A lot of folks have reacted to Chris Anderson’s deliberately provocative piece in Wired: “The Web Is Dead, Long Live the Internet.” I have two chief reactions. One is a methodological one — Anderson gives no justification for reliance on percentage of total Internet traffic as being a measure of anything in particular from which we might draw conclusions. I am hardly the first to note, for example, that according to Anderson’s chart, DNS traffic ceased to matter by the mid-1990s, a conclusion dramatically contradicted by actual reality.
But my chief criticism is substantive. Anderson — perhaps unintentionally — does an excellent job recapitulating Karl Marx’s original Socialist critique of capitalism, i.e., that it will invariably reduce to a monopoly or cartel structure exacting monopoly rents (although he leaves off the part about it eventually collapsing under its own inefficiency, the workers seizing the means of production, yadda yadda yadda). But his conclusion is that such is human nature and we ought to just suck it up as long as we keep getting cool stuff. (Aps are the opiates of the technorati masses, apparently).
But there is a reason I am not a socialist (despite claims of some critics to the contrary) and instead brand myself as a member of the Congregation of the Progressive Capitalists. Anderson notes that “Monopolies are actually even more likely in highly networked markets like the online world. The dark side of network effects is that rich nodes get richer.” But he overlooks the ability of public policy to prevent that from happening. Anderson appears ignorant of the role of such things as the FCC’s Carterfone decision and subsequent rulemaking, or the role of the Computer Inquiries in creating the conditions for the growth and development of the Internet and the applications that ride on it, including the Web.
Accordingly, if we ignore the methodological problems and accept the underlying economic argument, the solution is not to develop ill-suited analogies based on the happenstance that we can somehow define “the Internet” as “post-adolescent” to somehow rationalize our loss of freedom. To the contrary, if we are really seeing the decline of the Web and the rise of the App, we have a policy choice to make. We can do nothing, and follow Anderson’s inevitable slide from the open world of the Web to the closed world of the Ap. Or we can do what we did to the wireline world 40 years ago in the FCC’s Carterfone and Computer proceedings and wedge the system open.
Put another way, we can still save the vibrant free market on the web through a little proactive regulation, rather than accept Anderson’s “inevitable” collapse.