Are we wasting the internet?

Over the past few years we’ve seen incredible advances in our everyday tech.

Phones are now the supercomputers of a few years ago, tablets are replacing cumbersome PCs with lightweight, touch-friendly devices, and even our TVs are talking to the internet. Surely this is a golden age. Or is it?

Recently I’ve noticed a quiet trend towards people eschewing the power of their gadgets and instead reverting to a non-digital state. Some have instituted days when they turn off their phones or computers, thus escaping their time-sapping clutches. Others have gone off line completely, including Paul Miller a notable writer for high profile tech blog The Verge who went an entire year without using the internet.

It’s becoming cool to erase, or at least take a break, from your Facebook account. Twitter is often reduced disparagingly to a site where people just talk about their dining habits, and for the visual version you head to Instagram. Then of course there’s the worrying trend of governments spying on us, hackers trying to steal our identities, and the entertainment industries wanting access to our records so they can check whether we’ve downloaded any of their content illegally.

What is going on? How did we get here so quickly?


For years I’ve been a passionate advocate for the internet. Its open nature empowers everyone to attempt things that up until now would have been impossible without the backing of rich patrons or corporate entities. Want to write a book and sell it worldwide? Pick your, mostly free, software and off you go. Want to shoot a movie? Grab a digital camera and, mostly inexpensive, editing software then head to Vimeo or Youtube. Want to start a business?  Form a resistance movement? Blog about parenting? The internet has you covered.

So why all the negativity?

Well, I have a theory. Something else not uncommon online.

You see if many of us were actually doing the things listed above then I think we’d be rosy cheeked at the splendour of the world wide web. But most of us don’t. Instead we do the normal stuff of life. Post on Facebook what TV show we’re watching, Tweet a shortcut to an article that confirms one of our beliefs, and yes, a picture of food on Instagram. In fact I’ve noticed that over time the internet has actually become smaller for me.

Government intervention again? No. Laziness.

You see rather than spread my wings and fly through the vast skies of information that could enrich my mind and challenge my adopted values, I instead regularly visit about twenty sites…and four of those are football related.

Is it just me, or is the internet wasted on us?

At our fingers we have the collected knowledge of the world – history, philosophy, theology, science –  and yet the temptation to check whether Reese Witherspoon looks bad when she doesn’t wear makeup is a bigger draw.

Maybe the problem with the internet isn’t the technology. Maybe it’s us.


Sure there are plenty of studies that state our use of social media makes us lonely (viewing someone’s highlight reel can be intimidating), reading short articles online reduces our ability to concentrate, and that consuming content that agrees intellectually with us further strengthens these mindsets. There’s probably some significant truth in these findings too, but they feel too isolated in their focus to encompass the simple fact that if we fired up our passions and utilised the magnificent tools we have before us…then the story could be different.

In the end we can blame the online world for many things, just as we can the physical one, but the constant thread between the two is that they are populated by people. Easily distracted, possibly idle, very often seated, people like me and maybe you. The real quest that lies ahead is whether we can avoid the siren’s call of one more amusing cat video and actually use this wondrous platform to get on with something amazing.

A friend of mine has a signature at the end of her emails which reads along the lines of ‘What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ At first I thought it was a bit simplistic, but the idea has caught hold. It’s an evocation to dream a bit bigger. So I ask you the same question, albeit with an addendum, in the hope that maybe we can inspire each other to greater things.

‘What would you attempt if knew you wouldn’t fail? And even if you did fail, wouldn’t it be worth the adventure anyway?’

Let me know in the comments below…

The Fight to Keep the Internet Open

The recent London Olympic games had many poignant moments, but one in particular stood out for those with a keen interest in technology. During the opening ceremony Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, tweeted a message from the mainstage which was then displayed in huge letters all around the stadium. It simply read ‘This is for Everyone’, and was a reminder of how important the modern internet has become to all of us. It’s a concern then that in the past few years a political storm has been brewing about the future of the web, or more precisely how we gain access to it.

The argument centres around the principle of ‘Net Neutrality’, and looks set to become one of the most important debates in technology for the foreseeable future. Tim Wu – Professor at Columbia Law School, author of the book ‘The Master Switch’, and the man who coined the phrase Net Neutrality – recently stated in an interview that ‘The internet was built on the principle that the carriers take your data where you want it to go, and that people are allowed to communicate over the internet without interference from the people in the middle. It’s a pretty profound principle’.

