Chris Anderson and the Rise of the Appigarchy

Wired’s Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff’s purposefully provocative article “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” gets the death of the Web wrong, and Anderson concedes victory to big corporations rather than recognize the role of the public the future of the web.

His basic premise is that tiny, easily downloadable applications — apps — are the future of the Internet. They signal the beginning of the end of the World Wide Web (people conflate the two, but they’re not the same thing) which was built on universally accessible web sites, not walled garden structures like Apple’s app store or Facebook entire site.

Six in 10 Americans access the Internet on their phones, and within five years mobile phones will be our primary gateway to the Internet. Anderson argues that this trend, combined with the popularity of apps on phones, means that the wide-open Web is on its way out.

Blame the cycle of capitalism, Anderson says. New technologies are wide open and competitive, but as they mature, “someone finds a way to own it, locking out others.” This ownership comes in the form of gatekeeping, as with Apple’s app store. The advent of the app potenitally kills Jonathan Zittrain’s “generativity” of the open web, since little specialized apps are harder to build than simple web pages.

But users like apps. They’re simple and they work. And Anderson rightly argues that the preferences of users is what drives innovation. Because apps are designed for mobile platforms — they’re the result of the rise of devices like the iPhone and Android — they’re better suited to the future of the Internet, says Anderson.

But Anderson resists critique of this idea — and the future it suggests — at every turn. He’s too fatalistic about our future. Rather than consider the repercussions of the move away from an open web, and how we can change current trends, he is content to simply describe what he’s seeing. You might argue that that’s the mark of a true journalist, but an idea so problematic must be approached critically, by journalists, scholars or laypeople. If not, we’re being irresponsible.

And Chris Anderson is being irresponsible. Its not enough to write a fun couple of lines like, “The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world. Now they’re doing what industrialists do best — finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we’re loving it.” We must be willing to critique the relationship between us and them in order to find a way past our abusive relationship with our technological captors. I fear Anderson is suffering from an online form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Anderson describes a passive public that laps up whatever those lovable “industrial giants” — folks like AT&T, Apple, Google, and the rest — dole out. We just love those crazy apps these big companies are selling!

But the spirit of the web continues to move forward through the spirit and innovation of hacker culture, not via telecom giants. It’s not by chance that the masters of the online universe include a 26-year-old running a social network a couple of enigmatic eccentrics running a search company. Facebook and Google reacted to a landscape in which corporate behemoths were trying, and failing, to gatekeep the web. Sadly, they’re both becoming gatekeepers themselves. But their initial burst of creativity lead to momentous changes despite, not because of, the constant desire of big corporations to divvy up the Internet amongst themselves.

Anderson implies that our role as online citizens is to consume whatever the “industrialists” give us. For him, if that means participating in walled gardens, so be it. If that means trading the openness of the web for a gatekept app store, fine.

It’s not that simple. The web became a dominant force in our lives because it was more open than the app model ever was. For most of us, it was the first medium for which we could actually help guide the future. Without the public there would be no web, and, increasingly, vice versa.

It’s in all of our interest to stop the web from becoming the playground of corporate “industrialists.” While big corporations have always played a major role in the development of the Internet, it’s us — the users — who have made it into something worthy of all the hyperbole. No matter how hard they try, the “industrialists” can’t create something as true and meaningful as the rest of us can.

The rise of the “appigarchy” — newfangled gatkeepers dispensing with the web via controllable apps and walled gardens — is presenting a new challenge to those of us who value the open Internet. Apps are are fine in and of themselves, and I’m the first to admit I love my smartphone. But it’s up to writers like Anderson to consider the consequences of these trends, and to help us find a way forward, rather than unquestioningly drink another cup of consumerist Kool-Aid.

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