are one example. Jetpacks have been predicted since the early days of the James Bond series and still, they aren’t even close to being something most of us can use. The technology exists, but mass adoption is a very long way off.
One of the problems of predicting the future is how consistently wrong people are about human behavior. Predicting the future means predicting trends, something we humans are quite bad at.
In 1966, an essay titled The Futurists: Looking Toward A.D. 2000, was published in Time magazine. They too predicted flying cars (hovercraft “that ride on air”) as well as planes carrying 1,0000 passengers.
Though the essay made some uncanny predictions. They predicted that people will be shopping from home through a “video phone” that can order goods. But, they also predicted that even though this technology will be available, people will continue shopping in physical stores nonetheless, because women love to “leave the house, handle merchandise, and change their minds.”
They could envision something like Amazon, but mistook how popular it would be. They underestimated the human desire for convenience.
Speaking of Amazon, they‘ve also made some painfully misguided (and costly) predictions that didn’t pan out. Believe it or not, Alexa is one of them.
Most of us don’t think of Amazon’s Alexa as a “colossal failure,” but it is. While Amazon’s flagship Echo devices have become the subdued decor of households across the world, the project itself is leaking money like a sieve.
As Bloomberg reported in late 2021:
When it comes to scale and popularity, the speaker’s digital assistant Alexa has been a tremendous success. But the snark at the start of Alexa’s life was partly right. Financially it’s been a flop. Amazon sells its device at cost and with more than 10,000 employees working on the project, it is bleeding cash.
They’re exactly right.
Amazon placed a massive bet with Alexa. It didn’t pay. In November of 2022, it was reported that Amazon commenced the biggest layoffs in the history of the company as they were on pace to lose $10 billion that year. Going back to 2019, the story is the same.
The bet was that if they could sell devices featuring the AI assistant to consumers, consumers would use these devices to shop.
When Amazon was rolling out Alexa, the company believed talking to Alexa would be so much simpler than online shopping, that owners couldn’t resist impulse buying through their home smart speakers.
They imagined a world where you didn’t even need to touch your hardware in order to shop.
In this case, they mistook how crucial it is for humans to be able to see what it is that they’re buying and overestimated our desire for convenience.
They didn’t consider how crucial sight is in human decision-making. If you can’t see it, it’s a lot less visceral. Now, the company bleeds money as they a speaker series and AI assistant whose job is to play people’s music when asked—from Spotify.
Amazon isn’t the only failed technology that was supposed to revolutionize the internet.
Mark Zuckerberg has pushed his whacky idea that we’ll all soon transition into the metaverse.
He’s sunk more money into his metaverse than any other investment in history except the Apollo Space program (all of it — not just one mission), and even then, NASA only outspent Facebook’s $250 billion (with a B) by a meager $3 billion — $253 billion.
The total cost to create the first iPhone was $3.6 billion. The Manhattan Project that created the. world’s first nuclear bomb cost the U.S. Government $23 billion. Mark Zuckerberg could’ve created the atom bomb 5 times over and still had some change left over.
And what have we gotten for it?
Ask Stephen Moore, he’ll tell you. We’ve gotten patently bad graphics that rival the first Tekken video game on Playstation 1 or maybe a SEGA game from Dreamcast circa the year 2000. By February of 2022, it had already blown through $10 billion on the project. By September of that same year, they’d sunk $71 billion into the project.
These are just two examples among many. Weren’t we all supposed to have driverless cars by now? And what about every prediction Ray Kurzweil ever made? He predicted that technology would advance so fast that we’d be immortal by 2030.
While we haven’t gotten there yet, something tells me the vampiric immortality of Dracula is still a long way off.
But these are just failed predictions. That’s different from the internet itself declining. But hear me out, right now, the internet isn’t doing too well.
The internet is a massive connection of machines that do one thing—they deliver information. Which means they’re only as good as the information they deliver in the same way that highways are useless without cars.
Philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in favor of unrestricted free speech. A core tenet of his argument was that trying to silence liars and speech we find offensive, we might silence good ideas by mistake, since our knowledge is imperfect.
He argued that the solution to disinformation is robust public discussion so that liars and propagandists can be proven wrong. Ten years ago, most of us believed that was the world we were stepping into as social media spread across the world.
We believed that wide-open discussion would force people to reckon with their biases lies. Today, we see how naive we were. Social media has become a propaganda and disinformation vehicle unlike anything the world has ever seen. Lies spread across the globe in seconds while truths get buried by algorithms.
In short, we expanded the scale of speech while paying zero mind to the accuracy or quality of the speech scaled. Now, we have an abundance of information, forcing us to sift through piles of predator garbage in order to find the few nuggets of gold to be found wherever we happen to be online.
Here’s my take.
