Not ready for the next technology cycle
It has happened before. Our relationships, the real economy and technology are not only in crisis but in a deep transformational process. With one difference: this time we are even less prepared.
During these years of technological stability — the mobile decade 2010–2020 — the estrangement between people and real technology has been promoted. We have turned our relationship with tech devices into a mere act of consumption, where accessibility, privacy, and security are purposely conflated with keeping the user ignorant.
The fact is that the way we design our environment (be it devices, operating systems, app stores, or even our cities) shapes our thinking and behavior. A closed platform, that cannot interoperate with others, generates different content and directs innovation elsewhere. Extreme cases such as the complete removal of categories such as “emulation” (key to the preservation of the video game history and culture), not allowing the use of any browser other than Safari, or the perverse incentive of app store monopolies to promote increasingly aggressive systems in the monetization of video games (loot boxes) will have a significant impact on the next cycle.
Let’s look at the last major change we lived in: the popularization of the Internet. Back then, we managed to define founding principles that everyone knew and respected: Net neutrality. What would be our reaction if an operator decided today to charge you depending on which sites you visit? But, to reach that conclusion, you need to have a minimal grasp of how the Net and its services work, and to appreciate technology as a valuable resource that must be protected. Today, we have lost all references. According to the big companies, there is no need for the user to know what a file is, what a directory structure is, how content distribution works, etc. Anything less than a walled garden, a black box with no alternatives, is the apocalypse. Good thing Mac and 50 years of computing existed before iPhone or Android.
And yes, I mention Android because its purpose is the same as Apple’s, but with a much more dangerous strategy. Undermine from below any real possibility of competing by taking advantage of false standards and imposing low-level restrictions (impossible technical requirements for their competitors, endless self-promotion of their services, etc.).
The truth is that the big tech companies have silently degraded the value chain all the way down to the Internet and we seem to lack any critical capacity; what’s worse, we accept the arguments that keep us captive. The cell phone has long been the first device of choice for connecting to the Internet, and it has never been neutral. The operating system, the app store, or even the browser are considered a resource to be exploited in order to maintain their competitive advantage. Google and Apple do NOT meet the minimum requirements of device neutrality, thus affecting Net neutrality itself. If the medium you access the Internet with is not neutral, neither is the network. The truth is that not even that shakes us anymore.
How have we come to assume that you have no right to choose what you install on your own device, the source of your apps, browser, or the search engine you use? How have we come to assume that the developer cannot establish a direct relationship with their users, freely deliver versions from their website without fearing consequences, or decide under what conditions they sell their products and with what payment system? Can you truly say that a device that you have no way to control is really yours?
The solution is not to explain to users that some doors must remain open for the greater good, or that allowing a reasonable alternative to whoever wants it does not affect those who wish to stay under these companies’ tight control. Nor is it to clarify that leaving privacy or security’s exclusivity in the hands of just two companies does not mean that said privacy or security is better. We have already tried, and it doesn’t work. They can’t understand it because they don’t know what we are talking about. Google and Apple have progressively and successfully disconnected us. Consume what they decide as they decide. Their greed, to commission 30% of all activity worldwide, is too strong an incentive. We cannot begin to imagine the volumes that these revenues represent. As an example, the company that earns the most revenue from video games in the world is not even a video game company.
At this point, without users’ critical capacity, the last bastion of defense that we are left with is to demand from governments the design of environments that strengthen these ideas. To force large tech companies to adhere to the minimums required by device and network neutrality at each layer. To guarantee the free market and fair competition.
Were that to happen, then the day will come when you hear that Google, Apple, or Microsoft do not comply with device neutrality, and you will react as you did 20 years ago when the idea that an operator might not respect Net neutrality was being considered. Until then, we will not be ready.