nicholas carr on "the amorality of web 2.0" 10.17.2005, 9:00 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Nicholas Carr, who writes about business and technology and formerly was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, has published an interesting though problematic piece on "the amorality of web 2.0". I was drawn to the piece because it seemed to be questioning the giddy optimism surrounding "web 2.0", specifically Kevin Kelly's rapturous late-summer retrospective on ten years of the world wide web, from Netscape IPO to now. While he does poke some much-needed holes in the carnival floats, Carr fails to adequately address the new media practices on their own terms and ends up bashing Wikipedia with some highly selective quotes.
Carr is skeptical that the collectivist paradigms of the web can lead to the creation of high-quality, authoritative work (encyclopedias, journalism etc.). Forced to choose, he'd take the professionals over the amateurs. But put this way it's a Hobson's choice. Flawed as it is, Wikipedia is in its infancy and is probably not going away. Whereas the future of Britannica is less sure. And it's not just amateurs that are participating in new forms of discourse (take as an example the new law faculty blog at U. Chicago). Anyway, here's Carr:
The Internet is changing the economics of creative work - or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture - and it's doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it's created by amateurs rather than professionals, it's free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we've recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can't imagine anything more frightening.
He then has a nice follow-up in which he republishes a letter from an administrator at Wikipedia, which responds to the above.
Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing work. It's of consistent high quality, it's one of the great books in the English language and it's doomed. Brilliant but pricey has difficulty competing economically with free and apparently adequate....
...So if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it's going to have to be a good Wikipedia. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won't be anything.
Posted by ben vershbow on October 17, 2005 9:00 AM
tags: Libraries, Search and the Web, OS, Online, Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press, Social Software, Web2.0, amateur, blog, blogging, blogs, book, books, britannica, collective, encyclopedia, encyclopedia_britannica, internet, journalism, mainstream_media, media, msm, open_content, open_source, publishing, web, web_2.0, wiki, wikipedia
bob stein on October 17, 2005 11:07 AM:
frankly, when you peel away the senstive "gee i'm just concerned about our future" strokes, all you've got here is one more apologist for the status quo and his job in particular.
particularly grating is the dishonesty of the piece which introduces a quote from the Wikipedia: "Here's Wikipedia on Jane Fonda's life, again excerpted verbatim: . . ." well i went to the Wikipedia and it turns out the quote is from a section entitled "early years" not Jane Fonda's Life. the actual Wikipedia entry on Fonda is quite extensive far outstripping the pathetic Brittanica entry which i quote in full:
"Jane Seymour Fonda American motion-picture actress who was also noted for her political activism. The daughter of actor Henry Fonda, she left Vassar College after two years and lived in New York City. She studied acting under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio there in 1958 and worked as a model. Her acting career began with appearances in the Broadway play There Was a Little Girl (1960) and the motion picture Tall Story (1960), and she went on to appear in comic roles in numerous films in the 1960s, including Cat Ballou (1965) and Barefoot In the Park (1967). Her subsequent, more substantial roles were in such socially conscious films as They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), Klute (1971), Coming Home (1978), and The China Syndrome (1979). She received Academy Awards for best actress for her performances in Klute and Coming Home. She costarred with her father in the film On Golden Pond (1981). In the 1970s and '80s Fonda was active on behalf of left-wing political causes. She was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War who journeyed to Hanoi in 1972 to denounce the U.S. bombing campaigns there. In the 1980s she devised a popular exercise program for women while continuing to appear in motion pictures. She was married three times, to the French film director Roger Vadim, to the American politician Tom Hayden, and to the American broadcasting entrepreneur Ted Turner."
be honest, in this case, which would you rather have, "the amateur" or "the professional" version. i don't mean to mindlessly promote the wonders of collaborative effort but i don't think it helps to make such a lame case for professionalism.
one more point . . . i'm not a big fan of kelley's rapturous presentation, but his basic point, that we're inventing the future and we really should do as good a job as possible seems spot-on to me.
derikb on October 17, 2005 1:51 PM:
"So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die."
Now that is funny.
I could be wrong, but I think most encyclopedia articles are written by academics for the sole purpose of having publications so they can get tenure. (Ok, I'm exaggerating a little.)
Bud Parr on October 17, 2005 5:18 PM:
I think wither and dye is wrong, I think it's adapt or die, in the same way that humans and their "amoral" counterparts, organizations always have. We're not talking about buggy-whips, we're talking about knowledge.
First, there's an entire segment of the population that will never get the contributive concept, although at some point the source will be an artifact as Wikipedia itself becomes a brand name (still far from it even though it would seem otherwise to those of us closer to it).
Yeah, his comparison is bad with the Fonda thing, but the truth is, users don't think about who wrote the article at Britannica, they trust the publisher and given the choice of one source, will take credibility (such as it is) over depth. Also, most consumers are distrustful of "free" and will place an unexplainable value on "pay," (something like a Veblen effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good ) so the important thing is if the publishers of pay-encylopedias are so myopic that they can't see what's happening.
