Pop Technology Is in Peril


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

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
), 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.