Humans as Selfish Equations

In an article at The Register, William Davies questions the economics of the Web 2.0.  Some  excerpts:

Of course many-to-many communication precedes even the internet we
know today. Email mailing lists and message boards were features of the
first Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and migrated to the internet. They
are both examples of individuals grouping together in a self-organising

What has changed is that these otherwise secluded and organic realms
of social interaction are now the focus of obsessive technological
innovation and commercial interest. The same technological zeal and
business acumen that once was applied to improving the way we buy a
book or pay our car tax is now being applied to the way we engage in
social and cultural activities with others.

In short, efficiency gains are no longer being sought only in
economic realms such as retail or public services, but are now being
pursued in parts of our everyday lives where previously they hadn’t
even been imagined. Web 2.0 promises to offer us ways of improving
the processes by which we find new music, new friends, or new civic
causes. The hassle of undesirable content or people is easier to cut
out. We have become consumers of our own social and cultural lives.


Undoubtedly there are instances where we do want our social
lives to be more efficient. Organising a party can be time-consuming
and tedious, and the fact that Facebook now makes this vastly easier is
scarcely going to harm the atmosphere of the party.

But we should worry about this psychology seeping too far into our
lives. What if there were an application that could make it easier to
pass on my love to a family-member? What if I no longer needed to read
books in order to cite them, but could search the quotes other people
had extracted from them?

The irony is that Web 2.0 has been heralded as the dawn of a new era
of community and togetherness. Through the financial eyes of a venture
capitalist, this may appear to be true. For the rest of us, what this
means is that community is now available to manipulate, choose and

Link: The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 (The Register),

via Putting People First.

William Davies has a blog: Potlatch.

I have ventured onto the social web sites a little (if you search hard you may find me, and I welcome your befriendsterness or whatever the kids call it), though few of these sites work for me because I’m just not very social.  I have, however, recently become enamored of LibraryThing because I’m good at collecting and befriending books (my profile).

The YouTube Debates

Jon Stewart had a good bit on Tuesday’s Daily Show about the silliness of last week’s YouTube debate by the Democratic candidates.  Watch the video here

Elsewhere, Jeff Jarvis expresses his disappointment that CNN chose the questions: "CNN selected too many obvious, dutiful, silly questions. […] The candidates gave us the same answers they always give." (BuzzMachine).

Jose Antonio Vargas at the Washington Post (July 23, July 29) and Andy Carvin at cover the digital divide angle — what about the millions of American citizens who can’t post to YouTube?  How is this more democratic again?

Valleywag tells us the perks Google served up for the press.

More at Google Blogoscoped.

David Shenk on Ten Years of Data Smog

Ten years ago David Shenk published Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut Revised and Updated Edition.  In a new article at Slate he looks at how well his arguments hold up today.  Excerpt:

[W]hile doing research in Washington into public political knowledge,
I started to realize that our postindustrial society was in the midst
of a true phase shift—from information scarcity to information glut.
Even for a culture with a basic faith in human progress and technology,
such a transformation clearly presented serious personal and political
challenges. In Data Smog, I tried to suss out the most
glaring potholes and suggest a few useful detours. "Something marvelous
has been happening to humankind," I wrote in the book’s preface.
"Information is moving faster and becoming more plentiful, and people
everywhere are benefiting from this change. But there’s a surprising
postscript to this story. When it comes to information, it turns out
that one can have too much of a good thing."

Rereading the book
10 years later has been gratifying and humbling. A number of its ideas
are, I think, more relevant than ever, while other passages come off as
exaggerated or shortsighted. The premise still holds, and thankfully no
longer requires much convincing: In our work, home, and social lives,
we are saturated with data and stimulus. While our grandparents were
limited by access to information and speed of communication, we are
restricted largely by our ability to wade through it all. As with
calories, we must work constantly to whittle down, prioritize, and pick
out the choice nutritional bits. If we don’t monitor our information
diets carefully, our cerebral lives quickly become bloated. Attention
gets diverted (sometimes dangerously so);
conversations and trains-of-thought interrupted; skepticism
short-circuited; stillness and silence all but eliminated. Probably the
greatest overall threat is that so many potentially meaningful
experiences can easily be supplanted by merely thrilling experiences.

