The amorality of Web 2.0

From the start, the World Wide Web has been a vessel of quasi-religious longing. And why not? For those seeking to transcend the physical world, the Web presents a readymade Promised Land. On the Internet, we’re all bodiless, symbols speaking to symbols in symbols. The early texts of Web metaphysics, many written by thinkers associated with or influenced by the post-60s New Age movement, are rich with a sense of impending spiritual release; they describe the passage into the cyber world as a process of personal and communal unshackling, a journey that frees us from traditional constraints on our intelligence, our communities, our meager physical selves. We become free-floating netizens in a more enlightened, almost angelic, realm.

But as the Web matured during the late 1990s, the dreams of a digital awakening went unfulfilled. The Net turned out to be more about commerce than consciousness, more a mall than a commune. And when the new millenium arrived, it brought not a new age but a dispiritingly commonplace popping of a bubble of earthly greed. Somewhere along the way, the moneychangers had taken over the temple. The Internet had transformed many things, but it had not transformed us. We were the same as ever.

The New New Age

But the yearning for a higher consciousness didn’t burst with the bubble. Web 1.0 may have turned out to be spiritual vaporware, but now we have the hyper-hyped upgrade: Web 2.0. In a profile of Internet savant Tim O’Reilly in the current issue of Wired, Steven Levy writes that “the idea of collective consciousness is becoming manifest in the Internet.” He quotes O’Reilly: “The Internet today is so much an echo of what we were talking about at [New Age HQ] Esalen in the ’70s – except we didn’t know it would be technology-mediated.” Levy then asks, “Could it be that the Internet – or what O’Reilly calls Web 2.0 – is really the successor to the human potential movement?”

Levy’s article appears in the afterglow of Kevin Kelly’s sweeping “We Are the Web” in Wired’s August issue. Kelly, erstwhile prophet of the Long Boom, surveys the development of the World Wide Web, from the Netscape IPO ten years ago, and concludes that it has become a “magic window” that provides a “spookily godlike” perspective on existence. “I doubt angels have a better view of humanity,” he writes.

But that’s only the beginning. In the future, according to Kelly, the Web will grant us not only the vision of gods but also their power. The Web is becoming “the OS for a megacomputer that encompasses the Internet, all its services, all peripheral chips and affiliated devices from scanners to satellites, and the billions of human minds entangled in this global network. This gargantuan Machine already exists in a primitive form. In the coming decade, it will evolve into an integral extension not only of our senses and bodies but our minds … We will live inside this thing.”

The revelation continues:

There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.

You and I are alive at this moment.

We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don’t. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

This isn’t the language of exposition. It’s the language of rapture.

The Cult of the Amateur

Now, lest you dismiss me as a mere cynic, if not a fallen angel, let me make clear that I’m all for seeking transcendence, whether it’s by going to church or living in a hut in the woods or sitting at the feet of the Maharishi or gazing into the glittering pixels of an LCD screen. One gathers one’s manna where one finds it. And if there’s a higher consciousness to be found, then by all means let’s get elevated. My problem is this: When we view the Web in religious terms, when we imbue it with our personal yearning for transcendence, we can no longer see it objectively. By necessity, we have to look at the Internet as a moral force, not as a simple collection of inanimate hardware and software. No decent person wants to worship an amoral conglomeration of technology.

And so all the things that Web 2.0 represents – participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism – become unarguably good things, things to be nurtured and applauded, emblems of progress toward a more enlightened state. But is it really so? Is there a counterargument to be made? Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good? To see Web 2.0 as a moral force is to turn a deaf ear to such questions.

Let me bring the discussion down to a brass tack. If you read anything about Web 2.0, you’ll inevitably find praise heaped upon Wikipedia as a glorious manifestation of “the age of participation.” Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia; anyone who wants to contribute can add an entry or edit an existing one. O’Reilly, in a new essay on Web 2.0, says that Wikipedia marks “a profound change in the dynamics of content creation” – a leap beyond the Web 1.0 model of Britannica Online. To Kevin Kelly, Wikipedia shows how the Web is allowing us to pool our individual brains into a great collective mind. It’s a harbinger of the Machine.

In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing – it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness. In reality, though, Wikipedia isn’t very good at all. Certainly, it’s useful – I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it’s unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper.

Take, for instance, this section from Wikipedia’s biography of Bill Gates, excerpted verbatim:

Gates married Melinda French on January 1, 1994. They have three children, Jennifer Katharine Gates (born April 26, 1996), Rory John Gates (born May 23, 1999) and Phoebe Adele Gates (born September 14, 2002).

