Internet Time is the concept that things happen faster online than they do offline and that this phenomena is accelerating the pace of change. Practically, this is the justification that companies use to cut corners, that to compete they have to keep doing things quicker regardless of the consequences.
Neal Stephenson’s novel “Anathem”, considers what it would be like to go radically in the other direction. In “Anathem” monasteries of Mathematicians have ten, a hundred or even a thousand years to try to solve problems. The idea is that if you have the time, you will undertake solving much harder problems and instead of our current state of incremental improvement, you will get longer periods of stability followed by larger more fundamental changes. Stephenson partly wrote this novel in opposition to Internet time and it certainly makes you think and I recommend it, even though it’s around a thousand pages long.
In this article, I’m going to look at some of the consequences of Internet time, things we have accelerated and what are the pros and cons.
It used to be that a software product would introduce a new version every two years, but with delays, it would really be every three or four years. Usually these upgrades were fairly major and rather disruptive to the end users, since there would be major changes to functionality that they had gotten used to over the last couple of years. Nowadays, most installed software such as Windows 10, or most major Linux distributions release every six months or so. Some more frequently, but few less.
For online applications like Facebook or Twitter, the matra is DevOps and continuous deployment, where as soon as a developer checks in their code to source control, it gets built, unit tested and automatically deployed to the live system. There is no such thing as a major release, just small patches being deployed continuously.
Practically speaking, all applications are updating themselves more frequently. Everytime you run Visual Studio, it wants to update some component or another. Your Linux distribution almost always has new updates you can install. So installed applications get small security and bug fixes continuously, with a major feature release every six months. Even Facebook works this way, you don’t see major interface changes that often and they tend to get rolled out to users one group at a time.
But does this make software better? I think both approaches suffer from the same problem, that as the software becomes larger and more complex due to all these updates, it gets harder and harder to understand and harder to add major new features. Once the software reaches a certain size, it becomes cost prohibitive (and a major risk) to refactor major parts of it. Ths slows the pace of change in the software and the increments get smaller and smaller.
If software developers had ten years for a release, could they do more and produce something better? The counter argument is that they would spend nine years in meetings and messing around and then still only work on the new version for less than a year. But suppose you did have the time to rewrite the entire piece of software with the newest tools, techniques and technologies? Could you produce something majorly better? If you had the time, could you use more low level high performance techniques rather than using really high level programming systems? Could you do a better job of QA and security testing?
News reporting used to be a lot of work. There was a lot of time spent researching stories, digging for the underlying reasons things happened. The problem now is that to be read you have to be the first to post to the Internet. If you aren’t the first to Facebook and Twitter, then no one will bother reading you when your wonderfully researched insightful story finally appears.
Internet time has destroyed journalism and led to the crazy world of Internet conspiracy theories.
Sure we get information way quicker these days; but, a lot of the information we get now is wrong, low quality and deliberately misleading. I really like that I get information in real-time as events happen. However, I do miss balanced researched journalism.
I blogged about being brainwashed by social media and how social media divides us. Politics is happening at Internet Time. Events are happening much quicker and the procedures followed by our institutions aren’t keeping up. Politicians are giving up on presenting their policies and using reasoned arguments to convince us to vote for them. Instead they are just brarraging us with malicious misleading information over social media. Now that people live in Internet Time, they don’t have time to read long articles on peoples policies and points of views, they just get bombarded by internet memes and make their decisions based on these. As politics has moved to Internet Time, I don’t think anything has changed for the better.
Long ago we used to communicate by writing letters, then talking on the telephone. Along came e-mail and now messaging. With messaging we don’t even have time to write complete sentences, instead we have gone back to hieroglyphics, sending streams of emojis to communicate. Are we communicating better in Internet Time? Or is something being lost? We are certainly communicating more, as you can message all day and use less time than the phone or e-mail, but is the quality and depth of communications still there?
These are just a few areas that have been affected by moving to Internet Time. There are a lot of advantages to things happening quicker. Humans aren’t necessarily all that patient and like immediate gratification. We instinctively want to innovate at a faster pace, move into the future quicker. But are we taking the time to ensure we are really improving things? Are we losing control of our technologies and spiralling into chaos? I like the faster pace of change, but I do miss some of the deeper thought that used to go into things.