“Would Have Happened Anyway”

Everybody hates a patent troll. But the broader economy of Web 2.0 is not exactly a landscape of virtue rewarded and failure punished. One of the recent put-downs of Paul Allen’s patent lawsuit inadvertently puts that fact into high relief.

Describing Allen’s gambit, Dean Takahashi writes:

[I]t looks like Interval patented basic operations of web sites that seem pretty obvious — and therefore should not have been granted patents. They govern the navigation of audio visual data on a web site, allow information to be located quickly, and present images to get users’ attention. If [Allen’s entity] Interval Research had never existed, these “inventions” would have happened anyway.

For someone who wants to protect the likes of Google, Facebook, and eBay from suits like Allen’s, the “would have happened anyway” line is a bit dangerous to pursue. There was long-standing consumer demand for a social network: maybe Facebook just happened to be consumers’ darling when internet speeds and social conditions were optimal for rapid scaling. I find it hard to believe that any given Silicon Valley billionaire is a thousand times more talented than a peer with a “mere” million. As Jaron Lanier writes, some of the Web 2.0 business model is merely a game of redistribution from content creators to content aggregators:

“Web 2.0” designs . . . [have] valued the information content of the web over individuals. It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data. There are so many things wrong with this that it takes a whole book to summarize them. Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying.

It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.

Though I would not go as far as Lanier, I have to admit that I find it hard to get excited about some recent economic battles affecting Silicon Valley, ranging from net neutrality to patent trolling. Given the endless string of privacy snafus coming out of Palo Alto, should I really care if Facebook ends up being owned by Mark Zuckerberg or Verizon? Both subject users to lots of surveillance, and both are profit-maximizers. Here is “Zuck” from an early IM session:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don’t know why.

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb f***s.

It’s hard to trust Silicon Valley any more than one trusts Wall Street.

Power law dynamics in Web 2.0 create “big winners” in various realms online (tweets, search, social networks, picture sharing, etc.), and we can’t assess the extent to which any winner’s success was due to the sheer luck of offering a certain service at the right time. If net neutrality or anti-troll legislation is really all about assuring that the gains of innovation go to the lucky instead of the powerful, I don’t really see the value in pushing them.

(Don’t get me wrong–I think there is a really good case to be made for net neutrality, via the work of people like Jerry Kang (see Race.net Neutrality), Paul Ohm (focusing on privacy), and Dawn Nunziato (focusing on the First Amendment). I also think there are many powerful arguments available against patent trolls (in books ranging from The Gridlock Economy to Patent Failure). I just don’t feel the “equity” argument very strongly in the Web 2.0 field, where legal commentators appear all too prone to celebrate black box technology as business genius and social transformation.)