Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Penny a Bit

Jaron Lanier
I have just finished reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Here is what the book jacket says about him:  "Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary since the 1980's, was among the first to predict the revolutionary changes the World Wide Web would bring to commerce and culture."  The book is relatively short but very heavy going, at least for me.

It is a fascinating critique of the web, especially what he calls web 2.0, and it's call for open and free architecture and content as well as the ultimate wisdom of the hive, the mass of people interacting over the internet.  It is interesting to read what an accomplished technologist--and musical artist--thinks of the internet and the web.  He see strong positives as well as some important dangers.

One idea that resonated with me is that the vast majority of content on the web is not new and creative but reworking of previously existing content, often "mashed up" to seem new.  In the "mash up" process individual contributors are rarely identified and that is a conscious cultural norm.  The whole idea is that millions of people interacting on the web are a better path to truth or at least accuracy than experts creating content based on their expertise and research. This is the "hive mind" that represents the best hope of the web 2.0 world.  The problem is that it leads to a reduction to the mean.  Individual creativity, spontaneity, and idiosyncrasy are worn down by the relentless drive of the "hive mind" to coalesce around a single answer or set of answers.  Anonymous postings, 142 character tweets, and unverified Facebook postings are examples of what can go wrong.

This helped explain to me why I typically lose patience with cable news coverage as well as the local newspaper.  When news happens, both seem to be flooded with variants of i-reporters who know next to nothing about what happened but are more than willing to share their reactions and feelings.  Rather than near from knowledgeable news sources and experts, we get comments from people "like us" because this apparently is the best way to get to the reality of what happened.  Wrong.  The best way to get there is to listen to and read people who know what they are talking about.

This can happen because all content is free or ought to be according to the web 2.0 advocates.  This is a good thing and I applaud it from one point of view.  But from another, it means that I have to put up with a lot of uncreative, rehashed content.  He has a simple but probably impractical idea.  Everybody should pay to view content.  This payment would replace current ISP monthly fees and should be calibrated to about equal those fees.  The important part of his suggestion, however, is that the payment would be net of payments made by others to view your content.  Thus if you view a lot of content but very few people find your content interesting or you don't really post anything other than Facebook postings and tweets, your monthly payments would be higher than someone whose content other found interesting and creative. Such a system would encourage people to create and post content that was creative and interesting.  It would value actual websites rather than cookie cutter frameworks like Facebook.

I am not sure I have done Lanier's suggestion credit but I think he is on to something.  Pick up the book and give it try.

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