News & Opinion

In the Books - Off to the Printers VIII

January 08, 2010


I wrote the following article for our first issue of In the Books, released two short years ago, but it seems unbelievably quaint now. Though it has mostly died down, the rise of Web 2. 0 and the effects it would have on our culture and the creative economy was a huge debate two years ago.

I wrote the following article for our first issue of In the Books, released two short years ago, but it seems unbelievably quaint now. Though it has mostly died down, the rise of Web 2.0 and the effects it would have on our culture and the creative economy was a huge debate two years ago. I tried to capture some of those discussions by looking at the books published on the issue in 2007.


We the Internet BY DYLAN SCHLEICHER It has been quite a few years since Al Gore invented the Internet in the hope of creating a more involved, engaged, and responsive democracy. And while his political dreams for the world wide web have yet to be realized, I think we can agree it has changed how we interact and do business. The advent of what tech-guru Tim O'Reilly has dubbed Web 2.0 is now changing the rules and very nature of the Web itself. Web 2.0 is the new Internet of web blogs, open source technology and "wikis," social networking and user-generated content. It is something other than the "publish and browse" Internet where people act as passive spectators of company brochures and magazine articles. It is something we interact with, a community that anyone who has access to a computer can be a part of. One thing this new Internet can't yet capture and contain, however, is an extended and nuanced conversation about its own existence, and so in an ironic twist, books—a six hundred-year-old technology—are being written about it. Web 2.0 is many things to many people. It has been described most famously in business literature as The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowieki, and by Chris Anderson as The Long Tail of commerce. This year, David Weinberger has written that it is where Everything is Miscellaneous, and Andrew Keen has called it The Cult of the Amateur. In Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger discusses how this new incarnation of the Internet is scattering information into miscellaneous networks, where items are "jumbled digitally and sorted out only when and how a user wants to look for them." He sees the rise of this digital (dis)organization as the liberation of information from its confinement in the physical space of books and libraries. This web of information is as scattered as it is in the natural world, and we must gather and interpret it for ourselves, and with each other, accordingly:

