Generosity: Marginal Cost of the Internet

Last year, when we read Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, I was most taken by the point about the growth of new technologies can give rise to more culture. That cultural output may not, on the whole, necessarily be better, but there will be something revolutionary to come out of it. While cultural abundance is certainly something noble and desirable, I had overlooked another necessary condition of this surplus. There must also be a social incentive, one that transcends financial compensation, requiring something akin to generosity.

A few days ago, I came across an episode of a long-running TV series, Computer Chronicles, about the Internet from 1993. (I don’t remember seeing this during its twenty-year run, between 1983 and 2002, but man, I wish I had!) Throughout the program, the hosts do a pretty commendable job at explaining the Internet (or “internet” as almost everyone on the program refers to it). One of the first things they do is distinguish it from commercial networks, such as Compuserve and Prodigy, and from closed networks, such as those run by NASA and (D)ARPA. The Internet, they imply, is free and is open. It is “open” in that there is no central authority controlling it, and it is “free” after one invests in a computer, some software, some networking infrastructure (basically, a modem and a phone line), and sign up with a service (for $10–20 per month, they explain).

The Internet in this 1993 episode predates the web, but the features of the Internet are nonetheless compelling . The guests showcase a handful of Internet technologies: gopher, telnet, finger, and file transfer protocol (FTP), which in 2012 are all deprecated. We also see a demonstration of The Well, a very old but still operating online community. Each of these technologies were independent of a commercial system. They were all contributed by an eager community of early users of the Internet. It is as if they understood that in order to make this network great, there must be some measure of personal sacrifice. The Internet was not a way to get rich. It was a place to connect, or at least it seemed that way.

In economics, a marginal cost measures the amount the cost of production rises when you produce one more unit. Usually, the cost of producing a single item, such as one pizza cone maker, is very high. But when you produce an additional item, it should cost a lot less than to make just one. Once the Internet was designed, the computing power produced, and the user base established, the marginal cost of producing early Internet was the generosity of its users.

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