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Off Topic Empire: The Information Age Is Over

You never think it can happen until suddenly it does

Nebraska v Colorado
Plenty of unthinkable things have happened to transition eras.
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

This is a rant that’s probably better suited for some other blog, perhaps some other side of the crumbling edifice that is Web 2.0. But that’s what the Off Topic Empire tag is for, and what better place for this diatribe than a relic of the bygone “free and open Internet” era?

My thesis is as follows: the “Information Age,” which dramatically expanded the amount of information available to an ordinary person, the ease of its access and the speed at which it can be delivered, is over. Welcome to the death of the Information Age.

Three Stages Of The Internet

Web 2.0, in case you’re unfamiliar, describes the meta of the internet from roughly 2004 until some time before today and was all about connecting people personally, user-generated content, easy user interfaces and cross-platform compatibility.

Web 1.0 was the genesis of the Internet with static web pages and content tied directly to a server. This was when you used to download a video over your 56K dial-up that you found on someone’s personal page with spinning 3D GIFs. It required a certain amount of savvy to navigate, especially with search engines in their infancy, but this was a bit of a filter; the Internet was a place separate from the real world, and most people weren’t on it very often. IRC chat was popular, but only in a niche sense in that you had to actively seek out specific chatrooms. Similarly, PHP forums popped up for any topic people wanted to discuss. I was on a lot of video game forums as a youngster, but many older folks took to college football message boards to discuss recruiting rumors and other behind-the-scenes details that casual fans wouldn’t go that far to seek out. As if preserved in amber, has the period aesthetic of a 1999 forum.

Web 2.0’s meta was all about eliminating that filter and making the Internet easy to use for everyone. YouTube and social media popped up during this time, as did plenty of blog networks such as SB Nation. User generated content could easily be spread and viewed by everyone on a certain network, even crossing over into others. As the shock from the 2001 dot-com-boom wore off, companies realized the massive revenue potential in the Internet. Facebook’s activity from circa 2006 to 2016 is a perfect example of what Web 2.0 became, in that they wanted to get as many people on their network as possible and then expand Internet access globally solely for driving up those user numbers. Multiplayer online games lived and died by the populations of their servers. You could say Bill Simmons started the whole “irreverent non-journalist sports blog” thing, but to that I say he was at ESPN. Original Deadspin provided a fresh “everyman” take on sports; although the writers were talented, they were also relatable and examined sports through a personal and cultural lens. For the NFL, there was Kissing Suzy Kolber (RIP). For college football, there was Every Day Should Be Saturday, and all of these blogs had thriving comment sections that were communities of their own.

Like it or not, we’ve arrived at Web 3.0, whose simplest definition is “an effort towards making Internet data machine-readable.” The first thing that should evoke is machine learning and AI, but other trends have come to define this era to varying degrees of coincidence.

Let me sum it up for you:

  1. Web 1.0: anyone with the hardware and the technical skills can connect with similar users to share information, but most people still use the library.
  2. Web 2.0: Internet empires rise by connecting people across easy-to-use networks: the Internet is no longer a separate place but integrates seamlessly into our lives as we share them over it. Everything becomes WiFi enabled. Everything has an app, from your TV services to your fridge. Rising costs kill self-hosting, but that’s okay: large companies give us a myriad of free platforms that all communicate with each other, and it’s all searchable by Google, the only search engine, run by one of five or so companies that control the entire Internet.
  3. Web 3.0: Now that people are terminally online, it’s time to make some serious money by putting up barriers in front of the things they want to access. Keep the things people want to pay for; destroy those that are not sufficiently profitable. Google scraps its “Don’t Be Evil” motto. Once AI has learned all of the information humanity has amassed throughout its history, the people who own the machines won’t have to pay anyone for anything anymore.

You’re Being Dramatic

Have you tried to use Google in the last year or so? At some point in the last couple years, a switch flipped over there and they realized that having a search engine that gives you the information you’re looking for is much less profitable than having a search engine that serves you nothing but ads and sponsored content based on the keywords in your search. AI can’t be used to drive your car yet, but it can generate a t-shirt you didn’t ask for with the text of something you just Tweeted and try to sell it to you. The utopian potential of blockchain has given way to unregulated markets of buying and selling speculative assets that aren’t even physically real, and somehow there’s trillions of dollars in there now.

YouTube is practically unusable without a premium subscription. Movies and TV shows are being effectively destroyed when they’re no longer part of the business strategy of the parent company. Another domino is falling as we speak; after Google’s shift away from being useful as a search engine, the best way to find what you were looking for was to append “reddit” to the end of your query.

Well, Reddit is set to IPO in the second half of this year, which means its management has stopped caring about anyone that isn’t a potential shareholder. In doing so, they’ve announced massively expensive subscription fees for access to their API (essentially, allowing platforms that aren’t Reddit to effectively work with Reddit). Twitter has already done this in their quest to see how shitty they can make their product before everyone stops using it, which is a point I’ll get back to. Many subreddits have gone private to protest this move, and several popular ones have reopened after Reddit removed their moderators. In the end, Reddit will succeed in putting a paywall between them and the rest of the Internet, just like everyone else is doing. The end result?

Information has started becoming less and less available to you. This, in my opinion, qualifies this time for the official endpoint of the Information Age. Welcome to whatever we live in now!

Of course, the idea that we share one reality with each other where certain truths are universal is now an old one, as the Internet has flourished enough to provide you with the resources to reinforce any belief you have, no matter how provably false it is. Germ theory is starting to fall out of favor with certain groups of loud Americans, many of whom have resurrected the Flat Earth movement. While your access to real information is being restricted, your access to bullshit grows each day. This is because monied bullshit peddlers can now buy access to tools you don’t have in order to sell you bullshit that eventually leads to you buying something from them, and that’s only if they don’t want darker things from you.

Bullshit peddlers will only grow more and more successful as the walls continue closing in on ordinary people. The “enshittification” of the Internet is well underway, and while it’s nothing new, it has really ramped up in the last three years or so. After 15-20 years of integrating free services into our lives at a massive scale, these companies are now looking to find out how much pain you’ll take before you quit. Of course, in many cases, you can’t go back to the way things were before because the company that’s squeezing you now eliminated the previous paradigm during their extended Free Trial era.

We’re not important enough to paywall (which is not to suggest that SB Nation management, which has destroyed virtually everything of substantial value on the network, has any idea what they’re doing), so we’ll be excised like the tumor we are. There’s no financial incentive for management to ever restore our comment history from 2008-2022, so you can’t even take a visit to the Before Times.

Anyway, I guess this is perfect for Nebraska week, because the promise of the Information Age unraveling so completely in such a short time really does feel like the 2001 Big XII Championship Game. A whole generation had never known anything but Nebraska as a dominant force in college football, and things just kept getting better until they won three national titles in four years in the mid 1990’s.

And then suddenly, the 40-year project was over.

If you like to watch old games to re-live those days, you’d better make sure they’re on physical media before someone puts up another paywall in front of you.