The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Late (Internet) Telecom Revolution Is Not Such a Big Deal

Look, I know the Internet is great. I like it, it’s changed my life. But it’s not big a deal when you compare it to other technological revolutions. This is true even if you throw in increases in computing power (which were happening long before the Internet was opened to the public).

Let’s get it out the way: The one, unqualifiedly great thing the Internet has done is provide access to information. Movies, books, news, technical papers–all of that. Today, I can find out information which I would have needed to visit a library to find out in 1990. Often, I can find out information I would have need a university library to find.

This is a great, good thing, especially as the Internet spreads to the third world, where access to good libraries is often sparse.

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What else, though?

  • The Internet’s effects on the GDP are minor at best. The GDP in first world countries (and most third) has been growing anemically through most of the “Internet age,” and most of the increases that did occur can’t be traced back to telecom. Housing, finance, etc…all those sectors can boom and bust just fine without telecom and high-speed computers.
  • Productivity effects are elusive. They just aren’t showing up–and people have looked.
  • Online communities are great, I love them. But to the extent they replace offline friends and communities, they are a net negative, because offline friends are more beneficial to people’s happiness and health than online friends.
  • As Ha Joong Chang points out in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, the Telecom revolution isn’t nearly as impressive as what washing machines did: liberate women from most domestic drudgery.
  • As Telecom revolutions go, it isn’t even as impressive as the telegraph, if one wants to be strict about this.
  • The Telecom revolution did make it possible to outsource and offshore work that couldn’t be before, but the period from 1945 to 1970 still saw most third world countries growing faster.
  • The largest country which benefits most from outsourcing is India. Mysteriously, in the past 30 years, the average number of calories eaten in India has dropped.
  • The Telecom revolution is not as important as electrification, municipal sewers, the automobile, the airplane, air-conditioning, the mechanical loom, the steam engine, antibiotics, or even washing hands before surgery.
  • As one of its negative side effects, the Telecom revolution enables a panopticon surveillance state which is far more intrusive than what Orwell imagined in 1984 or which the Stasi created in East Germany.
  • Most of the big wins in telecom have been things like Amazon, Uber, AirBnb, and so on. They reduce costs, but they do so by also reducing earning, thus aggregating the majority of earnings to themselves. They are primarily upwardly redistributive. Efficiency gains are often real, but they go to a very few people.

None of this is to say that the Telecom revolution is not important. It is, and it has had vast effects on our lives. It will continue to do so as it’s logic is run through. But as technological revolutions go, it is neither the most important in recent history, nor is it the most beneficial. It is nowhere near as beneficial as the revolution in sanitation was during the 19th century, for example. It does not change how we live nearly as much as automobiles and trains did, or washing machines or air conditioners. (When asked how Singapore has succeeded, Lee Kuan Yu said it would have been impossible without air conditioning.)

Perspective, people, perspective.

The Internet and Telecom revolution could yet make the world a vastly better place, but they haven’t so far. Information doesn’t “want to be free” and the rise of the Internet has seen a vast tightening of copyright and patent laws, rather than a utopia of free information you are actually allowed to use.

Early radio adopters were like early internet adopters; they saw it as a democratizing force, a force for the people, etc, etc. When the Titanic sunk, it was claimed (falsely) that the ships SOS messages couldn’t through because smaller, private radio users were tying up the lines. Radio frequencies were then auctioned off to the rich. The same path (minus the hysterical lies) was followed with the television spectrum.

In the US and many other countries, a few large companies control the pipes. A few App stores do most of that business, and the advertising revenue goes to search engines (aka. Google).

So, Telecom Revolution: Important, yes. Good?  Yes and no.

The next coming of the washing machine, or the washing of hands, or antibiotics?

Not yet.

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  1. Steeleweed

    “…finance, etc… can all boom and bubble just fine without telecom and high speed computers.”
    But the daily trading frauds do indeed depend on very high computing powers. I’ve had a front-row seat in that process for nearly 50 years and since the ’70s I’ve been sounding the alarm – or as it’s also called, “spitting in the wind”.

    IMO, electricity has done more to change life than any other single thing, from providing distributed power, as a necessary component of a lot of machinery/tools and by extending the ‘day’. I’m old enough and rural enough to have experienced America off the grid. Quite different.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Oh sure, there are specific securities scams that need computing power/telecom.

    But the 20s managed to run up a nice bubble and engage in a ton of scams without it.

