Sun, 07 Sep 2003

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elliptical comments on mass amateurisation

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(This entry is a very rough draft which I will post anyway, and perhaps will never revise, but, you were warned.)

I stumbled upon this entry from plasticbag.org on popdex. "(Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything"

My comments are more ruminations than criticisms. But it always strikes me how rarefied the blogosphere is in terms of socioeconomics. A lot of people make it sound like the cost of hardware is not a huge barrier to access. While the approximately $200 it costs to buy the most minimal computer and the $39.95/mo to hook it up to the Internet may indeed by trivial for the average citizen of a developed nation, one might wonder just how exactly this translates in the developing world.

Perhaps my ideas are outdated though. Because of my cultural heritage, the Philippines is always my baseline for a developing nation. Perhaps because it exists in the ecosystem of Asia, and despite not booming extraordinarily during the infamous bubble that burst in 1997, the nation nonetheless was impacted somewhat by the technological developments in neighboring countries and therefore can't really be used as a model the developing nations of Africa and South America. The last time I was out in the Philippines, in 1999, what struck me was the disparity in infrastructure. For example, some places may not have had running water or paved roads, but they had an Internet cafe, a cel phone tower, and satellite TV. They might not have had copper-wire land lines, but many people were incredibly proficient with SMS. (And, now, four years later, SMS is just beginning to breakthrough in the U.S.)

If you google the TLD .ph, you will find quite a few sites, and many of them are in fact blogs. So long as a nation is rich enough to afford some way to have a big fat pipe out to the Internet, this process of democratization and amateurization can hold true. (Of course, without this, the idea is moot. You don't really see anyway blogging out of Afghanistan, for example, and clearly, now that it is occupied by the U.S. and theoretically is now a free nation, this is not simply because of the repressive policies in force there. But that is a subject of another rant.)

To me, the impressive thing about blogging is that you don't even need to have your own computer or your own remote hosting account. What is most distinctive between maintaining a home page and maintaining a blog has a lot to do with the hardware and services available, though. In the aftermath of the revolution that NCSA Mosaic spawned, while there have been things such as Tripod for quite a while now, that is, free home page hosting, they did not offer the necessary flexibility. In times past, it would not be trivial to host a blog-like site at one of these sites. (In contrast, these days, Tripod is offering a blog builder.) Most people who were serious about their home pages needed to have at least FTP access to make it reasonable. To have to upload things through forms was excruciatingly painful. (Particularly since this was the era where the 56k modem was top-of-the-line.) Compare this to setting up a blog. All you have to do is sign up with Blogger, and you are good to go. 56k is the absolute minimum with which people access the Internet these days. If you are fortunate enough to own your own computer and a nice pipe, you're all set. Let's say that you don't have access to broadband, but have a notebook. Well, just pop in a $50-or-less 802.11b card and head to your local Starbucks. Don't have a computer at all? You could reasonably blog at your local library, or at an Internet cafe. (And many do in the developing nations.)

Not to say that Tom Coates is ignoring the reality of the hardware required, as that is not the point of his post, but I think it is a good parallel train of thought to ponder.

We are at the point where, for a lot of people, the operating system costs as much or more than the actual hardware. If Microsoft had continued to have a stranglehold on the OS market, none of these innovations might have spread to developing nations. But, thanks to Open Source, the software infrastructure is now economically trivial to those nations that can afford the hardware. You can have cheap servers running Linux or BSD, essentially halving the cost of entry these days. Furthermore, you have free, reliable software to run on top of the OS. Would the web really have taken off if Apache never existed?

True, the barrier to hardware access is eroding rapidly, at a pace prophesied by Moore that remains unabated. What is impressive is not the multi-gigahertz figurative behemoths that one can buy for their home (what would've the guy who said that computers would weigh no more than 1.5 tons have to say about that?), but the tiny plastic pieces of crap used for children's toys that have more computing power than my first personal computer had, which, frighteningly, you may very well be able to shove a stripped down version of Linux onto. So the hardware is extremely cheap, the software is essentially free. The only thing that is lacking is the pipe.

The takeoff of wi-fi has the possibility of changing this as well. Public hotspots, ubiquitous wireless routers, cel phone service that is as cheap if not cheaper than copper-wire landline service. The Internet will literally exist invisible in the air between us.

But none of this is a reality yet even in the developed nations. Obviously, the blogosphere is a self-selected sample population. Without delving into the real world, we have no idea how this affects people who are completely off the Internet. (Even now, the mass media has us believing that everyone owns a computer, when in fact this is not the case, anymore than the idea that everyone owns a television is true.)

What is illustrative is that breakthrough innovations always happen from the bottom-up, from the grassroots level, if you will. This is probably the reason why Apple has never become a massive player, because, as innovative as they are, all their innovations have been at the high-end. (Although, if the slide in hardware costs continue unabated, the iPod will change that conventional wisdom. iPods are rapidly becoming ubiquitous. The repeated comparison to the Sony Walkman is apt.) In contrast, this completely describes how the Open Source movement exploded, in that the innovation was not the technology itself, but in the methods of distribution and creation. Similarly, the technology that is changing our society are not those aforementioned multi-gigahertz PCs, but cel phones, which are in fact based on a technology first envisioned in the WWII era, and utilize very inexpensive hardware components. (Why do you think cel phone companies can give these things away for free?) I can imagine that everyone will have a cel phone long before everyone has a PC.

Similarly, what is somewhat ironic is that blogging has brought us back to our text roots. Many blogs, particularly the ones that are maintained sans-PC and sans-paid hosting, are simply text wrapped in HTML and CSS (which itself is nothing more than text) While there is place for Flash and Quicktime and other rich media, as Coates mentioned, the pipes aren't yet big enough, and, well, you can convey quite a bit with just text. (Which argues against the development of a completely post-literal world, but that is another topic.)

Again it is not the technology that is revolutionary, it is the way it is used to create.

It is really democracy in action. Because text is so portable, ubiquitous, and cheap in terms of resources needed to support it, everyone has access to it. You don't need a computer at all. You could use your cel phone, and their increasingly more and more public venues to reach the Internet.

Still, the revolution is in progress, and its completion is still beyond the horizon. Still, it is an interesting step for freedom.

08:18:56 7 Sep 2003 > /computers/www > permalink > 4 comments

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