This is the essence of Net Neutrality. The fact that the companies that supply you with your gateway to the internet remain neutral to the content and sites that you visit, treating all as equal. It’s obvious, sensible, and exactly how the internet has essentially functioned up until now. But as we increase the amount of data we consume, due to services like Youtube and BBC iPlayer, some ISPs are beginning to talk about charging more to carry this content, or at least to ensure that the quality of its delivery remains high.

It can be easy to forget that the way we access the web is still controlled by only a few companies – those with the physical infrastructure that allows signals to pass between two points. This gives those companies a tremendous amount of power as our reliance on the internet increases. How would you feel if your provider decided that to access some of the more popular online sites you would be required to pay them more? You want Facebook as part of your package, then that’ll be an extra £5 a month. Youtube? £10. It might sound far fetched but there is growing concern that this behaviour could be on the horizon unless governments decide that Net Neutrality becomes enshrined in law.


It isn’t just a simple case of the amount of data we consume, that would seem reasonable, instead it’s more a case of where or from whom we receive it. Recently customers who bought an iPhone 5 on the AT&T network in the US were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to use the built in Facetime feature over their 3G service, even though it should come under the customers’ data plan. AT&T were basically telling their customers that they could only use the data which they were paying for in a manner that the company would decide. We’ve seen something similar here in the UK were several of the mobile carriers have disabled the Skype service on their networks, and also deny customers the option of tethering their laptops or tablets to their mobile phones to create internet hotspots. This selective attitude towards allowable services could theoretically be used to promote rival services with whom the carriers have favourable agreements.

Media reform advocacy groups such Free Press (, who started the Save The Internet campaign (, voice a chilling version of the future when they argue that the ISPs, and media companies that back them, ‘want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. And they want to discriminate in favor of their own apps, services and content — while slowing down or blocking competitors’ services.’ This might sound like classic scaremongering, but it should be noted that back in 2005 AT&T caused outrage when it proposed charging certain web companies increased rates so they could receive preferential treatment for their web traffic. This would have effectively given the paying sites faster download speeds than their non-paying rivals, and made AT&T a tidy profit from this two-tiered approach. Then in 2007 Comcast, the largest cable TV and internet provider in the US, was found to be tampering with traffic across their network to certain file sharing sites in an attempt to make them unusable.

In fact a recent joint study between the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission found that at least 20% of mobile Internet users in Europe ‘have contracts that allow their Internet service provider (ISP) to restrict services like VOIP (e.g. Skype) or peer-to-peer file sharing.’ while the same was true for home broadband connections, especially in regards to peer-to-peer sites at peak times.

The main concern that advocates argue is one where the internet as we know it becomes more of a series of walled gardens where access is strictly controlled and regulated by a few large corporations each of whom offer their own services and media – almost a return to the days of AOL and Compuserve, with customers locked-in to their specific version of the web. ‘Big media companies want to be in charge again,’ states Tim Wu, ‘Most of the media for the last 150 years have been closed, that is if you look at NBC, or you look at the cable networks – they decide what goes on the network. So the threat comes from the fact that the broadcasters, phone companies, cable [companies], are used to that business model and want to go back’.


In 2012 the SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA bills were proposed in the US and Europe as a way of curtailing content on the web under the auspice of copyright protection. If passed they would have forced ISPs to regulate the content that went through their networks, which could have resulted in sites being delisted from search results, thus virtually disappearing from the internet, if the ISPs thought there was a possibility that they contained copyright material. The bills were defeated in their respective countries after widespread discontent from the online community, but the entertainment industry is thought to be preparing new ones, and their lobbying power means that they will certainly be heard.

The political level of involvement in the issue saw Holland become the first European country to make it law that no ISP can charge more for access to specific sites, while Chile has also created relevant legislation. The concern about Net Neutrality became so great that even President Obama spoke about it in a 2010 interview, during which he said ‘We’ve got to keep the internet open, we don’t want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent someone who doesn’t have a lot of money but has a good idea from being able to start their next Youtube, or their next Google on the internet’.

