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Editor's Page

April 19, 2010
Volume 88, Number 16
p. 3

The Limits Of Web 2.0

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I have stated in this space before that I think the notion that “information wants to be free” is one of the most pernicious ideas perpetrated in the age of the Internet (C&EN, Nov. 5, 2007, page 3).

First of all, the phrase, attributed to author Stewart Brand, is completely out of context. What Brand said in 1984 was, “On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

More important, I think, is the silliness of attributing motive to something—information—that is inanimate and, absent humans to process it, perhaps nonexistent.

The reason I bring this up is that I just finished reading a remarkable book, “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto” by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author who currently holds the titles scholar-at-large for Microsoft and scholar-in-residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, University of California, Berkeley. Lanier has been involved in computer science since the early 1980s and is associated with research on virtual reality, a term he coined.

Turns out this Silicon Valley veteran agrees with me. Far more important, “You Are Not A Gadget” is a powerful meditation on what Lanier views as the dangers posed by some of the popular trends in Internet culture. Lanier writes: “Something started to go wrong with the digital revolution around the turn of the twenty-first century. The World Wide Web was flooded by a torrent of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0. This ideology promotes radical freedom on the surface of the web, but that freedom, ironically, is more for machines than people. Nevertheless, it is sometimes referred to as ‘open culture.’ ”

The majority of “You Are Not A Gadget” is a highly critical examination of the ruling ethos of the Internet. “So, in this book,” Lanier writes, “I have spun a long tale of belief in the opposites of computationalism, the noosphere, the Singularity, web 2.0, the long tail, and all the rest.” The essence of what Lanier is saying is that individuals are important and that we’re losing sight of that at our own peril in elevating the wisdom of the crowd to a higher plane than the creativity of a single person.

“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush,” Lanier writes. “You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.”

Lanier is by no means antitechnology. Crowds can be used well—“The reason the collective can be valuable is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals”—but they are not a priori smarter than individuals, Lanier maintains.

“Every authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning individuals,” Lanier writes. “These people focused the collective and in some cases also corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes. The balancing of influence between people and collectives is the heart of the design of democracies, scientific communities, and many other long-standing success stories.”

Lanier cautions science about becoming enamored of the wisdom of crowds. Scientific communities “achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of goodwill and ‘blind’ elitism,” he observes, and he warns against science adopting the ideals of web 2.0.

Lanier’s critique may at times be overly harsh, and the alternative approach to information technology he promotes may be a tad utopian, but, overall, “You Are Not A Gadget” is a thought-provoking examination of the culture we exist in and are creating with perhaps too little conscious deliberation.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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