January 15, 2010

Is the wisdom of the crowd being pushed aside by the meanness of the mob?

A new book is making waves by challenging the idea that open-source is a positive force for good. It looks like becoming one of this year’s most talked about “manifestos” and like last year’s ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price’, ‘You Are Not a Gadget’ is also penned by an ex-Wired journo.

The book’s writer Jaron Lanier wonders if the web’s structure and ideology is nurturing nasty group dynamics and uninspiring, derivative collaborations.

He rallies against the way we celebrate open-source software, free information and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.

Lanier blames the web’s tradition of “drive-by anonymity” for fostering a vicious pack behaviour on blogs, forums and social networks.

Although Lanier gives credit to examples of collaborative achievement such as Wikipedia, he argues that the idea that “information wants to be free” has produced a destructive new social force.

“Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising,” he writes.

Lanier is not alone. Quite a few people have questioned the wisdom of web 2.0, and we’ve made our own noises about the troll phenomenon, which some think is becoming more prevalent.

Lanier also takes issues with digital theft, whether it’s music downloading or newspaper articles. He describes a world in which “digital peasants” provide free content for “lords of the clouds” such as Google and YouTube.

In the self-described “mainfesto”, Lanier takes his thesis to its logical end by proposing a complete rethink of the web’s ideology and the introduction of a universal system of micro payments. Music to the ears of Rupert Murdoch.

Still, Lanier’s idea for a new online system is arguably not as severe as some of the ideas being mooted in the UK, which could see those caught in the act of illegal downloading having their broadband access cut off.

It’s difficult to see Lanier’s proposal gaining any traction, when it appears that the train has already left the station so to speak. How do you treat an illegal downloader like a house burglar when the burglars vastly out number the house owners because there are a lot more consumers of digital content than producers of it.

It’s like trying to stop a mob of looters in the midst of a riot. When the majority of people feel that it’s their firmly entrenched right to take or repurpose someone else’s content, who is going to stand in their way?

Elsewhere, here’s College Humor’s take on the internet troll … “out of his parents’ basement, into your fairy tales”.