Post title image: The Artisan Internet

The Artisan Internet

The old online world is dying. How do we build a new one?

Desk Notes

Horses. Sailing boats. Handmade clothing. All once economic essentials, until new technology came along and made them redundant.

But they haven’t gone extinct. Instead, they live on, adopted by enthusiasts who are willing to pay. Sailing regattas. The Races. Bespoke suits.

If you ask people what’s the next likely candidate, they’ll normally say something like the internal combustion engine.

But my candidate is the human-generated internet.

It’s the only internet we’ve ever known. But it’s now being replaced - and quickly so - by a new AI-generated internet.

The iron law that drives the internet of today is that over time the marginal cost of producing content falls lower and lower.

But until now, the limit on that cost falling to zero was that somewhere there still had to be a human involved, particularly if you wanted the content to be of human-level quality.

That’s now no more - there’s nothing stopping anyone instantly generating and publishing thousands of quality articles based on your main competitors (see a good example of this in action here) and your competitors doing the same.

Oceans AIOceans AI

This isn’t just about written content either. Creating human-quality images and videos has - until very recently - been a whole other ball game. But as this demo released yesterday makes clear, AI’s pretty much got that covered as well.

So we’re heading towards the next stage of the internet's journey: from content made by friends (Facebook, 2008); to content made by professionals (TikTok, 2016); to content made by AI.

Now this isn’t such a problem: the majority of the time the AI-generated internet will be fine, or probably better, say if you want a basic query quickly answered or a flight booked.

But the vast majority of this content is going to be highly general, and designed to capture as many people’s vague interest as possible.

Great for generating the millions of mundane documents that make modern bureaucracies tick. Amazing for generating content for grazing on en masse.

But we won’t be getting an AI produced Claire Denis film anytime soon.

The last thing to be automatedThe last thing to be automated

It’s easy to look at this world, and be pessimistic. This is where Ben Thompson heads in a brilliant article published last week:

Let the virtual world be one of customized content [...]; some may lose themselves to the algorithm and AI friends, but perhaps more will realize that the only way to survive online is to pay it increasingly little heed.”

But I think - as we’ve seen with horses and sailing boats - the market for the human-made internet will persist.

You can see the shoots of this artisan internet emerging already.

Substack is probably the best example of this in action - users paying for a higher class of information, forged from a trusted relationship with another human. The Information’s ability to sustain a £600 annual subscription fee is another.

Or others can pay for you - think about Stripe’s decision to buy Works in Progress, or to develop their own entire publishing wing. A whole new channel of philanthropy opens up.

And where do legacy platforms place themselves? If you believe that the internet will bifurcate, Elon Musk’s obsessions with bots and subscriptions begins to make sense.

For those building products it's a fascinating moment - do you embrace the opportunity of scale, or cast yourself against it, building ever more personal and opinionated products, with the human touch guaranteed.

And it’s that human touch that so many of us will still want.

This probably won’t be rational, but to me it makes sense. The fact that something was made for you by another human should matter.

An AI could generate a thousand brilliant John Le Carre novels, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will still be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

There’ll be something lost in this bifurcation - one of the most powerful things of the original internet was its universality.

But we have to play the hand we’re dealt.

Plus this moment provides an opportunity to reward originality and creativity.

The people who put in the work to, as Tyler Cowen recently put it: “stand out from the froth of the chat bots.”

And build startups - like Ashore - that help people find focus, and work on whatever they do that sets them apart from the machines.

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