12 March 2024

Any Technology Indistinguishable From Magic is Hiding Something

Somewhere between the death of our favorite aggregator websites and the world surviving a pandemic, the modern internet was reduced to four companies in a trench coat. On the breast pocket of that trenchcoat is a name tag that reads “The Cloud.” Under that name tag is an older name tag that reads “The Internet.” And under that name tag is a frayed embroidery that reads, “ARPANET (non-commercial use only, motherfuckers),” in a lovely script typeface and craftsmanship you just don’t see nowadays.

Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta (GAMM) now own most of the steel and glass that makes the internet go vroom. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft control seventy-five percent of the cloud computing market[1]. Meta and Google own half of the fiber optic cables supplying internet services across continents[2]. Most of our favorite productivity apps, retail websites, and social media platforms are beholden to proprietary infrastructure controlled by these four corporations. They own the most heavily trafficked server networks, all the GPUs, and gigawatts, and whatever.

They call it the cloud, but really, that’s just the internet.

So, what we know as the cloud doesn’t actually exist. It’s a euphemism that obfuscates the consolidation of critical infrastructure. The cloud is metaphysical porn for wild-eyed technocrats in Allbirds who say things like, “I’m making a dent in the universe” without a whisper of irony. It’s bullshit. It’s fugazi. There is no spoon, Neo.

The cloud is a lie.

So, now that GAMM owns all this infrastructure, but no one really knows they own it all, or even that there's an "all” to own, they're doing what American corporations do best— selling us the biggest truck we're willing to drive off the lot. But instead of F-250s, it's raw computing power manifested into virtual reality conference rooms.

The future of the web is consumption #

Web 3.0 probably won’t involve the blockchain or NFTs in any meaningful way. We all may or may not one day join the metaverse and wear clunky goggles on our faces for the rest of our lives. And it feels increasingly unlikely that our graphic designers, artists, and illustrators will suddenly change their job titles to "prompt artist” anytime soon.

But none of that really matters. We keep waiting for the next iteration of the web, or the internet, but the future is now, baby. We’re living it at this very moment. It snuck through the backdoor when no one was looking.

Over a decade or more, while our politicians were busy sub-tweeting fascists for clout, GAMM was buying up all the infrastructure it could carry. The old sync-and-share business model wasn’t working for them anymore, so they turned the internet into a network of expensive, gas-guzzling computing power.

It makes sense. The production cost of data storage plummeted by 94% in just ten years[3]. You can't sell 50GB plans to college kids who own M2 Macbook Pros with a terabyte of solid-state storage. That's not how you build hundred-year empires.

So what did GAMM do? They convinced us that our notetaking apps require an internet connection and forty thousand dollar GPUs located on a server three hundred miles away. That's the future they've made for us.

It’s consumption. Its monopolistic control. It’s computing-hungry magic tricks thrown at the wall, hoping something sticks. The next iteration of the web by way of the internet is just one long infomercial of fifty-dollar solutions to fifty-cent problems.

I can’t stress this point enough. The reason why GAMM and all its little digirati minions on social media are pushing things like crypto, then the blockchain, and now virtual reality and artificial intelligence is because those technologies require a metric fuckton of computing power to operate. That fact may be devastating for the earth, indeed it is for our mental health, but it’s wonderful news for the four storefronts selling all the juice.

Open(ness) for business #

The presumptive beneficiaries of this new land of milk and honey are so drunk with speculative power that they'll promise us anything to win our hearts and minds. That anything includes magical virtual reality universes and robots with human-like intelligence. It's the same faux-passionate anything that proclaimed crypto as the savior of the marginalized. The utter bullshit anything that would have us believe that the meek shall inherit the earth, and the powerful won't do anything to stop it.

Right now, there's a four-way chess match in which each competitor will take a position of openness or security depending on which ideology helps them gain more market share.

Amazon controls 35% of the cloud computing market and has created a tight seal around its customer base. So, Meta and Google started preaching the importance of data portability. The Data Transfer Initiative is a red herring protocol that does little more than allow Meta and Google to compare notes on the data they have on us. But the message is, of course, "user empowerment.” El oh fucking el.

If either Google or Meta's market positions change, you better believe they will pivot to security fearmongering while lifting that drawbridge.

Amazon is mostly quiet as the frontrunner in the cloud computing market. Microsoft, however, may've earned itself a hundred-year reign with OpenAI. So, its job is just to scare us into believing that AI has the power to bring about the apocalypse and that Microsoft is the only company that can control it. There's no way OpenAI survives any of this, by the way—not as an independent company anyway. Without Microsoft running ChatGPT on its servers, OpenAI has no product.

Google and Meta want the tech world to believe that building a sufficient moat for its respective AI businesses is impossible. Google went so far as to leak a frantic internal memo. In it, an employee claims that open-source AI is "eating its lunch” and that they might as well release their code to the public.

This framing is a half-truth, and it's purposefully deceptive. Yes, if everyone open-sources its AI models, they cannot build a moat on proprietary software. However, Google's memo fails to mention that it already has the infrastructure to run computing-hungry AI models and that infrastructure is wildly expensive to build. That's why four companies own most of it. The real moat is the fields of data centers, specialized GPUs, and hundreds of miles of deep-sea fiber optic cables.

