Closing the Digital Frontier

One reason I’ve said there’s likely to be more activity in this blog in the future (and there has been!) is that I plan to post some pieces that are elements of likely future Cites & Insights composite sections–posted here in their raw form, subject to revision or deletion along the way. Not all of them, by any means, but some. Here’s an example. It’s also an example of something you’re likely to see a lot of in C&I this year and maybe next: Catching up, as I go through two years of tagging–and find that although the cited articles are “outdated,” they still speak to things that are happening now and might be worth commenting on.

So here’s a part of one section, assuming it stays. The title on the section is the same as on this post:

Closing the Digital Frontier

According to Michael Hirschorn’s article of that name, in the July/August 2010 Atlantic Magazine, the “era of the Web browser’s dominance is coming to a close.” Why? Because “things are changing all over again.”

The shift of the digital frontier from the Web, where the browser ruled supreme, to the smart phone, where the app and the pricing plan now hold sway, signals a radical shift from openness to a degree of closed-ness that would have been remarkable even before 1995. In the U.S., there are only three major cell-phone networks, a handful of smart-phone makers, and just one Apple, a company that has spent the entire Internet era fighting the idea of open (as anyone who has tried to move legally purchased digital downloads among devices can attest). As far back as the ’80s, when Apple launched the desktop-publishing revolution, the company has always made the case that the bourgeois comforts of an artfully constructed end-to-end solution, despite its limits, were superior to the freedom and danger of the digital badlands.

So we have one of those “shifty” articles—where we all move from one paradigm to another paradigm, with no room for both, for people who use smartphones, apps and iPads but also notebooks and browsers.

But as I read it, this doesn’t seem to be about the web in general as it is about traditional media and its relationship to the web. Even there, I think the thesis is overstated—and with an odd countergenerational overtone: “or under-30s whelped on free content, the prospect of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars yearly for print, audio, and video (on expensive new devices that require paying AT&T $30 a month) is not going to be an easy sell.” But, Hirschorn says, that won’t stop “the rush to apps” because, especially with Apple as semi-benevolent overlord, “there’s too much potential upside” (and besides, people don’t criticize Apple for behavior that they would assault other companies for—a point with which I’m sympathetic).

I find the article bemusing. We learn that Twitter barely cares about, well, Twitter—that the smartphone version is more fully featured. It’s clearly an “or” situation: Apps can only rise at the expense of the browser. The grand finale? Harking back to the American frontier, Hirschorn concludes:

Now, instead of farmers versus ranchers, we have Apple versus Google. In retrospect, for all the talk of an unencumbered sphere, of a unified planetary soul, the colonization and exploitation of the Web was a foregone conclusion. The only question now is who will own it.

As Sue Kamm has said in another contest, “In the words of the immortal Nero Wolfe, ‘Pfui.’” It doesn’t help to read the byline: Hirschorn runs a TV production company. I suspect, and particularly based on rereading the article, that he views the world in media terms: There are producers and consumers, and that’s just the way it is.

Relatively few comments over the past year, the first of which rushes to Apple’s defense—followed by one that posits that, you know, people can and probably will use both “walled gardens” and the open web. A few items down, we get a reasonably sound comment that begins with this subtle paragraph: “This is absolute rubbish.”

I’ll quote Dale Dietrich’s comment in full (typos and all—and since Dietrich was probably typing on a virtual keyboard, an occasional typo’s forgivable), as I think it speaks to the truth if you’re dealing with something more than corporate media:

The app does NOT diminish the importance of the browser. The app merely extends the web to more devices that it was hitherto inaccessible to. The App, as first popularized on the iPhone, wrested contol of what can be done on mobile devices from big telco to the individual. Like the browser-based web did before it, the app gave control to the end user. The author would do well to consider that all modern smart phones include browsers that are heavily used both independenty by users and by mobile apps that frequently embed the browser within the app. Case in point, I am viewing and responding to this silly article within the Safari browser that is embedded within my iPad’s Twitterific app. Hell, Twitter-based apps INCREASE my viewing of browser-based content by curating the web for me by the trusted folks I follow.

And, a bit later, this from David McGavock:

All of this assumes that the people who are participating in the read-write-create web will walk away and let apps dominate all their interactions. This dichotomy of apps vs. browser seems false to me in light of the fact that both have their strengths and weaknesses. This entire article assumes that the billions of people that are creating their own digital footprints will give it up for paid service. There is an explosion of legal sharing going on here. Are we all going to pack it up and go home because of the apps we use. I think not.

Then there’s a strange comment from “John_LeB” who apparently is aware of something I’m not:

It is true that some information remains free on the Web, but much research-based scholarship definitely does not. With on-line fee-based jobbers such as Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Blackwell, Springer, etc., research that used to be freely distributed on the Web now carries a subscription fee. All well and good, perhaps; academic researchers are entitled to compensation for their scholarly production—but wait! Access fees rarely trickle down to their producing authors. Their reward lies in the “points” they can embed in their CVs for tenure or promotion. The jobbers are running free with the pecuniary revenue. One unfortunate spin-off is that access to research is foreclosed where it’s needed the most, in the developing world where the contemporary price of a journal article can represent a week’s worth of food. (Food for the stomach, that is.)

Ah, the good old days when research articles were always freely distributed on the web, back before those young upstarts like Elsevier grabbed it all… And that’s the complete comment. The writer’s probably as ignorant of open access as he is of the history of web access to research articles.

Mike Masnick does a pretty fair fisking of Hirschorn’s article in “Another Journalist Seduced By App Madness Predicts The End of the Web,” posted July 1, 2010 at techdirt. I won’t bother to excerpt his commentary: It’s free, and you can go read it yourself, unless you’re reading this on a smartphone that lacks any form of browser (a combination that seems somewhere between unlikely and impossible). Of course, if your only access to e-stuff is through such a smartphone or some truly locked down tablet, then you’re not reading this anyway, are you?

Oddly, in comments on Masnick’s piece, Hirschorn objects that his piece is “largely an attack on Apple’s efforts to curtail that freedom…”—which, if true, means that Hirschorn is an inarticulate writer, since I certainly didn’t read it that way. Even in this response, Hirschorn’s an Only One Future man: “Also clearly and obviously, the rise of mobile computing will result in less non-mobile-computing and the center of power will move from the browser to the smartphone/ipad experience.” Right. And neither smartphones nor tablets have browsers. Now, if Apple had a browser—oh, let’s give it some fanciful name like Safari—that would really change the inevitable future. But that’s as silly as it would be for Amazon to add a browser, say one with an even sillier name like Silk, to its entirely-walled-garden Kindle Fire.

If you do read Masnick’s piece, scroll through at least some of the comments. Hirschorn starts doing a complex “that’s not what I was intending/that’s not what I really wrote” dance that leads me more and more to believe that he really is inarticulate or incoherent. As you probably already know, I’m definitely not one of those who regards traditional journalism and media as irrelevant (as some commenters do)—but neither do I regard them as the whole of the landscape.

Why mention this now, almost two years later? Because we haven’t gone All Apps, All The Time. Because traditional real-world media continues to do better than a lot of digital junkies realize (for example, did’ja know that there are more than 300 million print magazine subscriptions in the US, and that 100 million people in the US still read print newspapers? hmm?). Because the world continues to evolve mostly in “and not or” ways, with more choices complementing one another rather than One Triumphant Paradigm shifting to Another Triumphant Paradigm, with no room for alternatives…and because this sort of “journalism” continues to be prevalent.

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