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Why has the web gone to hell? Market chaos and HUMAN NATURE

Tim Berners-Lee isn't happy, but we should be

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Worstall on Wednesday It's possible to have a certain sympathy for Sir Tim Berners-Lee as he looks at what people have done to his glorious world wide web.

Instead of it remaining the glorious bottom-up egalitarian creation it once was, it's become infested with people like Facebitch using it to scramble for filthy lucre.

Diddums to that, really: for this is one of the great lessons of invention, that humans are such 'ornery beings that they'll use new things to do what they want to do – not what inventors think they ought to do. The classic case here is American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who thought that the telephone would be a method of listening to concerts remotely and fellow US inventor Thomas Edison, who had been certain that the phonograph would be used as a dictation device – not how it all turned out, really, was it?

Over in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries is worrying about what has been done to Berners-Lee's creation:

Sceptical is right. The world wide web has increasingly facilitated the global spread of misogyny, the hate crime of revenge porn, corporate and state surveillance, bullying, racism, the life-ruining, time-wasting, Sisyphean digital servitude of deleting spam, the existentially crushing spadework of fatuous finessing of those lies, one's Facebook profiles. It has spread from the grassroots up, from Berners-Lee's desktop to the world, has been coterminous with lots of other intolerable things.

The go-to economist on this point is William Baumol. He changes the meanings of words a little bit when discussing this: he uses the word invention to describe the creation of new stuff, the world wide web for example, and the word innovation to mean "derivative invention" – or, if you prefer, what people go off to use that new invention to do (as opposed to the more usual meaning of innovation: incremental improvements).

Regardless of the uses to which Bell and Edison imagined people would put their inventions, people used them how they saw fit. (I cannot let this moment pass without mentioning the great Czech character of fictional folklore, Jára Cimrman. When Bell finally completed his invention he found two missed answerphone messages "from Cimrman" on it.) And this is how it goes with the web or with just about any other great invention.

To take a very different example, consider ball bearings: vital things in all sorts of machinery but the one in which they might have had the greatest impact upon daily life is the washing machine. You simply cannot make that rotating drum thing without them or a closely related technology, and as Hans Rosling pointed out in a recent TED talk, the washing machine brought his grandmother the time to read books to him.

As for Baumol, he goes on to analyse which socio-economic systems best encourage "invention" and "innovation" as he defines them. His finding was that either state or market systems, planned or chaotic, are equally good at that invention stuff. However, he maintains, market systems are vastly better at that innovation stuff.

We can, if we like (and as Mariana Mazzucato does), insist that the web came from CERN and is thus part of that state contribution to technological advance. But we have to remember that it was market chaos that led to us using the www to shop, listen to music, converse, show cat pictures and, er, masturbate. And yes, it has also been used to create maps of the devastation in Haiti, spread misogyny and popularise the ideas of medieval terror bastards – all things that no central planner would ever have dreamed people would do, let alone actively enabled them to do.

This still leaves us with plenty of room to argue about state or planned involvement in basic technology, in the funding and finding of inventions. These can be helpful, but we crucially need to have that market bit as well: we might be able to do without the state part in invention but we simply cannot do without the market part in innovation.

Another way to put this is that human beings are hugely, vastly, interested in a certain number of things (think Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs here) and we're going to use any new invention that comes along to advance our interests in those things. Food water and sex are pretty high on that list.

If we look to past inventions, we can see several examples of the Hierarchy at work. The bicycle, for example, was the invention that increased the health of the working classes the most. It finally allowed men to go courting outside their home village to the great benefit of future generations.

Humans are communicative beings: some insist that language itself was invented so that we could gossip. So teenagers hogging the phone line to say nothing for hours on end are, whatever Bell thought about it, making the obvious use of that invention. And we can expect people to put the web to those same uses. Sex, communication, gossip, these are the things humans are going to use it for simply because that's what humans will use anything for if it's possible.

Berners-Lee did indeed invent the web: but an invention is as a child. One can create it but then it does need to be released out there into the world and what becomes of it will only partially be determined by who and how it was created: interaction with the rest of that world will have a great deal of influence on what finally becomes of it.

In the end, complaining that someone's using your invention in a manner you don't like is akin to complaining about your teenager's new boyfriend or girlfriend: cathartic, perhaps, but not likely to be particularly useful or influential. ®

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