Go with a smile!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

You are Not a Gadget

A new book I’ve been reading has forced me to think about the impact of information in our society. It is bluntly critical of web 2.0. It's called "You are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier

The book is written by one of the pioneers of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. He had already been dealing with the question of what the web would be like, long before 1995.

First, he thinks that the way that the web is set up today encourages mob behaviour. As psychologists already know, people do not behave at their best in a mob situation. We no longer act like individuals with a moral sense, but just become one of a crowd, the mystical crowd who is supposedly wise.

Well that’s the paradox of the crowd. If I recall Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds” correctly, he said that crowds are wise when they make decisions independently of each other, when the crowd is diverse enough to include – uh – diverse viewpoints and when the processes are decentralized. But inevitably crowds are not very democratic. Markets don’t behave like wise crowds because people are always communicating with each other and therefore having their decisions influenced by each other.

In any case, crowds do not produce great works of art. Great art, more often than not, is either a dictatorial activity, or a collaboration between a few people. It seems that crowds are probably better at decision making, which is just as well that big decisions at companies are made by boards.

But as many of you know from reading comments sections of highly controversial blog posts and know that firstly people become polarized into one of two opposing positions on the issue. Then everything breaks down and people start calling each other names. A lot of useful information does filter through, but you’d also have to wade through a lot of drivel.

One problem is that everybody is represented as a bunch of digits in cyberspace. People become dehumanized. Web pages are linked to each other based on key words without much regard about how relevant they are. It’s better than randomized linking, but a lot of the main context is lost. A lot of information is out there, but it’s all fragmented. The information is not rich: it’s just a bunch of words. You could call it pretty shallow info.

He is highly critical of search engines, because when things are linked to each other, a lot of the context that produced the document in the first place is lost. For example, a list of the top 100 works of music. What you get is that each item in the list is just a number, instead of understanding and appreciating that each piece is a universe unto itself. This becomes dehumanization through decontextualisation.

Another problem he talks about is how music can become free and cheap due to downloading. Artists don’t get paid for their work, and therefore not much good work gets produced.

The internet has also widened the gap between the rich and everyone else. In the internet world, there are a few stars holding on to a disproportionate amount of wealth and influence. He calls these people “lords of the clouds”. Everybody else is just struggling to get by. Advertising has replaced the creation of great art.

I think that shortly before the web became ubiquitous, people thought about multi-media. There was a burgeoning industry that produced multi-media on CD-ROMs before the whole enterprise got wiped out by the rise of the web. The emphasis for this was on the richness of medium, about novel ways of creating the user experience through sound and vision. Maybe it will be some time before the emphasis shifts back to this multimedia stuff.

The web has prospered because text-only information, or text information with only a few graphics has always been more economically efficient to produce. This has been true throughout the age of the printing press. At the end of the day, economics will always carry the day. Unless we have more efficient ways to encode data?

The problem with his book is that it seems to be a lot of ranting that has been cobbled together hastily. This is a shame because he has a lot of very thought-provoking points to make, even though some of the alternative scenarios seem quite far-fetched.

It’s always useful to listen to what people like him have to say, because they were around before the rise of the internet, and they had envisioned something slightly different from the web that we ended up with.

I’m also reading John Seely Brown’s “Social Life of Information”. It was published 10 years ago, but I think that the web hasn’t actually changed all that much since then.



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