The battlelines are being drawn, and it looks like this is an issue that’s set to be hard fought over the next few years, and which could decide our online experience for decades to come.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a new series of features called News Viewpoint that I write for the PC Advisor website and also appears in the February 2013 issue of the print magazine – yes, I know that’s in the future, but the way magazines work is a mysterious form of sorcery. To see the original click HERE or pop out to your local newsagent and purchase the rather splendid magazine itself. 

Let me tell you a story…

A poor life this, if full of care,

We have no time to stop and stare.

                                      –  William Henry Davies

I love the Internet. Love it with a passion. To me it’s a gateway to a world of knowledge and people that otherwise would ever remain a secret. I see it as a great emancipator, which empowers the weak and chastens the strong. It is a playground, a wonderland, the finest learning tool ever created, and largest high street that can be imagined. Where else could you watch free videos that teach you how to play Hendrix riffs on guitar, interact with friends on several continents simultaneously, then settle down to a torrent of abuse from twelve year old Americans with virtual machine guns while they teabag your prone body? Truly it is the marvel of the modern age.

Hmmmm, Tetleys.

It is with great dismay then that I’ve been noticing a downside recently that has me quite worried about where we’re heading. As a working journalist I’ve long been observing how print media is changing and will of course eventually be replaced by digital and online content. The problem here is that the change in pace at which news must be delivered is, I think, causing problems with the quality of writing/content that is being produced. The recent release of the iPhone 5 was a prime example. Such is the need for page hits and Google rankings now that content producers are all involved in a mad race to be the first out the door in regards to reviews. The thinking seems to be that if you don’t catch the initial buzz then people will have already read other reviews and yours is dead in the water. So reporters are filing content faster and faster in the need to be seen, which can only suggest that they aren’t spending any significant time with a product at all before telling you their findings. High quality is being compromised in favour of high velocity.

Of course top publications are privy to advanced releases and then embargoed on their reviews until a set date, but it seems these privileges are only being granted to a favoured few while the rest scrabble around for the scraps. This is not an entirely new phenomena, but the pressure of the increased pace now suggests that this might become more significant as times goes on. After all if a handful of sites always have the first news and reviews or the latest products then it could mean that others just never get visitors and eventually fade away.

The argument against this theory is that if you have quality then you will have an audience, something I always believed, but recent events have shaken my faith. Last month saw the closure of PC Plus, a UK computer magazine that had been around for twenty six years. It’s not the only victim of the decline in print media, but to me it was an important moment. You see for the past couple of years I’ve been bemoaning the death of quality features in magazines, which instead favour product reviews and celebrity interviews. In many ways those are the things that are better suited to the Internet, due to their structure and shorter nature, whereas features are more the meat of a magazine as they take advantage of the longer form and visual embellishments that a good layout will create. PC Plus had, to my mind, some of the most interesting and informative features of any technology magazine around and even when I didn’t have a PC I would still find myself picking up a copy just to read what they were exploring. Its closure now strengthens the argument against these types of creations and I worry that it might be another nail in the coffin of more esoteric features.

PC Plus 1986-2012

Speaking with editors over the past few months it’s become apparent that the squeeze on readership created by the Internet is causing them to rely more on analysing search data and reader surveys to determine the content they create. In business terms this makes perfect sense, but one of the joys of features I’ve always savoured was being surprised by something I never knew, stories that were unusual, interesting, and not ones I was likely to discover by myself. So if you don’t know what will be interesting how can you tell a publication that you want to read about it? How can this serendipity take place when all the pages are decided by only the popular rather than the wondrous?

Of course I’m an idealist. No question. You could also label me a romantic and my defence would be lacking. There is certainly the truth that I don’t have a publisher to answer to with budget reports and revenue streams. I’m concerned though that as we transition from print to online the art of feature writing will be discarded, replaced instead with Cliff Notes for the terminally short of attention.

When I first became a writer it was because I wanted to tell people’s stories, document their adventures and achievements so others could share in the excitement. The Internet seems a wonderful opportunity to do this on a wide scale, so it puzzles me why I feel it might be the very thing that brings about its demise, at least in a form I think needs to survive.