Link: Was I right about the dangers of the Internet in 1997?

Siva Vaidhyanathan on The Googlization of Everything

That’s apparently the title of forthcoming book by Siva Vaidhyanathan, and also of a recent talk.  Here are some notes by Michael at Masters of Media:

Siva’s starting point is that Google is part of our lives, and
we talk about in a way that resembles the way we would talk about the
Divine. Ultimately, we say, “It is a force for good.” As per the Book
of Sergey and Larry, “Don’t be evil”. And in Siva’s words, the path to
heaven seems lined by small, personalized advertisements. In the world
of Google, moral problems are merely unsolved technological ones. But
Google – the search engine – is a black box, and perhaps this is why we
mere mortals must become believers.

Google has divine aims, too. Universal access to all of the
world’s information? Sergey says, “It would be like the Mind of God”.
(Read on and discuss below..)

New Network TheorySiva goes on to discuss the theology of the
network via the theology of Google. His interests are broad, from the
way the world looks through Google’s eyes, to the political and legal
implications of the various precedents Google is (or will be) setting.
The issues are multifarious – from the purchase of Double Click to the
Viacom-Youtube lawsuit – and the of much speculation throughout the
business, legal and politcal spheres.

All the while, Siva says, Google must keep its image – its halo
– and so far it has.. Google demands loyalty. In return it offers the
illusion of democracy, precision and objectivity.

Link: SIVACRACY.NET: Nieuw Network Theory in Amsterdam,
via Infothought.

Cult of the Muggles

I have successfully avoided an iPhone post, but, alas, I am unable to resist a Harry Potter post.

Over at BoingBoing Cory Doctorow is trumpeting the recent pirating and posting of the new Harry Potter book: Last Harry Potter Leaks Online.  There are two things I find amusing about his post: 

1) Cory links to the book at Amazon using his associates ID (link)!  So what’s the message here?  Get the book for free, but if you must buy a hardcopy then kick in a few percent for me?

2) He makes a little spoiler joke: "Who dies? The publishing industry."  Ha.  No-one should feel bad for Bloomsbury/Scholastic (they’ll still do just fine), and I know Cory is trying to be funny, but the implication seems to be that publishers are useless and ought to be done away with.  Is this really how he thinks?  Cory and others in the "free culture" crowd seem to have a very simplistic idea of culture — that it just magically happens without the need for intermediaries like professional publishers, and that somehow people will be able to earn a living doing it for free.  I haven’t yet read a convincing argument for how this might actually work (though Chris Anderson claims he will explain it all in his next book, Free.)

This brings me back to Andrew Keen and his book, The Cult of the Amateur.  I’ve mentioned the book before, but I’ve actually read it now, so I’ll offer some amateur thoughts.  Keen does a great job pointing out the fallacies in a lot of this silly talk about Web 2.0, free culture, the wisdom of crowds, and Time’s "You".  The book is a polemic aimed at a popular business audience, so you won’t find any deep analysis here — much of the argument is based on anecdote, newspaper articles and common sense.  (There are undoubtedly many smart graduate students working on more rigorous studies, for which we might have to wait a little longer.)  For what it is, though, Keen’s book is great — well-written, enjoyable, stimulating.  My only quibble is with later chapters, where he loses focus and veers off into rants against internet gambling and pornography.  Those topics are worthy of criticism, but seem like they would fit better in a different book.

See also: New York Times: New Potter Book May Have Made its Way to the Web.

p.s. I haven’t read the Harry Potter books so I’m not sure if I’m using the term "muggles" in any sensible way… I just thought it sounded funny.

