After Decades of the Online Revolution: The Real Revolution Is Explained

October 9, 2020

Years ago I worked at a fancy, blue chip consulting firm. One of the keys to success in generating the verbiage needed to reassure clients was reading the Economist. The publication, positioned as a newspaper, sure looked like a magazine. I wondered about that marketing angle, and I was usually puzzled by the “insights” about a range of topics. Then an idea struck me: The magazine was a summarizer of data and verbiage for those in the “knowledge” business. I worked through the write ups, tried to recall the mellifluous turns of phrase, and stuff my “Data to Recycle” folder with clips from the publication.

I read “Faith in Government Declines When Mobile Internet Arrives: A New Study Finds That Incumbent Parties Lose Votes after Their Citizens Get Online.” [A paywall or an institutional subscription may be required to read about this obvious “insight.”] Readers of the esteemed publication will be launching Keynote or its equivalent and generating slide decks. These are often slide decks which will remain unfindable by an organization’s enterprise search system or in ineffectual online search systems. That may not be a bad thing.

The “new study” remains deliciously vague: No statistical niceties like who, when, how, etc. Just data and a killer insight:

A central (and disconcerting) implication is that governments that censor offline media could maintain public trust better if they restricted the internet too. But effective digital censorship requires technical expertise that many regimes lack.

The statements raise some interesting questions for experts to explain; for example, “Dictatorships may restore faith in governments.” That’s a topic for a Zoom meeting among one percenters.

Several observations seem to beg for dot pointing:

  1. The “online revolution” began about 50 years ago with a NASA program. What was the impact of those sluggy and buggy online systems like SDC’s? The answer is that information gatekeepers were eviscerated, slowly at first and then hasta la vista.
  2. Gatekeepers provided useful functions. One of these was filtering information and providing some aggregation functions. The recipient of information from the early-days online information systems was some speed up in information access but not enough to eliminate the need for old fashioned research and analysis. Real time is, by definition, not friendly to gatekeepers.
  3. With the development of commercial online infrastructure and commercial providers, the hunger or addiction to ever quicker online systems was evident. The “need for speed” seemed to be hard wired into those who worked in knowledge businesses. At least one online vendor reduces the past to a pattern and then looks at the “now” data to trigger conclusions. So much for time consuming deliberation of verifiable information.

The article cited above has discovered downstream consequences of behaviors (social and economic) which have been part of the online experience for many years.

The secondary consequences of online extend far beyond the mobile devices. TikTok exists for a reason, and that service may be one of the better examples of “knowledge work” today.

One more question: How can institutions, old fashioned knowledge, and prudent decision making survive in today’s datasphere? With Elon Musk’s implants, who will need a mobile phone?

Perhaps the next Economist write up will document that change, hopefully in a more timely manner.

Stephen E Arnold, October 9, 2020


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