Tag Archives: web 2.0

Gadget Part IV: The End

I recently finished Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. I have to admit that the book has grown on me a bit since I started reading it. At first, the book really frustrated me, as Lanier is not what you would call an analytical thinker–that is, he doesn’t procede from one point to the next, linearly building an argument to prove a thesis. Rather, he tells stories and discusses networks of ideas as he swirls around a general topic he wishes to explore. That kind of thinking can often produce highly creative insights, but it is difficult to then summarize in a short review (which, I’m sure he would say, is precisely the problem with blogging!). I often liken his style of thinking to watching a pointillistic painting in progress: you watch the artist make a point here, a point there, but it’s not until the picture is finished that you can step back and understand it as a whole.

Section three of the book covers Lanier’s last big complaint about web 2.0 systems and the digital culture that surrounds them: despite their ability to harness the creativity of the hive mind, they can’t seem to produce anything truly innovative. Lanier argues that for the last two decades, digital culture denizens have simply rehashed old ideas, applying them to new contexts for sure, but without any substantial improvement.

He offers three chief examples. First, he discusses the open source operating system Linux, describing it as simply a port of a messy, difficult-to-use, 40-year-old operating system to the Intel PC. Despite the immense increase in processing power since the 1970s, Linux uses essentially the same design, and offers pretty much the same features as the early UNIX variants. Linux lovers usually say that there’s no need to improve on good design, but Lanier thinks that this lack of improvement is due to the “crowd” not having the same level of creative potential that singular people do.

I have used Linux myself, and have done research into the history and sociology of open-source software, and much of what Lanier says rings true. Linux is most certainly reliable and powerful, but it really is the kind of mess that only a balding man with a long beard and Birkenstocks could love. Much of the innovation in Linux these days is actually funded by commercial corporations that either sell related services, or rely on it to run their core business. Successful open source projects also tend to have strong leaders who set the agenda and overal design for the product.

Lanier’s second example is his familiar whipping boy, Wikipedia. There is of course nothing new about the idea of an encyclopedia, and although Wikipedia fundamentally changed the notion of authorship and the scope of entries, Lanier thinks that their contributions have not really improved on the earlier forms, much less created a radically new kind of knowledge source. He summarizes his disappointment with this rather scathing passage:

Let’s suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, “In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!” It would have sounded utterly pathetic (121-122).

Later in the book, Lanier asks why the open source community has so far only managed to produce nicely-polished versions of antiques, while commercial industry has continued to produce game-changing innovations like the iPhone and iPad. His conclusion: people are creative, not crowds.

His third example is pop music, and the claim he makes here is perhaps his most provocative and certainly the most suspect. Lanier asserts that pop music has been essentially frozen in time over the last two decades, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to place a recent but unfamiliar pop song in its proper decade. Why? Because pop music is in a posture of nostalgia and dominated by inflexible digital models like MIDI. He also implies that homogenizing web 2.0 systems are dulling consumers’ appetites for new and creative expressions.

Lanier is most likely overstating his case in this section; one could probably find counter examples that defy his general claims, but his underlying thesis–that people are creative, not crowds–is an intriguing one. It is a restatement of that old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” and the joke that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” (which is really unfair to camels). It may be true that the collective knowledge of the crowd is more reliable than the claims of any one person, but when that same logic is applied to creativity, the results tend to be conservative, nostalgic, or just plain messy.

Lanier ends the book with two sections on how he thinks digital technologies could be developed and used in ways that are more honoring of, and beneficial to, human beings. He focuses mostly on modeling and understanding human cognition, a field in which he is currently participating. He offers a different computational metaphor for the human brain, one based on incremental evolution, and explores the possibilities of using virtual reality to communicate in a fluid stream of concrete images.

On the whole, I recommend reading the book if you are interested in the issues surrounding web 2.0 information systems. But don’t expect a linear argument–instead, prepare yourself for a journey through ideas with a technologist who has been at the forefront of innovation for at least three decades.

