The amorality of Web 2.0

This post, along with seventy-eight others, is collected in the book Utopia Is Creepy.

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. Gabe

    I think most of the reasoning in this post is spot on, except for the alarmist tone at the end. Yes, some quality may lose out to cheap crap, just like it has ever since the industrial revolution. But come on, Wikipedia is not representative of publishing, the web, or even Web2.0.

    Wikipedia’s core problem is that you can’t write well by committee. Unless by some miracle the committee are all made up of great writers who work well together, but that is a statistical impossibility for wikipedia. Without a rigorous editorial process they will never achieve encyclopedic greatness, but on the other hand, it’s still a handy reference. It’s not as if they’re spreading disinformation on a mass scale, there’s just a general quality problem.

    While the community may hold itself back in the case of Wikipedia, these problems are not that hard to overcome in the general case. For instance, using the community as a filter rather than collaborative producer of content is much more successful. Think Flickr, or Delicious, or even the blogosphere as a whole. The cream rises, and will continue to do so. A few old school casualties along the way is cause for nostalgia maybe, but not alarm.

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  4. Many-to-Many

    Nick Carr’s Amorality

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  5. Wayne

    Interesting article – looks like something I would have written in one of my stranger moods.

    The point you have missed is that Wikipedia is still evolving. What we see on the site, how it is presented, and how it is added will probably change radically in the next few years. Some of the problems Wikipedia is facing, are the same problems anyone with an interactive website faces. At work we constantly have bots trying to post messages in our non-existant forms (it’s actually a customer feedback link) and many blogs have had to deal with this issue – there are a lot people who just have to tell you about the latest breast/p***s enhancement method…

    The next ten years on the net will be exciting. Take everything that’s been done before, and multiply it by 1000 – that’s how big the changes will be.

  6. Mark Rosenthal

    Carr writes, “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.”

    According to Carr’s bio, he’s “a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, … an acclaimed business writer and speaker whose work centers on strategy, innovation, and technology.” In other words, he’s spent his career doing many things, but none of them involve actually writing code, whether open-source or proprietary. As a result, it’s not surprising that he has no understanding of the reality of open-source software development.

    The fact of the matter is that widely distributed groups of collaborating developers can successfully produce something that works very well. And the reason is that the very nature of software development is that the CPU is always there as a referee. A programmer can’t get away with sloppiness the same way someone editing a collaborative essay can. After a programmer writes the code, it has to run. That’s part of the reason that open-source software development works. The other part is that the open-source software development community has a tradition of respect for good work. In other words open-source developers respect demonstrated expertise, regardless of whether the person is amateur or professional.

    Carr has just disparaged open-source software because he doesn’t know any better. He hasn’t been down in the trenches writing the code. Instead he’s spent his career writing and speaking about IT, so his name is well-known. In contrast, people like me who have several decades of serious software development expertise are unlikely to have spent any time at all promoting our names to the public. We’re the ones in the development labs who make things work, but remain anonymous.

    Now imagine that an editor at Britannica needs an article on software development. It’s unlikely that he knows anything about the topic himself. So is he more likely to ask someone like me, whom he’s probably never heard of, or a self-promoter who’s known as an IT expert – someone like Carr, for example?

    Would the resulting Britannica article’s discussion of the open-source development process reflect the real-world experience of someone who’s done it, or would it disparage open-source based on the biases of the professional with the well-known name who has little or no experience actually writing code?

    Carr creates a false dichotomy between “amateur” and “professional”, when the real distinction is between expertise and lack of expertise.

    By setting himself up as an authority on IT and then displaying his ignorance of the subject matter, Carr’s just provided us with a graphic example of why an encyclopedia like Britannica developed under the old proprietary model is unlikely to be any more reliable than one developed under the open-source collaborative model.

    Wikipedia may have it’s problems. It’s been criticised for a community culture which doesn’t respect expertise. If that’s true, then criticism is legitimate. But Wikipedia and open-source are not the same thing. In software terminology, Wikipedia is an instance of the class open-source-encyclopedia. If that instance has developed a community culture that doesn’t respect expertise, let’s new up a new instance of the class, and encourage a different culture.

    The proprietary development model has different problems, but very serious problems of its own. Someone posted the Microsoft Encarta article about Bill Gates to demonstrate how much better a proprietary encyclopedia is than an open-source encyclopedia. But is it better? Or does it just have different problems? Did you notice that the article talks about Microsoft having closed a deal in 1980 with IBM to provide the operating system for the IBM PC, but conveniently neglects to tell the world that Gates left IBM with the impression that he was going to write an operating system, all the while intending to buy a clone of CP/M called Q-DOS on the cheap, and then resell it to IBM. Did you notice that the article conveniently leaves out the fact that Gates bought Q-DOS from Seattle Computer Products for a mere $50,000, and later settled a lawsuit brought by SCP for $1 million for having concealed his relationship with IBM.

    An open-source encyclopedia, if not done well, may show uneven quality from one article to another. A proprietary encyclopedia, on the other hand, is vulnerable to spin, and suppression of information based on the self-interest of the company producing the encyclopedia. At least the former problem is immediately apparent to the reader. But you read an encyclopedia article because you’re not an expert in the subject matter, so you’re not going to notice what’s been left out. As a result, the latter problem is virtually impossible for the reader to detect.

    I don’t know about you, but I’d rather deal with a reference whose problems are immediately apparent rather than one that may have major problems, all of which will be undetectable.

    And encyclopedias aside, there’s no justification for disparaging the open-source development model just because one example of it might have some problems.

