Earlier this year, American legal scholar Tim Wu published a sobering book: The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. In it, he surveyed the history of the great communications technologies of the 20th century — the telephone, movies, broadcast radio and TV. Each of these technologies, Wu argued, started out as gloriously creative, anarchic and uncontrolled. But in the end each was “captured” by corporate power, usually aided and abetted by the State. And the process in each case was the same: a charismatic entrepreneur arrived with a better consumer proposition that enabled a corporation or a cartel to attain control of the industry. The big question, Wu asked, is whether this will happen to the internet.
The internet was another one of those gloriously creative, anarchic technologies that spawned utopian dreams; all you needed to prosper was ingenuity, software skills and imagination. So what the network’s designers created was, in effect, a global machine for springing surprises.
For the last two decades, we’ve been gratified, bamboozled and sometimes alarmed by the surprises it has sprung. The first-order ones were innovations such as the World Wide Web, file-sharing, VoIP (internet telephony) and malicious software. In turn, they generated other, second-order ones. The Web, for example, served as the foundation for search engines, Flicker, blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia and, latterly, smartphones and Facebook.
We’re now at the stage where we should be getting the next wave of surprises. But they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead, we’re getting an endless stream of incremental changes and me-tooism. We’re clean out of ideas. And if you want evidence of that, just look at the nauseating epidemic of patent wars that now disfigures the entire world of information technology.
How have we got ourselves into this mess? How long have you got? Here are a few of the obvious culprits. One is our obsolete intellectual property regime, which, instead of encouraging innovation, is nowadays mainly used to discourage it. Another is our failure to build the kind of networking infrastructure that could form the basis for really disruptive applications of IT. A third sheet-anchor is provided by the business models currently dominant in the industry, namely the provision of “free” services in return for massive intrusions on privacy and other swindles.
But perhaps the biggest curb on innovation is the fact that the technologies that might serve as the springboards for next-generation surprises are increasingly closed and controlled. Facebook, for example, was built on the Web, which is an open platform. But Facebook is busily creating a walled garden in which the only innovations that can arise from it are ones allowed by the proprietors. The same applies to the tethered devices that we know as smartphones and tablets.
We look like being the first civilisation in history that invented a golden goose — and then strangled it.