I’ll leave you with a video he mentions in the closing chapter of the book. Watch it closely; the octopus being filmed can literality change the color and texture of its skin to match its environment, morphing itself much like what we see in science fiction films. Will we figure out how to introduce this trait into humans with genetic engineering?

Gadget Part III: The Problem of Linear Extrapolation

ThumbnailPart II of Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto discusses what he considers to be the economic failures of the web 2.0 paradigm, and the first of these failures is what he refers to as “free culture”: the cultural expectation that digital content, regardless of quality, should be free, both in terms of cost, and copyright.

Lanier likens this to a kind of digital Marxism, where individual property rights are ignored, and all creative production is assumed to belong automatically to the “hive mind.” His primary offender is YouTube, a site which makes it very easy to share videos, many of which are mashups of copyrighted content used without permission, that are freely viewable by anyone with an Internet connection.

Of course, Google does not operate YouTube just for the benefit of humanity. The economic model of free culture rests upon the familiar foundation of advertising, and those content creators who build the largest audiences often get a small share of the spoils. But if most content creators receive nothing for their work, what motivates them to contribute? Lanier thinks that it is ultimately about self-promotion:

The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising (83).

Lanier goes on to argue that this self-promotion is sometimes getting rewarded by old-style media: take for example the blogger who builds a large-enough audience to get a book contract, which then turns into a movie deal (e.g., Juno; Julie & Julia). These artists receive significant compensation for their work, but that compensation doesn’t come from the web 2.0 crowd–it comes from those of us who still buy books and pay to watch movies.

Lanier’s concern is that as soon as these old-style media are subsumed by the web 2.0 free culture, there will no longer be an incentive for artists to produce anything that takes significant time or effort. If a spontaneous video of a cute cat can receive millions of views, why go through the trouble to write a new story and produce a well-done film? Why spend time writing a new song when a mashup of old material, or an illegal copy of an old music video, becomes an instant hit?

Lanier ends this train of thought by wondering if artists of the future, like the great artists of the Renaissance, will be forced to find patrons in order to survive. If that happens, he reasons, art will become a handmaiden to institutions that will suppress the more daring and critical works.

I think Lanier has a legitimate concern about copyright in the digital era, but I think he is also making a mistake that is very common amongst futurists: he is assuming that the future will be a linear extrapolation of present trends. That is to say, he is assuming that the social order of the future will be much like that of the present, only more extreme.

I disagree with Lanier in that I see our current situation as a transitional one. We are in the process of working out a new economic model that is appropriate for a digital age, and it is highly unlikely that the model we eventually arrive at will bear much resemblance to the transitionary model we know now.

File:Copyright.svgThe adoption of digital computers and telecommunication networks most certainly challenged our traditional techniques for enforcing copyright. Although it was always possible to copy a record to a cassette tape and give it to your friend, the physicality of the medium and the loss of quality during copying tended to limit the extent to which this posed a serious threat to copyright. Now that one can rip a CD into a digital file, with very little noticeable loss of quality, and send it to millions of people around the world in a few seconds, artists (and their distributors) are scrambling to develop a new model where they can get their art out to the largest possible audience, but still also make some money from it.

There are several different models being tested now, and it is probably too early to tell which one might succeed, or if the model of the future will be something completely different. The iTunes store and CD Baby are two interesting models that so far have seemed to be successful. These systems allow both signed and independent musicians to sell their songs to a wide audience, and that audience seems to be very willing to pay for them. Both systems take a substantial cut of the revenues, and each no doubt hopes to cement itself at the center of all economic/artistic exchange.

But the future is not yet written, and I would not be surprised to see iTunes toppled by another network setup by artists, for artists. Digital technologies have made obsolete most of what record producers and distributors do, so a model like iTunes, that simply replaces those entities with a new one, need not be the final solution. New technologies always enable social change, but often the final extent of that change is beyond our current imaginations.

But to give Lanier credit where credit is due, here’s a video of a cat “playing” piano that has been viewed over 21 million times! Will this be the standard of “art” in the future? I certainly hope not.