  7. Miklos

    Le web comme hégémonie de l’amateurisme, ou Wikipedia sous les feux croisés

    Dans un récent article lumineux, Nicholas G. Carr1 analyse les valeurs New Age que le Web nouvelle génération – celle de l’« intelligence collective » symbolisée par Wikipedia et les blogs – représente: « participation, c…

  8. Nick

    Wow. It’s starting to be a long scroll to get down here. Again, thanks for such thoughtful comments. Here are my necessarily brief responses:

    Bob Stein: The Fonda and Gates entries have been extensively revised since I originally posted this entry.And, no, I don’t think the Britannica entry is pathetic.

    Steve Button: I don’t think Wikipedia provides any way for users to rate entries – one problem, of course, is that the ratings would always be out of date since entries are constantly being revised.

    choi: I too hope it’s not a zero-sum game. As I wrote, I value having both the amateur and the professional models. My fear is that the web is changing the economics of media in such a way as to make traditional media worse, not better.

    Frapazoid: The way I think about it, Web 1.0 sites have private databases while Web 2.0 sites/services have public (or semi-public databases). Both models have been around from the start (so “1.0” and “2.0” are misnomers) but the interest now has shifted to the latter.

    Sandy Borthick: Thanks. I feel better already.

    Angry Squirrel: Oh, come on. “Left biased” has nothing to do with it.

    Ross Mayfield: And little boys are made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails.

    Chris Tolles: Thanks for the Open Directory Project example. Certainly, the web has the advantage of timeliness, and it’s a significant advantage. But it’s also a disadvantage. Speedy reporting is not always the best reporting. Again, I’d like to have both. Finally, your point about businesses taking into account their (or their competitors’) ability to harness the passion (not to mention free labor) of a community is well taken.

    William Pietri: All big technological changes seem to bring out utopianism. (Electrification was another example.)

    pitsch: Thanks for that Diderot link. Very interesting.

    Jud: Much to think about here. Thanks for “bike shed” reference, which is great. I agree with you about the flaws of both models, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that the more accurate wins out in the end. Even if it does “win,” have the economics of the market changed in such a way that it is no longer able to sustain its quality as before. Does the open collaboration model, by producing free content, force its flaws on other models?

    Phil Jones: I said an encyclopedia should probably be judged by its weakest entries (since reliability is so important to its value). That’s different from saying the content produced by amateurs in general should be judged by their weakest examples. If there were three wikipedias out there, I would say we should judge the wikipedia model by the best of the three. My point is that the web-media and traditional-media models have different strengths and weaknesses, and I fear that the economics of the web model are eroding the strengths of the traditional model.

    Gabe: I hope you’re right, but if Flickr and Delicious are your standards, I’m nervous.

    Mark Rosenthal: Thanks for further clarifying the difference between open-source software development and collaborative writing (I touched on this in a later post). As I said in an early comment, I didn’t mean to disparage open source (and if I did, I apologize) but simply point to its veneration as being another example of what I called the cult of the amateur. I agree with you that “widely distributed groups of collaborating developers can successfully produce something that works very well” because, unlike with, say, wikipedia, there’s a objective quality standard (the CPU referee) and, in most cases, a more formal organizational screening method. I have to say, though, that when you turn to the Bill Gates biography, I think your comments underscore one of the problem with the open-community model of content development. Too many people have axes to grind, and they become so fixated on particular details that they lose sight of the big picture.

  9. unsettled

    N Carr: A Fraud born every second

    You completely misrepresented (i.e., lied about) the Fonda and Gates wiki entries. It is so much more than what you posted that I cannot help but believe it is intentionally misleading (as of the Oct 3rd wiki entries).

    “Extracted Verbatim”? Whoop-te-do. You picked the least important portions to extract for the purpose of your article.

    I suggest you update your article to reflect the incredible ability wikipedia has to update / enhance it’s entries, the ease-of-learning that comes through the hyperlinked entries, and extend your artical on amorality to investigate the impacts of being able to see the changes to the entries via the history: the “changing story” of history can be much richer now that we can see it change.

    I doubt you have the intellectual integrity to do so, though. Proving your point??

  10. Ruby

    Pardon my brevity, Nick, but: Duh!

    Whoever said that Wikipedia was a match for Britannica? That’s not what it’s for.

    Does anyone seriously think blogs will entirely replace the mainstream media? It’s not an either-or choice. Blogs have added a level of accountability in the MSM that I think is productive. But not only are they not mutually exclusive, they work best when they are both balancing each other out.

    And your grand statement that technology is not inherently good or bad, but “amoral.” Well of course! This has always been the case (except possibly for bombs and machine guns, I think they’re inherently bad).

    I don’t see any of your argument as a refutation of web 2.0, but just a constant reminder that it’s not abuot the tool but how we use it.

  11. Tversover

    Interessant Wikipedia-diskusjon

    Av og til blir jeg så sliten av korte argumenter i norske media.IT-avisen skriver en sak om at Wikipedia er søppel, (jpg) basert på hurtiglesing av en nokså gjennomtenkt artikkel av Andrew Orlowski i The Register, hvor Jimmy &q…

  12. Kartik Agaram

    Amateurs and professionals are the same in one important respect: both are easily corrupted in a position of power. The web makes concentrating power (eyeballs) hard and social mobility (changing judgements about specific sources of information) easy.

    I don’t worry about the new web making professionals extinct. As the benefits of the web grow more apparent, professionals will join it. And they will be valued and easy to find. The cream rises to the top.

    I can see this argument has been made before in this thread. Quality doesn’t always out, but I think the new web makes things more meritocratic. It seems you disagree. Why?

    I really appreciate how you have been responding to comments, btw.

  13. Tech PR Gems

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  14. oneafrikan.com

    Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: The amorality of Web 2.0

    Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: The amorality of Web 2.0

    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 com…

  15. Open Resource

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  16. Open Resource

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  17. IPcentral Weblog

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