It is no longer okay to not know how the Internet works.
In mid-January, the Internet collectively rose up against SOPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act”) and PIPA (the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” ), which are bills currently under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, respectively. The bills’ authors characterize this legislation as an effort to stop copyright infringement committed by foreign web sites.
What they really do is turn the Internet into something tantamount to a police state. In a world increasingly dominated by the free flow of data and information, a set of laws that shuts down user-generated content depositories without due process interrupts the fantastic, technologically catapulting ends that have justified the means of the Internet for the better part of two decades.
When mp3s and Napster first entered the American consciousness, the music industry went ballistic and claimed that the end of the world was extremely nigh. While it is true that some things about the music industry have changed significantly, it is also true that the music industry still exists and, by all accounts, is doing quite well.
What the last twenty years has shown us with increasing force and indifference is that there is a cost for being first, but that cost is in no way as severe as the price of being late. This causes most of the resistance to new ideas, because thinking about doing things in a new way almost always threatens someone’s job security. I’m sure there are plenty of people that used to work at cassette tape or VHS factories who had to find new jobs when those formats went obsolete. That is sad but it is not about the bottom line or profits or callous layoffs. It is simply what happens when the future shows up and starts insisting on itself.
And so that brings up back to SOPA and PIPA, which are basically what happens when people write legislation about things they don’t understand. This happens all the time, but these bills in particular run the risk of destroying the core of what makes the Internet work. Now people are getting information through distribution channels that differ radically from anything the world has ever known. The Internet is not an industry – it is a vibrant, thrumming thread of the new world and it has grown organically to serve its highest and best purpose.
People are now writing laws about the Internet built on assumptions that are borne from the idea that it is okay to be ignorant about the Internet, or that it is acceptable to be willfully unthoughtful about how the real world works. On more than one occasion, the members of the committees considering SOPA and PIPA admitted they didn’t know much about the Internet and wondered if it was time to bring in some “nerds.” On the night of the Wikipedia blackout, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart said, “They’re not nerds; they’re called experts.”
I see CEO’s and business owners all the time who say they “don’t know anything about the Internet.” Sometimes, when they say it, I see a glint in their eyes or hear a note in their voices that this is way it should be, or that knowing about these things is somehow not worth their time. I don’t mean to say that everyone should collect highly specialized knowledge, or know how to program, or know how to administrate a server. But in some cases, people are proud of the fact that they don’t know how the Internet works. For business owners, this is no longer acceptable.
I’m sure through the years it has regularly happened that the old guard was uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the operation of some facets of business technology. I bet senior executives in the 1960s had some difficulty with the first copy machines, and this probably followed on with fax machines or computers. But these were tangible things and it is fairly obvious that very few business owners or corporate leaders rejected outright the idea that a copy machine might be a good investment simply because they had no hope of learning much about how to use it. Look how the world has progressed since then.
Plenty is happening these days, and fast. You can pick your battles, and no one’s asking you to become an authority on Facebook’s Open Graph. But the world is what it is. To write off emerging media as not worth doing simply because you don’t understand it is not only irresponsible, it is a one-way ticket to irrelevance.
So empower yourself. If you don’t understand how Facebook or YouTube or LinkedIn or anything else works, give them a try. You might be surprised. The people currently reshaping the world have worked very hard to make participation in the future easy for you.