During the recent Academy Awards broadcast, Samsung aired a commercial for its new phone. Casey Neistat, a YouTube and HBO reality personality, narrates over a montage of young people engaged in feats of derring-do and uninhibited expressions of creativity. He declares that we are the true makers and maestros, and finishes with this zinger: “When we are told that we can’t, we all have the same answer – watch me!” And, there it is. The glorification of our selfie culture.

Apparently, all you need to get people to watch you is a non-exploding phone, astonishing talent, bushels of cash and an insane amount of luck. Then you, too, can be adored for ninety seconds, the average time a person spends watching an online video.

Sure, I love the fact that people are creating and sharing those creations. But I don’t believe for a moment that the web is truly as accessible and democratic as many would have us believe.

You see, the web is no longer the free and open space it was a decade ago. It’s now a feudal system run by a handful of ultra-large and ultra-sophisticated monarchs. The rest of us are just serfs handing over a percentage of our crop to the lords and ladies who have the power to grant us access to the digital world of meaningful commerce. Our chances of actually becoming web royalty are about the same as retiring from that scratch-off lottery ticket.

Consider this: Google companies get over 50 billion visits each month. There are only 7.5 billion people on this planet, and only about a third of them have regular internet access. That means that every person with internet access visits Google almost every day. The search engine decides what you will find, because these visits aren’t free. Some company has sponsored your trip on the web and expects the search engine to deliver you to them.

Right now, the net is in a consolidation phase. A few big players are gobbling up niche providers and creating enormous storefronts and networks. Sure, there’s still infinite variety on the web, but good luck finding it. Look at the retail sector, where 55% of all searches for online products start with Amazon, which also accounts for over half of all the retail growth on the web. The numbers for Facebook, Netflix and Wikipedia are similar for their own domains. The same thing happened to television in the 1950s when hundreds of local broadcasters were forced into three networks by the economics of scale.

But surely there’s still room for your little entrepreneurial dream, noble cause or heroic work of art. So you pay your web domain, the development of your site and the fee to your internet service provider to keep things running. Still, that won’t get you much traffic unless you have more friends than Kim Kardashian. You spring for a consultant to concoct a magic algorithm to put you atop the search list, and perhaps you even go for some banner ads hoping they don’t accidently pop up in the middle of some troll’s little hate-fest. You keep this up in perpetuity because it’s the price you have to pay to belong to the digital world.

You now realize that the web has become a glorified phone book. We can’t watch you because we can’t find you. Regrettably, those that are most adept at finding us are commercially or ideologically motivated. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m posting this to a web site where, as you know, everything you read is true.

This article was originally published on The Next Idea

Facebook’s 32-year-old billionaire founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been touring the country. He made stops in Michigan recently. He toured Ford’s Rouge plant and even tried his hand at putting parts on an F-150 pickup truck. Turns out time on the assembly line is hard work. He also privately met with Muslim students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

The Next Idea’s Jeff DeGraff and Detroit News business columnist Daniel Howes joined Stateside to talk about the visit and what Zuckerberg could be planning down the road.

“I think he’s trying to get a line of sight on autonomous vehicles,” DeGraff said. “I think what he’s trying to figure out is where are the metalbenders going?”

In talking to U-M Dearborn students, and later a Donald Trump-voting family in Ohio, DeGraff feels like he’s trying to get a sense of what people are thinking and what people will be using in the future.

Howes, who recently wrote a column about the visit, was intrigued by Zuckerberg’s posts on Facebook following the trip to Michigan.

“[His posts] sounded a little wide-eyed, as if he, for lack of a better term, was visiting the zoo,” Howes said. “He goes into an auto plant and he’s just slack-jawed that people actually work hard. I thought he came off as living in a bit of a bubble. And we here in Detroit know a little bit about living in a bubble, we’ve been accused of it, and rightly so, for many decades.”

Listen to the full interview above to hear what the impact of Zuckerberg’s visit ultimately will be and how a future move into the auto industry by Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily a move for cars, but rather, a move for data.

This article was originally published on The Next Idea

 

In the early 1990s, I visited billionaire George Soros’ office in New York City to provide some direction on an investment his firm had made in a technology startup run by senior Israeli Air Force officers. Their technology was something akin to an iPod, and this was almost a decade before you could store your entire music collection on a device the size of a bar of soap.

The officers had the prescient concern that the internet was not designed to be secure and that this vulnerability would eventually lead to cybercrime and espionage. They believed there would come a time when we would customize the part of the web we needed and keep it secure in our own pocket. These brilliant innovators had a solution, except it was 25 years before we knew there was a problem.

Well, as they say on Broadway, everything old is new again.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission decided to eliminate most of the net neutrality regulations that required broadband providers to inform customers about how they manage their networks. The commission is now led by Ajit Pai, the former legal counsel for Verizon. Apparently, this appointment isn’t seen as a conflict of interest.

The upside of this decision is that it may provide economic incentives for investing in innovations that improve network connectivity and speed. The downside is that it will cede control of who has access to the net, and at what price, to the largest broadband carriers.

While government officials and public advocacy groups are waging a war of words in the media, little attention is being paid to the opportunity this creates for more disruptive technology companies like that little Israeli startup from the 1990s.

In President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress, he repeated his campaign pledge to spend $1 trillion revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure. But infrastructure is more than just roads, bridges, and airports. It’s also digital.

Over the past 50 years, taxpayers have invested billions in the development of the internet. That makes us majority shareholders. Why should the rights of the telecom shareholders be well represented with these changes to net neutrality, and not ours? It’s hard to imagine anyone investing in a company without some form of control or transparency. But that’s exactly what our government is now demanding that we do.

The convergence of delivery options such as cable internet, DSL, 4G wireless and satellite drives today’s competition. Add to this mix upstarts with radical new technologies, low-cost providers from other regions, and fluid pay-as-you-go business models, and the market looks very different than today’s oligarchy of sluggish behemoths.

But is the net really being deregulated? Are the barriers of entry really being lowered to encourage true free market competition, or are these simply different rules to protect the interests of a few incumbents? Look at who receives the best government contracts. They are not the most innovative companies. Instead, they are the largest. The fix is in.

If you’ve visited Delhi or Seoul lately, you probably noticed how much better their service is than here at home. These cities see their investment in digital infrastructure as an engine of economic growth. The number of high tech start-ups growing to over a billion dollars is also following this trend. They are now creating larger numbers of tech jobs faster than we are in the U.S.

Given that we can’t even get sufficient funding for passable roads and drinkable water, what hope is there that our government will adequately support the development of a superior digital domain? The irony is that smaller organizations are far more likely to introduce breakthrough innovations than their larger rivals because they lack the resources to compete on scope or scale. Ingenuity is all they have. They are the seedlings that grow into larger job producing companies.

When the next breakthrough communications technology emerges, we can only hope that people like George Soros allow us to invest in it. That way, we have a reasonable chance of being treated like shareholders, and getting some real return on our investment.

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. Connect with Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.

This article was originally published on The Next Idea

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