Screw utility, the web’s always been about entertainment

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In a recent article that appeared on AllThingsD, Keval Desai argues that the web of entertainment is now surpassing the web of utility.

That initially looked interesting to me. Looking back, glossy-style magazine and gossip columns have been around forever, games on the web for years, online video is pretty ubiquitous, and streaming music sites are old news. That got me wondering what amazing new forms of entertainment Desai was imagining for the web’s future. Furthermore, I was intrigued by what he would define as the “web of utility”.

Desai attempts to back his whole hypothesis that the web has become an entertainment theatre by using a single graph that shows that internet usage, and more importantly Android and iOS device usage, increases when we are out of the office. That’s hardly surprising. Certainly people do use the internet in the evenings, and they do use it for entertainment. They also use it to access information in the office when they’re not there. But we need to be wary of falling into this crazy trap that Desai has thought up. Desai wants to show a distinction between ‘need’ and ‘want’ on the internet. He states: “We certainly don’t seem to be using the web only when we need something”. I’m a bit confused. When on earth did he think that we did use the web for something we needed? And what was it that he thought we needed?

Desai suggests that the fact that certain online services make use of Facebook accounts for authentication provides more authority on commentary because ‘real names’ are attached. Apart from the fact that I have a fair number of friends on Facebook that I genuinely know not to be using their real names, the idea that the enforcement of a real-name policy will make the web a better place is genuinely upsetting. I am a strong advocate for allowing pseudonymity and if you’re in disagreement I suggest reading a few articles about the damage that real name policies can actually do. Kim Cameron, the identity architect at Microsoft, spoke out about it passionately when Google attempted to enforce such a policy.

Where things really start to go wrong for Desai though is when he introduces Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is probably one of the most abused images gracing the presence of the multitude of pseudo-scientific articles that are pasted across the web. Aside from the fact that Maslow’s hierarchy has constantly been criticised for being ethnocentric and for lacking any genuine rationale for its ordering, its adoption by marketeers as a means to somehow legitimise the junk that they try to sell us is downright idiotic.

Desai tries to force a bunch of things into Maslow’s pyramidic view of human development in an effort to show how these things have met our ‘needs’ leaving open the route to “self-actualization”. Simply using that word in the context of the web was enough to bring bile to the top of my throat. Apart from the fact that Desai’s choice categories for our ‘needs’ are entirely arbitrary and most likely sucked out of his thumb, the very concept that all of our needs have been met is simply technologically uninformed. To begin with, until there is global adoption of IPv6, a very desperate need for unique addressing on the internet has not been met.

Much of internet security seems to be in need of improvement. Improvements to the way in which we handle our domain naming infrastructure also seem to be quite high on the list. And even lower level accessibility issues such as global access to computing infrastructure and expansion of telco cabling, internet bandwidth and wireless coverage mean that a vast portion of the global population is so very far away from the web-nirvana that Desai is proposing.

Desai concludes that while investing in the ‘want’ business has been suicidal for Silicon Valley businesses in the last 20 years, the tide is changing. He is encouraging investors to start taking notice of businesses that appeal to people’s desires, in spite of the fact that he really doesn’t do much to explain how you recognise or distinguish these types of businesses from ‘needs’-oriented businesses like Facebook (huh? I really need to be in contact with all these losers I went to school with?).

Since Desai’s business is to invest in “early-stage companies that cater to the needs and wants of consumers”, I suggest starting a business that does exactly that. Actually, come to think of it, isn’t that what every single business does?

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