Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Perverse Technological Change

When I started using the Internet, everything was basically text on a simple background, with maybe a couple pictures. Then entire web looked and felt like a Wikipedia page. I liked this arrangement. With a little care, you could go to a site and get the content you wanted with little or no hassle or distraction.
Over time, random worthless junk started to clutter up web pages. I don't mind the classic banner ads, but after a while I got annoyed enough to install ad-blocking add-ins on Firefox, and later Chrome. For the five years when I was in grad school, I almost always went online using my computer, which used these ad-blocking extensions with customizations to for the sites I visited. The result of this was that web pages were fairly clean and loaded quickly.
I have recently learned that things were getting a lot worse in those five years. While my web browsing was shielded, things were sliding downhill. Now that I have to look up things on a work computer using Internet Explorer with no ad blocking, the much of Internet is now a slow, clunky place filled with junk and clutter.
Most independent blogs are still good, retaining the look and feel of a newspaper or magazine or scholarly article. But websites run by news organizations or other commercial ventures have become horrible. I am assaulted by popups and embedded video ads and attempts to use provocative pictures to send me to other junky sites.
It truly is an atrocity to embed a video advertisement in a page of text. Something that should take a few kilobytes of bandwidth and load in milliseconds now gobbles up megabytes of bandwidth and takes several seconds to load. The Internet browsing experience is, on average, worse than it was ten years ago.
I honestly think that the web might be better if high-speed Internet had never been invented and everyone was forced to remain mostly text-based as a result of sending data over slow modems. We would still have all the good blogs and news articles and access to scholarly papers and connection to everyone, without the distractions. Multimedia advertising would be impossible, so we might have developed a culture and infrastructure of micropayments for content, like a penny per news article.
The main thing you have to understand about the media industry is that if you are not paying for something, then you are the product and not the customer. We will never get a content system that is useful and efficient unless we are willing to pay for it and there are structures to support that willingness.
The problem is that I cannot decide to pay to get rid of ads. I could buy subscriptions to plenty of things on a device like a Kindle, but if a blog post links to a news article that I read I will inevitably be subjected to the advertising barrage that results from the website's desperate attempt to make enough money to stay in business by selling my eyeballs to some huckster. There is no useful system for me to pay them a few cents automatically and add it to a monthly bill.

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