The technologies themselves have become the causes of our frustrations while the larger overarching narrative is one of an overwhelming sense that anywhere you go on the internet, you’ll have to deal with an overwhelming number of undesirable things that
There’s a trend that seems to happen with all contemporary technologies. A technology is invented, things go well for a while, then it becomes inundated with bad actors and unsavory components. Just like drug addiction, eventually, the negatives outweigh the positives and people abandon ship.
Myspace started out as the coolest place to be. Then, users were bombarded with ads that made the site less than enjoyable. Facebook supplanted Myspace promising no ads. But it was only a matter of time before Facebook adopted a business model that featured ads, only worse.
It augmented Google’s new policy of data tracking to create hyper-targeted advertising, selling users’ attention to advertisers who could now target extremely niche demographics.
Speaking of Google, the search engine has slowly become awash with disinformation itself. Bing doesn’t fair much better.
Answers to your questions can be nearly impossible to find, and while a search engine’s job is technically to find you websites (not answers to your questions), all of these companies are the arbiters of information who’ve been disastrously reckless with their custodianship of information itself.
Now, the legacy social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are leaking users and their popularity is in decline while Google and Bing continue to frustrate users who are tired of skipping advertisements and algorithm-hackers who write a bunch of SEO-influenced crap to rise to the top of your feed.
Until now, people have always had the next trend to take up as they left the previous one. Like chimpanzees swinging from tree to tree, we often wait until the next branch is available before letting go of the first branch.
But is it possible that we all tire of the internet at large? What happens when no new branches present themselves? We’re already seeing what that might look like.
In the beginning, these sites were difficult for coders to create. You had a handful of options. Over time, coding skills became more widespread and now users have more options.
Many have hailed the oncoming Web 3.0 as our salvation from the drawbacks and predatory behaviors of large, centralized companies like Google and Facebook.
But Twitter’s latest woes serve as a microcosm of what might be in store for us in the future. Former Twitter-CEO Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky is the latest company to try to challenge Twitter after the decentralized Mastodon tried last year. But companies are coming to find out that Web 3.0 isn’t all its cracked up to be.
If users cared more about open source and decentralization, Microsoft Windows wouldn’t have come to dominate the market back in the 1990s. Linux would be the top dog OS around the globe.
But with decentralization and open source often comes difficulties that users simply don’t want to deal with. Like Linux, Mastodon isn’t one piece of software but a complex network of various softwares that share a common core.
I’ve detailed why I think Web 3.0 is doomed to fail here in greater detail here and I think plenty others are with me, like Joshua Edward.
Many people fled Twitter only to realize they were on the wrong Mastodon server—and their friends weren’t there. The technical complexity forced many people to give up and revert back to Twitter while they wait for something easier to come along.
Mastodon has had nowhere near the luck siphoning users from Twitter that Facebook had getting Myspace’s user base to jump ship back in the mid-2000s. The companies have all increased the switching costs making users less likely to abandon what they’re using for something else.
You don’t leave Facebook because all your friends are there. You don’t switch from Google because you can easily log into all sorts of accounts and your passwords are likely stored with them.
These switching costs have prevented users from switching social media companies or search enginges. But how well will they prevent us from leaving the internet altogether, spending more time in the real world and less time online?
Eventually, the tricks and traps used to keep us plugged in to these unhealthy machines—which the United States Surgeon General have just declared dangerous for teenagers—will stop working. Over time, drugs ravage the body to the point where the user can no longer enjoy them. And while social media isn’t “like a drug,” an idea pushed by many, it’s quite demonstrably harmful to our psyche.
The internet is no longer a collection of friends talking amongst themselves, but a warzone of perfect strangers fighting constantly while capitalists seek to charge us at every choke point (or force ads down our throats). It’s only a matter of time before we collectively grow tired of it and that time may already be happening now.
States are already enacting laws against social media, with Utah spearheading the charge with their new law that children under 18 can no longer use social media without parental consent, with Montana banning TikTok, and Arkansas floating a similar law to Montana.
There’s a battle over social media going on in Brazil right now with their new “fake news bill” that seeks to ban advertisements on social media platforms that contain outright lies. The walls are closing in on many social platforms as the U.S. also floats changes to Section 230 which protects online platforms from lawsuits that would stem from user-generated content.
In some ways, the Internet itself is like the new cigarettes, only instead of ravaging a user’s lungs, it punishes our psyches, especially young girls and young women.
Maybe Time magazine’s futurists weren’t so wrong back in 1966 after all.
On some level, humans do crave in-person interaction. And over time, many of us have begun to learn a powerful lesson—that social media, with all of its predatory advertising, boosting wildly destructive conspiracy theories, and playing the middle-man who decides what we see or don’t see from our friends, can’t replace those in-person encounters.
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