Pop Technology Is in Peril


By Art Brodsky

We live in a pop technology society.

Pop technology is a lot like pop culture, or pop music, except that instead of having a fascination for a pet rock, shoulder pads for women or Lady Gaga, the immediate objects of public fascination are standalone Web programs or apps for a device, like an iPhone or an Android. The crucial question is whether those forces will be able to survive or whether they will be beaten into submission.

The difference between pop technology and more standard, corporate-produced technology is the difference between an iBeer and Microsoft Word. Pop technology is hip and cool, and may (or may not) last only for a little while.

More important, however, is the environment that nurtured the development of all the cool stuff . All of these new, hip sites spring from the Internet tradition of “innovation without permission.” Jack Dorsey at Twitter or Dennis Crowley at Foursquare had good ideas, worked on them, got funding and let them loose on the digital world. It’s that attitude and enthusiasm that led to the development of about 200,000 apps even in the “mother-may-I” world of Apple’s iPhone app store.

That’s a lot of economic activity. Millions of dollars are being invested in new applications and services. People make their livings providing services for the masses to reach online. One iPhone app developer made $40,000 - in two days.

Jobs are constantly being created in the Web space, for entrepreneurs and others. By one government estimate (http://online.onetcenter.org/link/summary/ 15-1099.04), there were more than 200,000 people working as Web developers in 2008, with the number expected to increase by another 70,000 over the next few years. That job description only skims the surface of the economic opportunity. Every new idea for an application comes with the potential for job creation and growth.

Hold that vision of a bold, creative, risk-taking culture ready for life online. Contrast it with the corporate-driven megaliths that are the phone companies or the cable companies. Th eir corporate histories are built not on creativity, but on playing regulators and politicians while squashing any competitors that may venture into their sights. Their executives lay off thousands of workers while telling gullible members of Congress that new openness rules to fix the mistakes of the past will hurt investment and cost jobs. One has to wonder which investment and which jobs they are talking about.

The FCC’s May 21 decision to approve Verizon Communications’ sale of about 5 million telephone lines to Frontier Communications provides some dreadful commentary on the hypocritical “investment” scare tactics of the phone companies. Only 62% of the Verizon lines can carry any broadband, and only half can carry broadband at speeds higher than 3 Megabits per second. Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn called Verizon “a company that shows little interest in developing its rural business.” Even with the deal, Frontier customers will still be years behind the times.

At the heart of the debate over the open Internet is that intangible that makes the Internet what it has become - the wideopen culture that encourages investment, imagination and innovation. The imagination factor tends to get lost in all of the legal arguments about Title This or Title That and all of the engineering disputes about how much “jitter” is acceptable. It’s about the feeling of a wide-open space that can never be filled by developers of new services and apps.

Art Brodsky is communications director of advocacy group Public Knowledge.