A response to Vint Cerf: Enough of the content, already

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A recent essay by Google's chief Internet evangelist has BetaNews' Scott Fulton thinking about the meaning behind all this content, and whether the evolution of the Internet has made its creators forget the need for meaning.

One of my favorite movies of any genre made in this decade has been Pixar's Wall-E, and one of the reasons is that it depicts skillfully, though gently, the exact nature of a world that has become chock full of content. The title character's world became overrun with stuff, but devoid of people. In fact, the people got so sick of it, they left.

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If a world is full of only content -- bits and blocks of contextually semi-related, semantically adjoined information -- then Wall-E World is exactly what it looks like: desolate stacks of discarded ideas meshed with useless trivia. If you anesthetize the Internet just enough, if you remove from it any trace or memory of human communication, and think of it only as a repository for blocks of stacked content, then I don't really see much obvious difference between it and Wall-E World.

Yesterday afternoon, as part of Google's celebration of its tenth anniversary, it published an essay by its chief evangelist, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf. Now, I used to get on Bill Gates' case for being continually asked to predict the future of computing, and responding with some linear projection that was always a magnification of the present: computers will get smaller, mobile phones will become more mobile, video games will get faster, the Internet will become Inter-net-tier. And all of us will be happy consumers.

Well, yesterday's bit of science fiction from Vint Cerf could easily have been rendered by Bill Gates. At some point, Cerf wrote, the Internet will transform our daily lives. Video itself will be changed forever, to the point where the contextual links between the chariot scenes in the Star Wars and Ben Hur movies will be cast in stone. Everywhere you look, there will be some other Web service, interacting with us, and us interacting back with it. And all of us will be happy consumers.

And then there's this little gem:

A box of washing machine soap will become part of a service as Internet-enabled washing machines are managed by Web-based services that can configure and activate your washing machine. Scientific measurements and experimental results will be blogged and automatically entered into common data archives to facilitate the distribution, sharing and reproduction of experimental results. One might even imagine that scientific instruments could generate their own data blogs.

I'm sorry, I don't really mean to be disrespectful...but I just have to stop you there. I just don't want to find the Internet in my Cascade or my Cheer. Maybe I'm alone in this, but SOAP-enabled soap...does not stir my passion. And I don't have any desire to read the daily diary of a laboratory microscope. It is enough that our content stream is awash with so much being said and so little being stated; must we add inanimate objects to the mix?

Or is that the point, really -- is the underlying motivation here to somehow blur the line between the animate and the inanimate so that anything that can be dreamed can be programmed, and vice versa? As Cerf's close puts it, "There is no limit to what can be programmed. If we can imagine it, there's a good chance it can be programmed. The Internet of the future will be suffused with software, information, data archives, and populated with devices, appliances, and people who are interacting with and through this rich fabric."

Assuming that is the grand objective here, not so much to dehumanize the population and empower the everyday appliance but to mush everything and everyone together into some common social network where friendship can be established contextually and one's opinion or vote can be gleaned well ahead of time, then I believe it is fair for us to ask ourselves if this is the world we truly want to live in. And if the answer is, as I suspect, no (or, in the case of toasters and washing machines that comprise the voting block for appliances, "off"), then the question becomes, what good are directionless, motionless, dispassionate predictions that provide us with no guidance and no suggestion for anything we can truly do to better ourselves besides experience, interact, and consume?

Because if we remove the false veneer of prognostication from this subject, if we were to look deeply into the laboratories and conference rooms of Google and its competitors -- though I admit BetaNews has yet to contact anyone to confirm this -- I sincerely doubt we would find disassembled upon some operating table any box or bottle of Cheer, All, Tide, Dreft, Woolite, or any other fine product from the likes of Procter & Gamble or Unilever. My guess is, whatever they're actually doing bears less of a resemblance to infusing detergent with intelligence and a closer resemblance to reality. And I also suspect they may not have been paid a visit by Vint Cerf for quite some time.

The Internet is no more comprised of content than a highway is comprised of cars. A network is made up of people, and as long as people are being connected to other people and to the knowledge and wisdom of other people, then it doesn't particularly matter much where the Internet "goes." It can get bigger, grow faster, turn multicolored, turn into a species of toad, maybe enter an unexplored dimension of time and space. But it would be a galaxy of empty boxes if it did not fulfill its principal function of bringing human beings together.

Maybe when you work for a content company for too long, where the objective becomes to link words rather than ideas, you start to leave reality as we know it and enter some other awful, desolate planet. Come home, Vint Cerf. Earth needs you.


[The opinion rendered above is that of Scott M. Fulton, III, who is solely responsible for his content.]

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