From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg


John Naughton, Professor of Public Understanding at the Open University gave a talk at Leicester University on the 22nd February, summarizing some of his ideas from his new book – What you really need to know about the Internet - From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg. His talk is summarized here.

We have seen a shift in terms of the Internet, a transition from the exotic (weird) to the mundane. The Internet is now taken for granted and infiltrates all aspects of our lives. The result is that we are dependant on a network that (almost) no one understands. When did this change happen and why? There are a number of consequences:

·      Clueless law making

·      Hood winked users

·      Informed bewilderment – Castells (We are awash with data and don’t know what it means)

·      Comprehensive surveillance

·      Vapourisation of privacy

What can we do about it? We need to develop (at the least) a round appreciation of the Internet. John referenced George Miller’s paper from the fifties on the notion of 7 plus or minus 2, i.e. cognitively in short terms memory we can only hold this many chunks of information at any one idea. John took this idea and based his thoughts on the Internet and its implications around a small number of big ideas.

1.     Take the long view

We have seen a transformation of communication as a result of the use of the Internet. We tend to focus too much on the short terms trends, impact of fb, e-books etcc. Whereas we need to take a longer view and realise that the impact of emergent technologies is likely to be more transformative and disruptive that we can imagine. Think back to before the Internet – could anyone have predicted its emergent and how it would infiltrate all aspects of our lives? In 1455 Gutenberg created a communication revolution with the development of the printing press, we are now, with the Internet, in the middle of another communication revolution. However, because we are in the middle of this revolution, we can’t conceive or imagine how radical it is and the extent to which it will transform our practice.

2.    The Web is not the Net

There is a common misconception that the Web and the Internet are synonymous, they are not. The Internet is the underlying infrastructure, the Web just one application. John drew on a railway metaphor, i.e. the tracks and signals of the railway are equivalent to the Internet, whereas the trains are one application, like the Web. John argued that the Internet is more important than anyone application that runs on it

3.    For the Internet, disruption is a feature, not a bug

There are a number of architectural principles: i) there is no central ownership with the Internet, ii) the Internet is neutral towards the applications that run on it.  The result is an explosion of ‘permissionless innovation’, i.e there are endless possibilities and innovations. It is a global machine for springing surprises. John wrote a book in the mid-nineties about the history of the Internet and how it was developed. It’s a great read and gives a real flavour of the people involved. He referred back to this in his talk. He said that the Internet was development because Tim Berners-Lee had a bad memory! He wanted to create a system to be able to easily access his files and date. The result was the Web and the rest is history. Hence the Web is an example of a disruptive technology. Arguably everything we do now is shaped and affected by the web.

The second example of a distruptive technology John cited is Napster, a site which provided digitized music in the web. Within, 18 months it had 80 million users and almost all music that has ever been created was available from the site. Clearly however there were copyright issues and eventually it was shut down. However it is interesting to see how sites like Napster and the power of the web for distributing materials has changed the nature of the music industry, music publishing houses are being seriously affected. For example Radiohead made one of their albums available on the web and said that people could choose to download it for free or pay a donation. Interestingly many did pay for the album, introducing a new business model for buying content. An unpleasant example of a distruptive innovation is the rise of malware or malicious software, which can invade computers piggy backing on commonly used programmes like Microsoft word. Second order surprises include Wikipedia and Facebook, which has 850 million users, of which about 50% check the site everyday.

4.   Think ecology not just economics

Application of economics is not appropriate in a web-world dominated by abundance. John used the analogy of shifting fro a dessert to a rich biodiverse rainforest. The ecological metaphor is a useful metaphor or analytical framework for describing both the diversity of the activities occurring on the web, as well as the evolving dynamics of different tools.

5.   Complexity is the new reality

The web provides an order of magnitude of complexity. Properties include: dense interconnectivity, highly dynamic, open, non-linear, extraordinary behavourial diversity and intrinsically unpredictable. Ashley’s law of requisite variety is in effect and its implications. For a system to be viable it has to be able to handle the complexity of the environment.

6.  The network is now the computer

In particular with the emergence of cloud computing the network is now the computer. Increasingly we use cloud-based tools and store data on the net rather than our computer. There are implications of this, for: users, the environment (cloud computer requires huge, energy hungry server farms, mainstream business, privacy, security and freedom.

7.  The web is evolving

We pages are not static, they are made up on the fly. Arguably there is a web geology consisting of: Web 1.0 (1991-2003), Web 2.0 (2004-present), Web 3.0 (2012?), Web 4.0 (?).

8. Copyright and copyleft

Our intellectual property regime no longer makes any sense. Analogue copyright is about different, degenerative, costly, and hard to disseminate, whereas digital copyright is perfect, easy, cheap, and easy to disseminate. Our IP was development in an analogue era, we are trying to apply it to a world dominated by a technology for which copying is an integral and essential part. Copying in the digital era is equivalent to breathing for animal life, i.e you can’t have one without the other. Our current regime of copyright is unsustainable, it can’t go on.

9.    Orwell vs. Huxley – bookends of our future?

John concluded by reflecting on the future and whether it will be an Orwellian or Huxleyian vision. Where is all this taking us? Is it the end of the techno-Utopia, i.e the fantasy that the internet would change everything for the better. Orwell feared that we would be destroyed by the things that we fear – examples might include Government surveillance, i.e. the power to monitor everything that you do on the net. Huxley argued that it is easier to control people by making them happy rather that through fear. Are we controlled by our love and addiction to technologies?


We need to stop extrapolating from the short term and take a longer term view. There are lessons to be learnt from the impact of previous disruptive technologies – the impact of reading for example, reading is a learnt skill, and arguably it changes the way we think. It took 15-20 years to fine a business model for the radio. We are seeing similarly patterns now with the net and new business models are emerging. Will the same happen with the net, are we cognitively different now because of the net? Alternatively is Google making us stupid? (Nicolas Carr). 

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