    Longest I’ve spent w/o electricity (other than some camping/canoeing) was a house on a lake in Northern Ontario being used by timber cruisers. Wasn’t terrible or anything, but most things are no big deal if it’s only a week.

  3. kfv

    Early radio adopters were like early internet adopters. They saw it as a Democratizing force, a force for the people, etc, etc…

    Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 SF novel Star Maker describes radio in terms such that you could simply replace every instance of the word “radio” with the word “internet”, and no-one reading it today would even blink (save for the obvious anachronism.)

  4. kfv

    Printing revolutionized Europe within a century of its introduction, and–despite what Western chauvinists would say–that was no thanks at all to the attitude of its rulers, who fought printing’s effects on society tooth and nail. Europe was simply too riven with internal divisions at the time for reactionaries to put up a united front against them.

    Its birthplace imperial China OTOH (far more prosperous than Europe at the time of its invention) got a wobbly 11th-century version of “early modernity” that fell flat on its face in the subsequent century, followed by seven centuries of stagnation.

    The general feeling I get is that since the Cold War ended we’ve been in a situation far more like imperial China–the state of the art is in fact advancing but society is just too rigid to do anything really novel and useful with it. The existing power elite can simply outlaw uses of a new technology that endanger their interests, so what filters down is either a trivial substitution of an existing technology, or else a novel application of a new technology–but one that threatens only the common person’s interests, not the ruling elite’s.

    To jump to a different historical analogy, the state of smartphone software reminds me of the sequence in The Ascent of Man that contrasted the development of precision machines on the Continent (impressive and pretty but useless knick-knacks) with that in England (precision tools that kick-started the Industrial Revolution.) Current apps are mostly knick-knacks, not tools.

  5. Jessica

    I agree with you that the Internet and other aspects of the state of the art are advancing but that society makes it impossible to really put them to use. Yes, this looks like rigidity, but I think that the real issue is that utilizing knowledge as the driving force of the economy is incompatible with private ownership of the means of production. I don’t think state ownership, which has so far always wound up meaning collective ownership by an elite, is the answer either. The new structure we need will have far more elements that look like commons.
    The Internet itself is to what the Internet could be (with more mature social organization) as a card catalog is to a library and it is not even all that good a card catalog. I can remember card catalogs and they were designed to be as useful as they could be to people searching for information. Much of our current electronic hyperlinked card catalog is carefully crafted to waste our time and steal our attention.
    Google could have been a universal library of all recorded human knowledge. I think in the beginning that is even what they wanted. However, in our current social system, the way for them to be compensated for their work was to become an advertising agency, later also minions to the surveillance state.

    I hope that the West proves to not be as rigid as imperial China, given that after China’s wobbly 11th-century early modernity, it took them about 900 years to move forward. Even now, after everything China has gone through, even after the Cultural Revolution, in which China explicitly targeted the cultural and psychological remnants of imperial days, Community Party rule replicates much of the old ways that stand in the way.
    BTW, is there a book you can recommend about the impact of printing in the West and how the elites of the day tried to fight against it?

  6. The flip side of your argument is just as interesting, in a John Michael Greer sort of way. Which of the great technological innovations has had the most deleterious effects? Automobile? Nuclear fission? Genetic modification?

  7. zotter

    I would point out though that there are (at least) two things you are meshing together: financial revolutions and cultural revolutions. Sometimes you have one independent of the other, sometimes something can be big enough to provide both at once. The “cultural revolution” of the 1960s in America didn’t have much effect on finances (the pure demographics and steady advance of tech did most of that), but it sure had an atomic bomb level impact on culture. Let me put it this way: tea partiers and ultra conservatives are still tying themselves up in knots trying to unwind it from American culture. It was real and it was important, not much financial impact. Compare that to the industrial revolution itself: both a financial ground shift and a cultural earthquake due to it’s size. Or the automobile which really came from the industrial revolution but was a mythological shift in culture for America.

    The fact is we don’t really even know which the internet is yet. It’s really what, 20 years old (int he mainstream?) It’s like looking at cars in the early 1930s and declaring them “meh”. It was still ramping up and changing things faster than they could account. Maybe the internet is a financial phenomenon, maybe it isn’t. A few more decades will tell on that point. It is definitely a cultural shift so large we simply don’t grasp it yet. If nothing else, we really just don’t get it – we’re not the ones pushing it forward if we’re over 35.

    Don’t declare it a dead failure just yet, we simply don’t have enough data on something that looks to have very, very long legs.