And then there's Zuck #

No one has a more grandiose vision for the internet than Mark Zuckerberg. The dude read a 1980s dystopian sci-fi novel where the world was so shitty, people spent all of their time in a virtual reality universe, and he thought— yeah, humans will love this beep boop beep (or whatever sound he makes when he has an idea). And you know what? There’s a sporting chance that the son of a bitch pulls it off.

Whatever. The metaverse is not the story here. And whether or not Zuck actually believes the bullshit he preaches about his virtual reality hellscape isn’t relevant.

What matters is that Meta is likely the most sophisticated cloud computing company on the planet. Facebook cut its teeth on a barebones web before the cloud market even existed. Zuck has open-sourced more cloud architecture than most companies could ever hope to develop in a lifetime. Amazon Web Services doesn’t gain a third of the cloud computing market without Facebook’s contributions.

So, I think it’s a mistake to write off Zuck as some tech-bro idiot chasing his tail. He’s not Elon Musk. Mark Zuckerberg is a capable businessman who understands the industry better than most tech founders.

I don’t know the guy personally, but look at the facts. Half of the world is on his suite of apps. He’s been the king of social media for twenty years. You can count on one hand the number of competing social media platforms that have survived his reign. His anti-competitive strategies are so effective that universities have studied it.

Psychopath? Probably. Should you hate him? Sure. But don’t underestimate him. He’s shrewd and cunning and will rip your fucking head off if you hit the App Store’s top 100.

With that in mind, let’s examine some of Zuck’s recent moves with fresh eyes.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t spend ten billion dollars on GPUs to achieve augmented general intelligence, a pursuit no one can even confirm is possible, just so he can then give away the technology for free. That doesn’t make sense. He is a chief executive with a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders.

He’s made these moves because raw computing power is the business model. So, who gives a shit if Meta put Llama on Github for free? How will anyone ship their resulting AI-featured app without Meta’s cloud infrastructure? Read the terms and conditions. Llama is not open-source.

Zuck isn’t the mad scientist his PR team wants us to think he is. He’s selling us printers at cost so that later he can fuck us on the price of ink.

One layer up, one step ahead. #

This post has been a stone-cold bummer, huh? I know, I know. I put you through some shit just now. I’m sorry about that.

Listen, I know we want to believe that things are changing for the better. For the first time in a long while, there’s hope for the future of the web. There’s something in the air, something that feels like meaningful change. Things are happening. It’s lovely, actually.

When corporate social media platforms began to crumble a few years ago, we looked for alternatives. Some of us, like myself, rediscovered the open web. We reminisced about a time when the web was more than just search engine optimization and key performance indicators. Before an algorithm made us dance for our dinners. And it just felt right. So, we made blogs and personal websites and put little pixelated badges on the footers like we used to. We then moved to decentralized social media and joined small forums.

We carved out a space on the web that wasn’t for sale.

But don’t you see, you beautiful idiot? (Pretend like I’m shaking you by the shoulders frantically.) Our existence on this unincorporated web threatens those who have made their fortunes off our digital lives. The four largest corporations in the world won’t just roll over and let us have the quirky indie web we all want. They’ve moved one layer up so that they remain our gatekeepers no matter where we go.

There are no easy answers. Entire books exist on how to take back the internet they’ve stolen from us. Internet For The People by Ben Tarnoff is one of my favorites. It’s an inspiring exploration of the untold history of the internet, and it has some great calls to action.

Today, we can start by giving each other some grace. Let’s move away from the trappings of the morality Olympics we’re playing with the social media platforms we participate in. The factions created by that behavior don’t benefit us. It benefits them. They love to see it. Some people are on Twitter, some are on Threads. What the fuck ever. It doesn’t matter. Under the hood, Twitter is just the company that removed “Don’t Be Evil” from its mission statement. Threads is run by the company responsible for cultivating a genocide. None of our hands are clean.

And if you’re on Mastodon or some other decentralized social media, that’s great! Don’t be a dick about it. For some people, TikTok is their livelihood. For others, Instagram is the difference between speaking to someone that day or not. We’re all just doing the best we can. But we’re fighting each other when we could be working together to take these motherfuckers down a peg.

The internet doesn’t run on scattered clouds and rushing streams. It takes heaps of fibered glass and twisted steel to send a DM to that cute French boy from your year abroad. And it takes thousands of miles of laid cable, traveling at impossible speeds through the depths of our oceans, for him to leave you on read. I’m not judging. We’ve all been there, mon cheri.

But someone must own all that infrastructure. And with ownership comes control. This fact is worth stating out loud. It’s worth communicating in our preferred typeface. Even if some of us are more aware of it than others. Otherwise, we get lost in the magic of it all. We become more beholden to our Internet overlords.

Who’s to say how a cloud computing oligopoly will affect our everyday lives? But it feels big—bigger than even the telecommunications and cable TV monopolies of the 1990s or Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post. The internet is how we’ve been able to disperse information and organize with each other. Good people on the web have stepped up when our news organizations and politicians failed us.

Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta already control so much of what we see and don’t see. If they can suppress an active genocide on the platform layer, imagine what they can do when they control the whole kit and kaboodle.

So, if we want a true indie web, we must be prepared to fight for it. Hope is not enough.

  1. Cloud Market Gets its Mojo Back; AI Helps Push Q4 Increase in Cloud Spending to New Highs ↩︎

  2. Internet For The People ↩︎

  3. Historical cost of computer memory and storage ↩︎


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