Deciding what to believe is now our burden. It always was, but in the paper-order world where publishing was so expensive that we needed people to be filterers, it was easier to think our passivity was an inevitable part of learning; we thought knowledge just worked that way (143).
For 2,500 years, we've been told that knowledge is our species' destiny and calling. Now we can see for ourselves that knowledge isn't in our heads: It is between us. It emerges from public and social thought and it stays there, because social knowing, like the global conversations that give rise to it, is never finished (147).
Andrew Keen has a different take on the subject. In The Cult of the Amateur, he counters what he sees as the irrational exuberance of Web 2.0 utopians with a warning about the economic viability of the new Web and the destructive effect it may have on our culture as a whole. He has seen the Web's decimation of the traditional music industry, and doesn't foresee much better for other traditional media outlets. Despite his possibly overly disparaging view of bloggers as "infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters," he does raise valid concerns about the Internet as it presently exists. He laments the poor quality of most amateur-created content currently available on the Internet, and wonders how and where credentialed, vetted and substantiated reporting has a place in the brave new world of Web 2.0:
Before Web 2.0, our collective intellectual history has been one driven by the careful aggregation of truth—through professionally edited books and reference materials, newspapers, in radio and television. But as all information becomes digitalized and democratized, and is made universally and permanently available, the media of record becomes the Internet on which misinformation never goes away. As a result, our bank of collected information becomes infected by mistakes and fraud (74).
Wikipedia exemplifies these layers of debate inherent in Web 2.0 products. Now the largest encyclopedia in the world, Wikipedia is, as most proponents of Web 2.0 technology say all information wants to be, free. Andrew Keen has many criticisms of the site—and even its inventor—in his book, but the crux of his argument is as follows:
By empowering the amateur, we are undermining the authority of the experts who contribute to a traditional resource like the Encyclopedia Britannica—experts who over the years have included the likes of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, what defines "the very best minds" available, whether they are cultural critics or scientific experts, is their ability to go beyond the "wisdom" of the crowd and mainstream public opinion and bestow us with the benefits of their hard-earned knowledge (The Cult of the Amateur, 43).
Weinberger would counter by saying, "At Wikipedia, credibility isn't about an author's credentials; it's about an author's contributions." In Wikinomics, authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams speak to the issue of accuracy and credibility:
Nature magazine's comparative analysis of forty-two science entries in both showed a surprisingly small difference [in accuracy]: Wikipedia contained four inaccuracies per entry to Britannica's three. Britannica has disputed the finding, saying that the errors in Wikipedia were more serious than Britannica errors, and that the source documents for the study include the junior version of the encyclopedia as well as the Britannica yearbooks. Unfortunately for Britannica, its complaints really miss the point—errors cited on Wikipedia have long since been fixed, while the Britannica errors remain. In the same way that open source programmers swarm together to identify and fix bugs, Wikipedians can easily catch errors and set the record straight. According to an MIT study, an obscenity randomly inserted on Wikipedia is removed in an average of 1.7 minutes (75).
Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams approach the issues of Web 2.0 from a perspective different from Weinberger and Keen's. The culmination of five years and $9 million of research, Wikinomics looks at the Web through an economic lens. They see a world and economy constantly connected in mass collaboration. They share Keen's belief that Web 2.0 is changing the very nature of how we do business, but they see this as a step in the right direction. They focus on how peer-to-peer networks and mass collaboration are opening companies to the world and advancing not only their bottom line, but human development as well. They point to examples of companies sharing what used to be closely guarded intellectual property in open source communities. It's collaborative capitalism, and there are many examples of it working effectively in the real world. One of the best examples is IBM and its collaboration with the open source community of Linux developers.
Open source has enabled IBM to speed innovation and off-load tremendous costs. From a strategic perspective, this approach to peer production is a form of collaborative outsourcing [...] IBM provides a surprising example of how a large, mature company with an ingrained propriety culture can embrace openness and self-organization as strategic weapons. (Wikinomics, 83)
IBM, out of competitive necessity, turned to the open source community and in return contributed its own expertise to improve hardware that had previously been developed by individuals. "Linux-related hardware and services produce billions of dollars of revenue annually, and now IBM, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, Sony, and dozens of other companies are dedicating serious resources to its development" (Wikinomics, 65). But what do the unpaid contributors to the hardware get for doing this work, and why do they do it?
People who work on Linux during their spare time are usually employed in some other facet of the industry. Participating in Linux gets them experience, exposure, and connections, and if they're good, they can earn status within the community that could prove to be highly valuable to their careers. What's more, a growing number of people are paid to participate in Linux by the companies they work for. In fact, IBM and Intel are two of the largest contributors to Linux in terms of manpower. (Wikinomics, 70)
Tapscott and Williams believe that if companies open up some of their propriety information and share it, it can be a major benefit to both themselves and others, creating innovation where there had been privacy. They also see economic possibilities in open source technology for new and smaller companies that haven't been able to afford sophisticated software.
Open source application vendors could be the force that brings affordable enterprise solutions to the masses of business that could never afford an Oracle database or an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from SAP. And who knows, they just might empower a whole new revolution in business productivity, and perhaps even kick-start a renaissance for the small and medium sized business. (Wikinomics, 84)
Because it is miscellaneous, sometimes misleading, and mired in anonymity, the new Internet is one where personal responsibility and individual discernment are paramount. We cannot accept every word published as fact or every line of code as precise. We have to find sources we trust, whether it's the Wall Street Journal, a programmer from Long Island or a blog about business books from a small company in Milwaukee. If we search intelligently, we may even begin to get at some truths. (We might learn that Al Gore didn't really invent the Internet.) What we have gained is the ability to interact and join the conversation—however banal it may become—whether it's on Wikipedia or in a Linux chat room. More than ever, the Internet does reflect who we are as a society, with all our blights and blemishes, all our wit and wisdom. As Wikinomics shows, it can also reflect the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit our economy was built upon.

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