  8. John

    This may seem a bit pedantic, but technically we don’t have an ‘internet’ yet, and people could be asking “why not?” Due to various design cock ups, we never actually got as far as people seem to believe. Because of the way IP works, interconnection between networks remains as largely centralized as it was in the 1980s. We are still using a 30+ year old design prototype that was not really ready for mass consumption. Why?

    Unfortunately, many of the ‘good guy’ tech committees that were supposed to encourage research into developing better internet(s) as time went on, just ended up becoming well paid domain ’experts’ in what we have (advanced craftsmanship), rather than what we don’t have (let’s do some actual science). From this naturally flowed accidental lobby groups to keep this poor design in place. Scientific research into networking then pretty much stalled for 20+ years, and only started up again recently.

    The current architecture, has severe delivery limitations such a no proper multihoming (essential for mobility – computers are in pockets and wireless now), no broadcast capability (‘streaming’ is NOT broadcast – the economics are actually complete opposites). All we really got was endless patches and hacks onto something we should have been trying hard to replace completely all along.

    The architecture also has some unnecessary and unfair economic distortions built in, once you expose them to capitalist markets, which produce centralizing and monopolizing effects. This was mostly accidental as for the original use cases such as academic and military, compatibility with markets were not big issues to them. We should have sorted those out before considering it fit for mass commercial adoption and general public consumption.

    If you were designing an internet now, would you state as a requirement “Make it really hard for content producers to automatically get a small portion of your bill. Make them beg for donations, government funding or have to suck up to advertisers i.e replace ‘users as customers we design for’ with ‘users as eyeballs to be captured’” This conflict leads to a very poor UX because the user, when not the customer cannot be designed for properly, it must always be compromised to suit another who’s paying.

    Paywalls don’t work in many situations because the granularity is too large. I might take out 3 or 4 monthly subscriptions but not hundreds. What I really want is a few pennies to go from my ISP to the source I am using at the time. Micropayments work best when aggregated, and ISPs are in a perfect position to do this as you give them your money anyway. It could be shared with the other end.

    So why can’t a newspaper charge for outgoing bandwidth to it’s readers? Then advertising would become the optional extra it should be, not an absolute requirement. You’d still get some advertising because people still need to market things, but advertisers wouldn’t rule the internet and get to dictate what is viable or not in terms of type of content.

    Localism in both cultural and economic forms are systemically discouraged without a hop cost in place. If I use a greater amount of infrastructure to use a server in the US, then why does it not cost me more, when I am actually using more physical resources on route? With the phone system – the local exchange handles local traffic, it is not sent around the world just because of a stupid routing design oversight. It is a massively inefficient waste of infrastructure. If a lower hop count was cheaper, then local alternatives would stand a better chance of being viable against existing giants. Even global companies would have to invest more widely to become physically closer to reduce hop costs. They’d have to spread the money around more. We assume a flat cost anywhere was a good idea, but it may have been a massively stupid one, unless you really do want global internet monopolies to be the norm.

    Sickeningly, I see a trend of being told to look upon advertisers as if they are our saviours, when in fact they have mostly just ended up exploiting a poorly designed system. All these so called moral arguments about adblockers are fundamentally idiotic, because none of them ever ask “Why don’t you just get paid anyway? Where is that design feature in the protocol?” Forcing people into the hands of corporate snoops is hardly a nice thing to do to your users.

    People often don’t realise that by design it could have gone many different ways, but we just got stuck with a terrible one, mostly by dumb committee induced accidents, but people have forgotten how we arrived here. Engineers, once they become the experts in some subfield, become stubborn. It’s hard to admit that your entire knowledge base should be irrelevant because it flowed from wrong assumptions to begin with. Orgs like the IETF, ICANN etc don’t work to become obsolete. For example, supposing IP addresses and DNS were seen as silly design mistakes (they are), would we need those orgs to manage the fallout?

    A better internet architecture will not come first from the US because the internet monopolies and tech VC structures it has produced so far now have no interest in addressing many of it’s original design flaws. “Hey let’s put a lot of capital into destroying our monopoly business models.” is not something you would hear from the likes of google or VCs. Real internet innovation is basically now taboo.

    My guess is that the EU will be the first to do something interesting and new. Mostly due to the tensions in EU vs US tech concerns over recent years. Also the EU is now spending a lot on pure network science research which is what we need more of. All these tech gurus who harp on about how innovative the internet supposedly is, rarely ask “So why hasn’t it’s architecture fundamentally changed for so many years now?” It is stagnation in terms of innovation, so instead we use the term to mean exploiting/hacking existing flaws rather than fixing them.

