Whatever we end up using the web for, don’t the world’s citizens lead more equal lives if they are all mediated by the same technology?
The queen tweets. She’s commissioned a special jewel embossed netbook and a bespoke Twitter client with skinned with ermine and sable.
I made that up. For starters, she hasn’t actually started tweeting – there is a generic royal feed which announces the various visits and condescensions of Britain’s feudal anachronism, but nothing from miss fancy hat herself. Perhaps royal protocol means she can only use it if her followers can find a way of curtsying in 140 characters?
The feed does give an insight into how boring the Royal’s lives might actually be – opening wards and meeting factory workers – when they aren’t having a bloody good time shooting and riding. However, as a PR initiative it breaks the rule that states for a Twitter account to be of any interest then tweets must emanate from the relevant horse’s mouth, if you’ll forgive the chimerical metaphor. If you can’t have the lady herself, I don’t really think there is much point in bothering. But that’s not the point I’m here to make.
I’m more interested in the fact that, should any of us choose to, Bill Gates, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE, Osama Bin Laden and I will have exactly the same experience when we use Twitter (assuming it’s available in the relevant language).
I suppose Bin Laden might have quite a slow connection in Tora Bora, and probably Bill Gates has something faster than Tiscali’s 2meg package. Details aside, everyone is doing the same thing.
Actually, not only will we be using the same website, we’ll be using very similar devices. Bill probably doesn’t have a Mac like me (he may be the richest man in the world, he can still envy me one thing), but all our computers will be very similar.
The reason for this is that for both websites and computer technology have very high development costs, and low marginal costs per user. Even the Queen can’t afford to develop an iPhone, but everyone can afford to buy one.
If a lot of your life is mediated by technology then this is going to be very important to you. While there is healthy debate about the web’s democratisation of publishing, I think we might reasonably add to the web’s egalitarian reputation its ability to give people of disparate incomes identical online experiences.
That doesn’t sound like a blow against inequality and tyranny in all its forms – but none the less I think its important . Even people using OLPC computers [low priced laptops aimed at the third world] have basically the same experience of the internet as you or I. That’s to say Uruguayan children will quite possibly spend a good part of their day doing exactly the same things as New York’s office workers and Korea’s pensioners. When you consider that only very recently there were probably no major similarities in these disparate lives I think it does constitute a significant development.
Of course, for all I know a line of luxury websites will come along and exclude some strata of the social pile. In a way it’s already happened – we’ve seen the thousand dollar iPhone app – but its hard to see this one off as part of a pattern. This is not to say that the ‘freemium’ business model [basic website for free, pay to get the premium version] couldn’t exclude certain people, it’s more that this model can only exist when there isn’t much pressure for a free version. At the moment, there aren’t any widely used web applications that aren’t available at zero cost – of course this may change if your audience is sufficiently well off to attract paid advertising, but there again it may not.
This is a phenomena that’s been observed before: technology tends to eliminate differences between cultures. It’s been termed the Apparatgeist, and has been developed as a concept in response to the observation that mobile phone habits, one differentiated locally, are now more or less identical in all developed economies. As a concept it surely applies equally as well to class and income – leaving us us in a more equal experiential world. And perhaps also a monoculture – but then isn’t that entailed in the new equalities that so many internet optimists evangelise?