Countering Nuclear Power Propaganda

Rebecca Solnit has an excellent article in Orion on why nuclear power is most definitely not the solution to global warming, despite the positive spin you’ve probably been hearing.  She begins:

Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit
next to someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power
is the solution to climate change. What will you tell them? There’s so
much to say. You could be sitting next to someone who hasn’t really
considered the evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to scientist
and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for
Nuclear Energy™
, which quotes him saying, “We have no time to
experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent
danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available, energy
source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged

If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half
the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out
anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be
split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of experimental.
Neither is solar, which is already widely used. Nor are nukes safe, and
they take far too long to build to be considered readily available. Yet
Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog
fame, has jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace
founding member turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.

Read the rest: Reasons Not To Glow.

Risks of Ethnic-Specific Weapons

Barry Kellman has an op-ed on this topic in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Excerpts:

For $1,000, you soon will be able to purchase the text of your own DNA  —
the unique sequence of your genetic inheritance. You can get the information,
that is, unless you’re Russian. President Vladimir Putin has just announced a
ban on the export of all human medical biological materials. He is worried that
his citizens’ genetic data could enable Western scientists to make
ethnic-specific biological weapons for use against Russians.

[…] It is important to stress that there does not now appear to be any
independent confirmation of Putin’s fears.
[…] If anyone actually decided
to make an ethnic-specific weapon, are there laws in place to prevent a
catastrophe? Are there controls to ensure that information about
ethnic-specific genetic traits is kept away from terrorist organizations? The
answer must be an emphatic no.   

Today, there is too much that is unknown about bioscience. We do not know
where every well-equipped laboratory is, and we have inadequate systems for
tracking the movement of pathogens and equipment. There are grossly deficient
capabilities for putting information together to give law enforcers the best
chance to stop evil applications of emerging techniques. In many parts of the
world, a terrorist or criminal group could prepare bioweapons without
substantial risk of detection and could inflict unimaginable damage against
unprotected populations.

Link: The potential dark side of genetics.

Kellman has a book on this topic due out in August: Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime.

NYT Gives Usability Professionals Some Love

The New York Times profiles usability professionals, who are increasingly in demand, though not yet as cool as librarians (see previous post).  Excerpt:

Sometimes there is a huge disconnect between the people who make a
product and the people who use it. The creator of a Web site may assume
too much knowledge on the part of users, leading to confusion. Software
designers may not anticipate user behavior that can unintentionally
destroy an entire database. Manufacturers can make equipment that
inadvertently increases the likelihood of repetitive stress injuries.

Enter the usability professional, whose work has recently developed
into a solid career track, driven mostly by advancements in technology.

Jobs in the usability industry are varied, as are the
backgrounds of the people who hold them. The work can involve testing
products in a laboratory, watching people use products in the field or
developing testing methods.

Link: Technology’s Untanglers: They Make it Really Work.

Librarians 2.0

Librarians are now hip!  The New York Times tells us why:

How did such a nerdy profession become cool — aside from the fact
that a certain amount of nerdiness is now cool? Many young librarians
and library professors said that the work is no longer just about books
but also about organizing and connecting people with information,
including music and movies.


Jessamyn West, 38, an editor of “Revolting Librarians
Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out” a book that promotes social
responsibility in librarianship, and the librarian behind the Web site
(its tagline is “putting the rarin’ back in librarian since 1999”)
agreed that many new librarians are attracted to what they call the
“Library 2.0” phenomenon. “It’s become a techie profession,” she said.

a typical day, Ms. West might send instant and e-mail messages to
patrons, many of who do their research online rather than in the
library. She might also check Twitter, MySpace
and other social networking sites, post to her various blogs and keep
current through MetaFilter and RSS feeds. Some librarians also create
Wikis or podcasts.

Link: A Hipper Crowd of Shushers.

The article is mostly a fluff piece for the fashion section of the paper, but still it would have been nice if they’d dug a little deeper and interviewed someone with a slightly more traditional perspective like Rory Litwin of Library Juice.  I’m sure these hipster librarians are not as shallow as the article implies.  I think a lot of people are still attracted to the profession first and foremost because they love books (and that’s always cool).

Image: Questionable Content.

Update: check out the discussion about the NYT article over at Library Juice (and elsewhere if you google it).