    The EU cannot solve it’s tensions with US internet monopolies via legal approaches alone, i.e. antitrust, privacy laws etc. It is as much of a design problem and the EU seems to recognise that now. When Germany suggested ‘Shengencloud’ because of US snooping, they know it is possible, but requires some big technical design changes first, you can’t just demand it politically.

    We have reached the limits of what current internet is capable of, in terms of performance capabilities as well as better economic and political outcomes. It is all diminishing returns from now on (which you also seem to point out) unless we change the basic architecture.

    The current iteration was an interesting experiment (that went on too long) but now we need to start asking again “What would a proper internet be like in terms of what we have learned up until now? Is only one internet even a good idea (would you build all house on one giant long street)? Why not the ‘internets’ – an internet of internets, if you really love competition as much as you claim? Why not different billing models that would make new avenues actually viable?”

    Why did we let internet innovation stop for the last 20+ years? The market certainly didn’t try to improve it despite the daily tech hyperbole spewed out by the press.

  9. Tom

    Well its started. Box 4, basically Jarabulus to the Med is now closed to US Fighters without Russian Permission.

    Syria is also stated to be moving S-300s to Deir Ezzor and Qamishli Strongholds to enforce its own no-fly zones, and more Russian Planes and now combat troops are coming in.

    Since the rebels refuse to surrender or negotiate any resolution that doesn’t end with Assad hanging from a gibbet for crimes that far surpass anything ISIS did, this is going to get ugly.

    So far the main focus is in Damascus where the regime is finally clearing Eastern Ghouta and making real progress closing those pockets.

  10. Tony Wikrent

    One other negative effect is that the internet has facilitated the political polarization of societies since people can so easily self-select themselves away from being exposed to opposing viewpoints.

    And one major condition to the observation “that the one thing the Internet has done which is unqualifiedly great is access to information.” Ironically, much statistical information pertaining to economics is no longer available because governments no longer require it, collect it, collate it, and serve it up for use by the public. One notable example is the cessation of the Statistical Abstract of the United States in 2012.

    And even if the Statistical Abstract were still being published, many important data series are no longer available. Most have been privatized. Try to find what the percentage is for import penetration of machine tools. Or production capacity for PV cells, in any particular country. Try to find the percentage of monopoly or oligopoly in a particular economic sector. In an advanced industrial economy, these types of statistics are crucial to any competent assessment of economic policies. But they have become far more difficult–or far more costly–to obtain than they were in the 1990s.

  11. CMike


    Thanks for referencing The Ascent of Man, I had never watched or read that one. As it turns out this internet thing is a pretty useful tool for rectifying that state of affairs.


    If you put “bbc ascent of man” and the Chapter/Episode title in Google search you can find and access each video from the series for free online starting with “Lower Than the Angels” [LINK].

    I haven’t gotten to Chapter 8 yet, “The Drive for Power,” which is where I guess I’ll find the particular discussion of precision tools you singled out but I will at some point in the coming week. (For some reason the video at the Daily Motion site lists “The Drive for Power” as Episode 7 with Chapter 3, “The Grain in the Stone,” showing up as Episode 8 there.)

  12. Spinoza

    Apropos of your original point, air conditioning and heating was HUGE in comparison to a lot of modern trinkets. I’ll take air conditioning over the Internet any day. Some fellow I don’t remember, maybe the police writer Radly Balko, had a theory that the relative drop in violent crime in the US was directly correlative with the proliferation of air conditioning in poor communities. All of a sudden you didn’t have to go outside to find ways to cool off. Could be a reason we don’t have mass, spontaneous demonstrations too, huh?

  13. V. Arnold

    December 21, 2015

    I take your comment as with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, no?

    Having lived in the tropics (13°N lat.) for 12+ years without air-con (summers 36°c – 42°c) I question how humans will adapt to what’s coming if air-con is relied upon for survival.
    I grew up in the N.W. at 46° N. lat) and have found ways to adapt and I’m no youngster (70 yo), so I know it can be done.
    My point is; if air-con is required for life; then your as good as dead…

  14. CMike

    Here are two dispatches back from the commanding heights themselves:


    (And on the order of those Ascent of Man episodes, I think it is better to see the more meta one, The Grain in the Stone, later rather than earlier.)

  15. subgenius


    Yep, pretty much.

    I was involved in community-scale mesh networking back in the mid-late nineties…expecting it to catch on and revolutionise/democratise the infrastructure….

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