Is the Web good? Is it bad? Is it turning us into slaves of the blue light emanating from our screens? Is it turning us into vain narcissists whose attention keeps hopping around like rabbits on drugs? These are questions that seem to be etched into everyone’s minds ever since the smartphone revolution turned our lives into a roller coaster ride of pings and beeps.
Almost every day, when I’m out and about, I hear people talking about the good old days, when humans weren’t so dependent on the Internet and its communication tools. And almost every day, I read some variation of this online. But the fact is, this question is insanely hard to answer. Like most things in life, there is no right or wrong answer to this question.
I’ve written about the true power of this technology before. How it connects people together, how our lives are truly better off because of it and how bright our future is just because we have technology and knowledge that we didn’t a mere 200 years ago. And I’ve also written about the ill-effects of constant contact. How the invisible frictionless tether we have with others paradoxically isolates us further. I’ve explored both sides of the equation but the fact remains that nothing is without side effects.
Every little innovation, all the progress we make in the fields of science and medicine and health care and transportation and manufacturing, all of them have side effects of their own. And sure enough, today’s Web is a gigantic torrent of information, all of it seeking our attention and competing with everything else.
That is the great dilemma of our ages. Nobody wants to pay for the services they use, no matter how useful they might be, like curation services. Most of us fail to realize that there are real people working behind the scenes to bring us the services we love and are spending real money to maintain and keep it running. Faced with the problem of no revenue and the possibility of shutting down, most services opt to show ads, thus selling our collective souls to the devils.
The problem is not so much about ads as it is about our attention. Our attention and time are now the currency we use in return for the services delivered. Every (and I stress every) website or app or blog or tweet out there is competing for the same thing: your time and attention, in order to track you better and show you more ads. And all this, simply because we feel these web services don’t deserve to be paid.
The danger we face today is not about the Internet being a negative effect on us, but rather, it is of us turning the open Internet into an attention-based market, where every company and app optimizes for greater time spent within their walls. Our privacy is ripped off from us, as these companies search for newer methods to constantly keep up with us and serve ever more relevant ads. Elaborating on my point, the companies that do this aren’t evil. They are being forced to, because there just isn’t any other way for them to make money doing what they do.
This article I found on Medium is a great look at just how deep we are in this muckus and just how important our time and attention now is, to these companies. Consider reading it to understand more about this, in clearer words.
But this doesn’t mean that time’s up and we are now eternally doomed to pay for all the apps and games we love with our finite resource: time. There is still time to change this. Our view has to change first, obviously. Paid services should be promoted and used more, simply because they have no incentive to steal our attention or show us ads. Noticing the fact that these products are getting lots of users, existing companies that offer their products for free, like Instagram or Facebook or Twitter will also start offering paid plans where there are no ads and a greater control options for the user.
If everything goes according to this little plan, the Web wouldn’t be free as in beer for the most part, but it certainly wouldn’t be fighting for our attention anymore.