In 1994, Gates acquired the Codex Leicester, a collection of writings by Leonardo da Vinci; as of 2003 it was on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

In 1997, Gates was the victim of a bizarre extortion plot by Chicago resident Adam Quinn Pletcher. Gates testified at the subsequent trial. Pletcher was convicted and sentenced in July 1998 to six years in prison. In February 1998 Gates was attacked by Noël Godin with a cream pie. In July 2005, he solicited the services of famed lawyer Hesham Foda.

According to Forbes, Gates contributed money to the 2004 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Gates is cited as having contributed at least $33,335 to over 50 political campaigns during the 2004 election cycle.

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but this is garbage, an incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids (who the heck is “famed lawyer Hesham Foda”?) that adds up to something far less than the sum of its parts.

Here’s Wikipedia on Jane Fonda’s life, again excerpted verbatim:

Her nickname as a youth—Lady Jane—was one she reportedly disliked. She traveled to Communist Russia in 1964 and was impressed by the people, who welcomed her warmly as Henry’s daughter. In the mid-1960s she bought a farm outside of Paris, had it renovated and personally started a garden. She visited Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1966. About her 1971 Oscar win, her father Henry said: “How in hell would you like to have been in this business as long as I and have one of your kids win an Oscar before you do?” Jane was on the cover of Life magazine, March 29, 1968.

While early she had grown both distant from and critical of her father for much of her young life, in 1980, she bought the play “On Golden Pond” for the purpose of acting alongside her father—hoping he might win the Oscar that had eluded him throughout his career. He won, and when she accepted the Oscar on his behalf, she said it was “the happiest night of my life.” Director and first husband Roger Vadim once said about her: “Living with Jane was difficult in the beginning … she had so many, how do you say, ‘bachelor habits.’ Too much organization. Time is her enemy. She cannot relax. Always there is something to do.” Vadim also said, “There is also in Jane a basic wish to carry things to the limit.”

This is worse than bad, and it is, unfortunately, representative of the slipshod quality of much of Wikipedia. Remember, this emanation of collective intelligence is not just a couple of months old. It’s been around for nearly five years and has been worked over by many thousands of diligent contributors. At this point, it seems fair to ask exactly when the intelligence in “collective intelligence” will begin to manifest itself. When will the great Wikipedia get good? Or is “good” an old-fashioned concept that doesn’t apply to emergent phenomena like communal on-line encyclopedias?

The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call “the mainstream media.” Here’s O’Reilly: “While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole. This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls ‘we, the media,’ a world in which ‘the former audience,’ not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important.”

I’m all for blogs and blogging. (I’m writing this, ain’t I?) But I’m not blind to the limitations and the flaws of the blogosphere – its superficiality, its emphasis on opinion over reporting, its echolalia, its tendency to reinforce rather than challenge ideological extremism and segregation. Now, all the same criticisms can (and should) be hurled at segments of the mainstream media. And yet, at its best, the mainstream media is able to do things that are different from – and, yes, more important than – what bloggers can do. Those despised “people in a back room” can fund in-depth reporting and research. They can underwrite projects that can take months or years to reach fruition – or that may fail altogether. They can hire and pay talented people who would not be able to survive as sole proprietors on the Internet. They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work. They can place, with equal weight, opposing ideologies on the same page. Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs.

But I don’t want to be forced to make that choice.

Scary Economics

And so, having gone on for so long, I at long last come to my point. 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.

In “We Are the Web,” Kelly writes that “because of the ease of creation and dissemination, online culture is the culture.” I hope he’s wrong, but I fear he’s right – or will come to be right.

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. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn’t care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn’t care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn’t care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let’s can the millenialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.

193 thoughts on “The amorality of Web 2.0

  1. John Gauntt

    If you think about it, those who would infuse some designed progress toward perfection in Web 2.0 of TCP/IP have something in common with the Dover, PA school board who want to legislate positive design and purpose in the much older web of DNA/RNA. I agree that the web is amoral. And I believe that is its virtue.

  2. ordaj

    “They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work.”

    This is one of the main problems with software today, free or proprietary. A lot of it gets slapped together and rushed to release, ridden with bugs, quality issues, and don’t even get me started on usability issues.

    Where’s the fire?

  3. Wayne

    “I agree that the web is amoral. And I believe that is its virtue.”

    Here. Here.

    This process will claim some of the “unsung protectors” as it were, some of whom deserve better. When, really, has it ever been different?

    But in its amorality, this medium will also uncover that person who, BUT FOR the right credentials, might have contributed mightily with his or her ideas to the betterment of us all. It’s as close to color blind as society gets.

    The point is not found in all the drek. It’s finding the jewel in the trash.

  4. Sam Hiser

    A superb post by Nick!

    ‘Echolalia’ — there’s a lookup word. I used Dictionary.com.

    Moral or otherwise, the Web 1 or 2 or whathaveyou is nice. I learn from it. I add to it. But I agree that it’s as dangerous, stupid, sad or coherent as one wants it to be.