My guess is they can and the question is what to do and whether or not their adaptation is mere window dressing such as it probably is now. What if there were a controlled WikiBritannicapedia with only expert contributors (hey, there are lot of academics on the Web -this is something like Carr said about figuring how to make WikiPedia better - how about something like the OED with editors but anyone can submit sources for the editors to use to create a rich, diverse and authoritative source) - and some level of graphical depth that is worth paying for. WikiPedia's ultimate problem in my eyes is that, unlike a blog, for instance, there's no way to judge the credibility of the writer because they're just a mass.
Arguably, Microsoft, for instance, could corral a great deal of resources toward building a great product like WikiBritannicapedia, but they are past changing the world and are only concerned with commercial domination. If they can make a profitable encylopedia, which doesn't have to be the best or biggest selling, they have no incentive to do more - there's the commercial issue that amateurs can fill in the blanks.
Lastly, Kelly makes the oft-heard argument that everyone will write a book, cut a record, etc, but I think that it's too simple to just extrapolate the numbers. The fact is that everyone will have the knowledge of what it's like to write a book or cut a song, but not everyone will do it because taste and sadly, commercial interests will ultimately determine who can. But now I'm rambling.
virginia kuhn on October 19, 2005 3:25 AM:
While I applaud the sort of critical engagement with collaborative efforts on the web that Carr exhibits--particularly when approaching Kevin Kelly's hype--I also notice the ways in which he simply misses the boat (on its digital) stream in many ways. The "factoids" to which he refers, those abominations that pepper Wikipedia entries (cf Bill Gates entry), only bring into relief the need for skepticism when evaluating any and all sources. My goddess, haven't we learned that the experts, those who wrote traditional history books, for example, told only half (or even one tenth) of the story? If online "amateurism" reminds us that knowledge is socially constructed, that the job of a knowledge-seeker is to marshal resources, ferret out their bias and gauge the quality and credibility of the information contained within, then bring on the "incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids." Frankly this makes life far easier for me when I ask students to contemplate the Bush administration's doublespeak or have them really read the declaration of independence (which they often believe promised equity for all humans).
Carr's last paragraph which proclaims "Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It's a set of technologies - a machine, not a Machine - that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption" seems simply wrong-headed. People create technologies and none of them are neutral or inevitable. Technologies don't simply emerge with no (human) intentionality and so to grant them the status of amorality on the one hand (which suggests they are not ideologically loaded) and then to imbue them with the power to "alter the forms and economics of production and consumption" on the other (suggesting they are inherently powerful), is just ludicrous. Someone is driving the machine after all.
As for Carr's contention that "we" have lost our objectivity about the web, I can only counter that as a feminist, I've never felt I had the luxury of approaching any expert words from anything but a subjective standpoint. If my role is to sift through the many and disparate voices, some more articulate than others, rather than simply swallowing the pearls of wisdom handed down from on high, well, I'm up to the job. Instead of fearing the machine, I'd rather spend my time on careful evaluation of all words that claim to speak The Truth.
dan visel on October 21, 2005 5:10 PM:
Virginia, I think this makes sense: the feminist critique works for me. What I worry about, however, is that we're tearing down the old hierarchies and leaving a vacuum in their wake. While you & I can look at Fox News (for example) critically and notice what's being manipulated, I don't know that the general public does: they look at Fox News and see the news. Part of the problem is that there hasn't really been an effort to educate the general public (as a whole) in this sort of critical viewing.
The problem with this sort of vacuum, I think, is that capitalism tends to swoop in, simply because there are more resources on that side. Were Rupert Murdoch & I to decide at the same time that we wanted to start up a website to influence people, he'd almost certainly attract more attention because he has more cash to attract attention.
I'm not entirely sure if the world of knowledge functions analogously, but Wikipedia does presume the same sort of tabula rasa. The world's not flat: it tilts precariously if you've got the cash. There's something in the back of my mind that suspects that Wikipedia's not protected against this - it's kind of in the state right now that the Web as a whole was in 1995 before the corporate world had discovered it. If Wikipedia follows the model of the web, capitalism will be sweeping in shortly.
A report came out a couple weeks ago suggesting that the Times Literary Supplement might be killed off because it's not making any money. The TLS is very much an old-world hierarchical structure of knowledge - it sets out to review all the "important" books that come out every week. It's aimed more at those who would fancy themselves as being well-educated than something like Kirkus or Library Journal which are aimed at libraries or booksellers. Nor is it really a venue for essays like the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books. It's really attempting to organize the world's new knowledge.
It worries me that it would be going away because it's no longer profitable. While I don't agree with the top-down hierarchy of what's important, it does seem like it's performing a valuable function simply by judging books by virtue of something other than how much money they're going to be making. With rare exceptions, books aren't going to be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (or most other American book reviews) unless they're going to be making the publishers a lot of money. This is a problem for the world of ideas.
I bring this up because while I certainly agree that top-down knowledge repositories are dangerous, I do worry that the market-based alternative might be just as dangerous, if not more so.