- The Internet Trap: How the Digital Economy Builds Monopolies and Undermines Democracy by Matthew Hindman
by Matthew Hindman. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018. 256 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 978-0691159263.
In The Internet Trap Hindman argues that we in fact live with two Internets: the imagined Internet and the real Internet. The “imagined internet,” where a flattened digital commons made possible by technology that—through digital copying—is not limited by physical restraints either of reproduction or distribution, offers a democratized space in which the marginalized can become the center and small tech companies run from garages can topple giant competitors. The other is the “real Internet,” which the book sets out to describe and explain. This is an Internet that is monopolized by two major companies, Facebook and Google. It is also an Internet where recent policy changes in the U.S. now mean that ISPs can charge more for greater bandwidth, meaning that no longer are all online publishers equal in terms of the accessibility of their content. It is an Internet where local news is in effect nonexistent, erased by the economic realities of economies of speed and scale—and where even the largest news sites, such as the Huffington Post, cannot justify the resources needed to maintain aspects of their web presence independently of the infrastructures provided by the Facebook platform. In the face of this distinction between the ambitions and rhetoric of the imagined Internet and the current situation, The Internet Trap sets out to offer some explanation of the current online monopolies, the forces that maintain them and finally the extreme difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of dislodging them.
As with the recent acceptance by media and public of the dangers to both privacy and democracy posed by contemporary web technologies, any informed reader might recognize the manner in which digital technologies are often represented—immaterial, ubiquitous and egalitarian—as inaccurate. However, Hindman takes this critique further by furnishing us with an analysis that shows the extent to which digital technologies have far more in common with the large-scale, physical smokestack industries that they purported to replace. It makes more sense to consider the services offered by businesses like Google or Facebook—energy and resource hungry, running on monolithic data centers—as a continuation of the industries of the past and just as subject to familiar economic principles such as economies of scale. Applying principles of economic theory that might usually be considered more suited to “real life” markets and industries, Hindman argues for understanding the Internet’s story as one of continuity rather than revolution and situates our current predicament in the wider context of media history. The text favors topics such as local news sites over more futuristic and fashionable current developments such as cryptocurrency and the Dark Web but also offers a useful and up-to-date grounding in many developments in web technology, including accessible explanations of how things [End Page 332] like algorithms get made (by people, it turns out).
The central theme of the book is understanding how the Web’s form gives rise to concentrations of power. One of Hindman’s examples, personalization, is a key tool for ensuring that a site maintains its web traffic. In Chapter 3, he tells the story of the emergence of personalization algorithms through a close examination of their development. Hindman uses the documentation of an open competition conducted by Netflix to push the state of the art in the recommendation algorithms used on its film and television streaming web-site. Over three years the company orchestrated a fierce competition between a number of international teams, involving many leaders in the field. The result was the discovery that the accretion of multiple small improvements in making meaningful predictions of what different people would prefer led to the most effective, if extremely complex, algorithms. However, as Hindman points out, what also emerged for the competitors and company was the realization that despite the complexity and mathematical sophistication of any algorithm, it was the quantity of available data about content and users that always in resulted in...