    Kelly is a fuzz-brain. Tim is not.

  5. Shouvik

    Open Source and Wikipedia are not the same. And faith in open source does not mean shunning the professional for the ameture. How does Nick explain the high quality of Apache Web Server and the robustness of PHP ? Wikipedia is a mess, I agree, that is due to its own model.

    Let me talk something else here. Skill and professions are not something that existed just because the Web (1.0, 2.0 or X.X) was not there. Skills and professions were not something that will cease to exist when Web is ubiquitous. The Human Race found that there are a class of people that can do a set of jobs better than the rest, or, are choosen to specialize on a job. That is the reason why some people became the carpenter, some soldier and some priests. If the job performed by specialists becomes too easy, that specialization goes away. Economics is exactly proportional to the need of specialization.

    Web does not make people expert content creator. This specialization will be there and people will get paid for it. People will not go for a Fairy Tale Wikipedia and will always go for Harry Potter.

    Layoffs in the media houses may be explained as shrinking necessesity for average content creators. Quality will always be rewarded economically.

  6. Nick

    Shouvik, I didn’t mean to imply (and I’m sorry if I did) that open source software is of poor quality. (I’ve written often of the critical importance of open source to the future of IT.) I was simply saying that the veneration of open source efforts, often at the expense of traditional for-pay software development, is one manifestation of the cult of the amateur.

    As for your claim that “quality will always be rewarded economically,” I think you’re being much too complacent.

  7. Open Resource

    Asay: ‘The Amorality of Web 2.0’ (Nick Carr)

    It’s so hard to find intelligent contrarians these days. I experienced that firsthand today and yesterday at LinuxWorld UK, where you were cheered for saying inane but popular things like, “My dream is to bless the world with Linux desktops…

  8. Dharmesh Shah

    It is always interesting to read exceptionally well-crafted content — especially when you don’t totally agree (or disagree) with the point of view of the author.

    I am on a team of graduate students at MIT that are looking at the “business side of Web 2.0”. As such, we are trying to determine if there really is a “there there”. Jury is still out…but at some level, its starting to feel like the 1990s again…

  9. David Gerard

    Everything you’ve written here is a valid opinion, and commercial encyclopedias are doomed anyway because (as Microsoft is finding out with Linux) it’s hard to compete with free. (I eagerly await EB putting out TCO studies on Wikipedia.)

    Speaking as someone who’s highly involved in it (I write stuff, I’m an administrator, I’m on the Arbitration Committee, I’m a mailing list moderator, I do media interviews), Wikipedia is of mediocre quality with some really good bits. If you hit the “Random page” link twenty times, you’ll end up mostly with sketchy three-paragraph stub articles.

    That said, the good bits are fantastic. Although articles good enough to make “Featured Article” status (which are indeed excellent) tend to be hideously esoteric; somehow getting more general articles up to that sort of quality is not facilitated at present.

    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 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worse_is_better – this story plays out over and over again in the computing field and is the essence of “disruptive technology”). They could release the entire EB under an open content license, but they have shareholders who might want a word about that.

    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.

    I’ve made some efforts in this direction – pushing toward a page-rating feature, a “Rate this page” tab at the top, which, unlike an editorial committee, will actually scale with the contributor base and will highlight areas in need of attention. (See http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Article_validation_feature and http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/En_validation_topics – the feature is currently waiting on an implementati, on the lead developer thinks won’t kill the database.) Recent discussion on the WikiEN-L mailing list has also included proposals for a scaleable article rating system.

    Wikipedia is likely to be it by first-mover advantage and network effect. Think about what you can do to ensure there is a good encyclopedia in ten years.

  10. Merovingian

    This is a very interesting piece. I think that your main point — that the Internet is not what it has been hailed or condemned as — is very true.

    I only wonder where the Web is headed. Perhaps it can only be as perfect as its creators.

  11. venkat

    When you subscribe to any blog you know what you are getting into. Generally blogs are opinionated and spilled with facts here and there. You do your own DD before coming to any conclusion. Only when professionals start misrepresenting infomation it becames unethical. The case in point is fox news article on opendocument file formats where it raps Massachusetts official. During the initial release of the article it conveniently failed to disclose it was sponsored by microsoft. Cases like this lead people to cheer for Opensource at the expense of Proprietary systems. I guess people prefer being amoral compared to unethical

  12. ta bu shi da yu

    The problem I have with your examples on Wikipedia is that you haven’t picked the best examples. If you review the featured articles, would you reach the same conclusion?

