Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Head in the cloud

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had some things to say the other day about the way the internet is empowering individuals "to publish your own book, start your own company and chase your own dream." He was visiting with Amazon.com's founder Jeff Bezos, and grooving with the young entrepreneur's vision of the future.

"I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” Bezos says. For a nominal fee, everyone has access to the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon's "cloud." Start-ups can even send their inventory to Amazon, and it will handle orders and shipping.

"Sixteen of the top 100 best-sellers on Kindle today were self-published," gushes Bezos, and Friedman gushes in return.

Way back in 1998, I wrote in the Boston Globe about a world without gatekeepers. Amazon was a baby back then, and e-books were, if anything, a fuzzy dream, but it was clear which way the wind was blowing. My column was picked up and re-published by the American Society of Newspaper editors on their own website.

I wrote: "The Internet is like a vast marketplace of ideas where every purveyor has the same size stall. Some stalls are decked out with neon lights; others are shabby and drab. Some stall keepers promise the world; others offer only modest helpings of 'fact.' Where does one shop?"

"Does it matter?" I asked. "Yes. A vigorous marketplace of ideas is healthy, but society needs a certain degree of shared faith if it is not to disintegrate into anarchy. If all ideas in the marketplace are equal, then no ideas will truly matter."

And now the future is here. Editors, librarians, school teachers and other traditional gatekeepers have been made redundant. Everyone, everywhere has access to everything. Everyone blogs. Everyone tweets. Everyone has a stall on Facebook. Everyone can publish a book for pennies and Amazon will sell it.

There is something marvelous about this, something empowering and democratic. Something disquieting too.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Remember that famous New Yorker cartoon? We're all dogs now. And every idea, no matter how brilliant, no matter how loony, has equal access to our ear.