The Web from an Elite to a Mass Medium – The Irony of ‘Free and Open’?


Sir Tim Berners-Lee posted this reflection on the Google Blog on the 25th anniversary of his invention of the World Wide Web.

For those of us who were around then, it would be convenient to say we remember the day it happened, or the year it happened, and we warmly embraced that hypertext world he created from Day One. For most of us, though, it was a little more complicated. For most of us there might have been a delayed reaction, dismissing “whatever that is” and carrying on using whatever tools we had at our disposal.

Even without the great advance of the Web and its amazing hyperlinked, standardized architecture, a relatively small elite relied on Internet access. Most such individuals were connected with universities and research centers — true “cyber-geeks” who used various tools to chat, connect, and send files.

The Internet and the Web that came along on top of it began as earnest, elite media. Its geeks were rare, not hanging around in every cafe. And it wasn’t all self-referential and juvenile. Scientists used it to send each other research papers, and comment on them, etc.

When did the Web move to being a truly mass medium? When Webcrawler made it easier to search? When Yahoo came along? When Amazon reached some interesting sales benchmarks? When a good version of Netscape and a faster modem finally made the thing more fun and interactive? When Google took over as the search leader and was able to maintain a sustained age of dominance due to its harder-to-game search algorithm and its uniquely subtle ad ranking formula that didn’t bother search engine users nearly as much as some might have feared? When Google acquired, subsidized, and nurtured YouTube? When Facebook — more like an old AOL or bulletin board walled garden than most things we associate with ‘The Web’ — became ubiquitous?

Yes to all of the above, and much more besides. Much online activity now transcends the Web architecture. It’s heavily interactive – sometimes decentralized, sometimes not.

In the end, it’s a fiction that a standardized architecture and “no power center” leads to a nirvana of openness and freedom. Power centers tend to crop up anyway. Anarchy’s rules shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Likewise, a robust infrastructure of interstates and train tracks, and a nation built on a tradition of small farms and hard work, didn’t mean that it turned out to be a fair fight between “Big Food” and the average person’s waistline, or (call it) the Slow Food Movement. Take a good look at Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat for an interesting look at how one “side” — huge companies with everything to gain — literally “take aim” at the mass market, trying to get them hooked on something (convenience in general, but most notably, sugar, which profoundly affects health) that flies in the face of common sense. Today in Wal-Greens near the checkout, I saw probably the biggest selection of candy I’ve ever seen in a drugstore. The proportion of these items as a proportion of all the rest of the stuff in the store has grown inexorably over the years. One item, Swedish Fish, is billed as “A Fat-Free Food” (!). There was also one of the largest selections of cigarettes I’d seen in awhile, behind the counter — much of them different types of Marlboroughs. (Great business model, right? Profit from the cause(s) of disease, then profit from the cure(s).) Irritatingly, they’ve discontinued beer and wine sales at that location. As I checked out, the clerk signed off with the company’s “signature greeting”: ‘Be Well.’

Back to the free and open Web. Personally, I’m nostalgic for the good old days when I got to send and receive little emails and files through a hard-to-use medium on a slow connection. It felt quiet, sane, and sheltered from the urges of commerce. Today, I work in the unsheltered version of that, making a living from it. Somehow, we aren’t all able to parlay our higher education into quiet lives as poets or professors. (The food science campuses, for their part, are crawling with clever Ph.D.’s.)

Over the years, a few privileged folks (read a bio of Steve Jobs and that will certainly be confirmed) have the type of lifestyle where they can really “dig in” and embrace the ins and outs of nutrition, cuisine, etc. Those who have dined at the eateries of elite chefs like Alice Waters are about as rare as those who have box seats for the Knicks or Lakers game. In spite of all of today’s talk of the rise of a foodie nation, obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

In that industry, there were versions of “Don’t Be Evil” at one time, too. But as competition heated up, as conglomerates grew to hate one another, and as Wall Street financed growth through M&A, the gloves came off, and the concern for health also waned. Have a look at this lengthy excerpt from Moss’s book:

Knocking an hour or two off that (pudding-making) ordeal would give a competitor a decisive advantage, the General Foods executives realized. They asked Clausi to get there first by inventing an instant formula.

Some food creations happen in a flash. Most take months. This one took years. From 1947 to 1950, Clausi and his team cooked, ate, and breathed pudding. They tinkered with its chemical composition. They played with its physical structure. General Foods preferred using cornstarch as the base, but Clausi’s crew looked at potatoes and every other starch they could find, including the sago palm, which Clausi tracked down himself after traveling, via prop plane, to Indonesia. Nothing worked. The problem was that, at the time, General Foods was staunchly committed to pure ingredients. [Emphasis mine.] Food additives such as boric acid, a preservative, and artificial dyes were showing up in more and more items on the grocery shelf, but General Foods knew that consumers had deep trepidations about these ingredients, especially those that were synthetic. Clausi’s marching orders, then, had been quite strict: He was to create his instant pudding using only starch, sugar, and natural flavorings.

That all changed in the summer of 1949 when he returned from two weeks [sic] of fishing in the Catskills to find that all hell had broken loose. A competitor, National Brands, had filed for a patent on instant pudding by using not one synthetic but a blend of synthetics, including an orthophospate that was usually added to drinking water supplies to prevent corrosion… a pyrophosphate, which thickens foods; and water-soluble salts like calcium acetate, which extend shelf life. On his desk the first day back was an envelope marked ‘Open Immediately’. Inside was National’s patent application. And when he went to see his boss, the section head of desserts, Clausi was told that the rules had changed, public fears be damned. “He said, ‘Marketing wants us to outdo the competition,'” Clausi told me. “That it was urgent. And when I asked if it still had to be 100 per cent starch, he said, ‘That’s all out the window. Just come up with an instant pudding that can be made in thirty minutes.’ Overnight, the constraints were removed.”

As Seth Godin often argues — from his (and my) perspective — “elitist” isn’t a dirty word. He recently decried the “fabled Oreo tweet” and “the now-legendary Ellen selfie” as further dragging thinking people into a morass of trivia.

But mass markets are massive profit centers for somebody. It gives somebody (many somebodies) a great deal of incentive to sit in their glass and steel campus bunker coming up ways to ‘optimize’ (that’s what the food scientists call it, believe it or not) products to make them addictive to consumers — to find their ‘bliss point.’ Food scientists began using multivariate testing methods as early as the 1950’s, at General Foods. They’ve gotten very good at it indeed.

It’s hard not to see a parallel with today’s digital world. While I (and Mr. Berners-Lee) may have the wherewithal to dine more frequently than the average person on the digital and informational equivalent of raw broccoli, hummus, and spicy cashew nuts, that’s not, seemingly, where a lot of this is headed. Giants in our industry, just like those giants in the food industry, make more money if they remove choice, and if openness is just a slogan.

It’s not all bad. For starters, much like Jell-O Instant Pudding, our digital life is now incredibly convenient. Didn’t it used to suck when we had to struggle with finding a street address, or just take a chance on a restaurant without checking Yelp? Indeed. We’ve reached our bliss point. It’s a brave new world.

There’s more to say on the issue — on the part about it not being all bad. Along shortly will be the Part 2 of this post.

P.S. Hat tip on the general idea for the subject of this post goes to Professor Carolyn Bassett.

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