  13. Nick

    I chose the two entries I used (Gates and Fonda) at random, and they were the first two I looked at – I didn’t try to find the worst examples possible, in other words; I simply took the first two I went to. (I wanted to choose subjects that most people would have some familiarity with.) I have looked at a lot of other entries previously and since, and many are every bit as bad as the two I featured. You’re right, though, that there are very good entries, and I suppose I could have searched for a couple of those and featured them. But an encyclopedia can’t just have a small percentage of good entries and be considered a success. I would argue, in fact, that the overall quality of an encyclopedia is best judged by its weakest entries rather than its best. What’s the worth of an unreliable reference work?

  14. David Gerard

    “I would argue, in fact, that the overall quality of an encyclopedia is best judged by its weakest entries rather than its best. What’s the worth of an unreliable reference work?”

    Those are really two separate things. Given that Wikipedia lets you see inside the sausage factory, judge it by the results of “Random link” and articles about things you do know (as you did). On the second point, that too many articles are unreferenced is a problem we’re at work on – that’s actually a different problem than quality of writing and coverage, IMO.

  15. Gautam

    Its strange… you write a blog, to criticize web 2.0, when blogs- a web 2.0 application is the reason you are heard and read over the Internet!

  16. EBlogger

    Do computers make us smarter?

    With all the talk lately about the new net revolution, Web 2.0, and all of that (e.g., point and counter-point), it is interesting to throw some actual research into the mix. Lowell Monke’s recent article in Orion Magazine does just that.

    [R]e…

  17. BPO Journal

    The Cult of the Amateur – Really?

    Nicholas Carr has a post on the amateur nature of the collective consciousness of the Internet. Its ironic. He points to the slipshod quality of much of Wikipedia to highlight the flaws of the blogosphere including echolalia, tendency to reinforce…

  18. JS

    “In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing.”

    In theory? I thought that in theory it wouldn’t work at all…

  19. Ian Woollard

    I don’t know about this theory that Wikipedia is a heap of junk; by comparing it with the EB.

    I mean, does anyone *have* a copy of the 5th year of the EB? Who says that that was better than the Wikipedia?

    I mean, aren’t we comparing a very new and very ambitious encyclopedia with a two hundred year old encyclopedia, and expecting *rather* too much? As in what gives?

  20. Neil K.

    When Kevin Kelly turned up again, I knew that the resurgence of tech was real. Enough real value was being created to allow hucksters and frauds to make a living again.

    The question is, are we empowering the esoteric at the expensive of the authoritative? Maybe the answer to that is yes, so far. Maybe, that dream of authority was always a myth anyway. The Britannica was a status purchase for the middle class, unread and displayed on the shelves. Why should it be our yardstick?

    The web is a dreadfully imperfect tool. But let’s ask whether our technology serves human needs better, not whether it matches a previous dream of human knowledge.

  21. Kevin Kelly

    Nice piece! I don’t disagree with most of it. Except for the very last paragraph, which is really the only paragraph dealing with the point of your story. That the web, machines, and maybe even technology are not moral.

    I’ve changed my mind on this. I used to think technology was neutral — just a tool — you could use it for good or evil. Pretty standard belief for us nerds. But in spending the last three years trying to figure out what the greater meaning of technology is I’ve reluctantly concluded that technology is a moral force (for the good). I’ll need a whole book to make that argument (if I can) and that is what I am working on.

    But you have to agree it is an important and vital question. I hope you continue your investigation of it.

  22. Anonymous

    Does the EB even have entries for Bill Gates and Jane Fonda? Not that I think it should, but why are these metrics for comparing encyclopedic performance?

    And I’d answer my own question but the town’s library has been shut down and I don’t feel like spending $49.95 to find out. Seeing how the on-line edition only has 73,000 articles in it, I’m doubtfull.

  23. Sector 42

    The Cult of the Amateur

    Nicholas Carr has an interesting piece on the Web 2.0 phenomenon, the vision of the web as a sort of collective consciousness that will fundamentally change human culture, and even the very concept of human intelligence.

    This is a very interesting p…

  24. Judson Dunn

    I think everyone in the wikipedia community is trying very hard to make the quality “good” as you say; and wikipedia certainly responds to input such as this. You might be happy to know that both articles you have mentioned have been since added to cleanup projects, in addition to broader discussions about ways to improve writing quality.

    At this point, it seems fair to ask exactly when the intelligence in “collective intelligence” will begin to manifest itself. Or is “good” an old-fashioned concept that doesn’t apply to emergent phenomena like communal on-line encyclopedias?

    I certainly am not of the opinion that wikipedia is some transcendent work beyond the descriptions of good or bad, but I think this point might be looked at more closely. A work, of whatever size, that is edited and written by a collection of people over a period of time that, in all probability, have varying masteries of english will inevitably appear to be bad writing. It takes another person to come in and combine all the probably factually correct information into sentence structures that are pleasing to read, wiki’s call this re-factoring sometimes. It is a difficult and time consuming process as you can imagine, but one wikipedia is trying to make more appealing for editors.

Comments are closed.