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The automation of social life

August 09, 2007

William Davies has written a brief, important essay called The Cold, Cold Heart of Web 2.0 in The Register. He argues that it's a mistake to assume that the technology-driven efficiencies we welcome in the commercial realm, as a means of reducing costs and, often, expanding choices, will also bring benefits when applied to the social or cultural realm. Society is not a market, and automation may harm it rather than enhance it.

"The first dotcom boom," Davies writes, "was principally about putting the internet to work in increasing the efficiency of existing services." It made activities like the purchase of books and the payment of taxes easier by automating some of their more time-consuming aspects. The main thrust of Web 1.0 was to streamline "one-to-many" services, which "feature an organisation that resembles a 'producer' offering something to individuals who resemble 'consumers', who usually have some choice about whether or not to accept it."

Web 2.0, by contrast, "abandons this conventional one-to-many model of service provision, and sets about exploiting the many-to-many potential of the internet. Rather than using the web to connect producers to consumers, it is used to connect individuals to each other." Computer networks have, of course, always supported many-to-many services, like bulletin boards and other social networks. What's changed with Web 2.0, Davies writes:

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.

The problem - and the danger - is that efficiency plays a very different role in the marketplace of products than it does in the realm of society and culture. "Undoubtedly there are instances where we do want our social lives to be more efficient," write Davies. "But we should worry about this psychology seeping too far into our lives." We do not, and should not, judge the quality of our social and cultural life by its efficiency. As Davies concludes:

The pursuit of maximum convenience in the cultural sphere risks dissolving what we value in it in the first place. Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us. But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering.

In a recent blog post, the usually perceptive Clay Shirky writes, of my own work, "I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet ... when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?" The real question, to me, is this: Why in the world would anyone believe that the cultural effects of the internet would be beneficial simply because the internet's effects on business are beneficial? And yet Shirky is far from alone in making this bizarre association - it runs like a vein of fool's gold through the writing of the Net's rose-tinted-glasses set. They want to believe that the processes of culture-making and society-building can be automated and reengineered as if they were the processes of widget-manufacturing. As Davies eloquently explains, they're wrong.

(This is a theme, by the way, that runs, less succinctly, through my forthcoming book The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny.)

UPDATE: Ian Douglas and Joshua Porter offer thoughtful rejoinders. I agree with Porter that I was mistaken to call efficiency "an intrinsic good" in markets; I have edited my original post to temper that point. I disagree, however, with Porter's contention that there's no difference between "markets" and "social lives."


Excellent post Nick, really enjoyed reading this; I think you clarify and expand on Davies' points well. I've often thought, when browsing in a bookshop and discovering titles I'd like to read, that the process of "gathering recommendations" (eugh to such a cold, technical term) in real life is a lot more complex than a relational database (of purchase intentions, click thrus etc etc) can model.

Perhaps the reason people get caught up in cheerleading for web 2.0 and all its cultural efficiencies is that it's easy to confuse and conflate efficiency with convenience.
Corporations are interested in the former, and consumers, in general, the latter (especially when it comes to dealing with technology), but obviously, since corporations benefit from efficiency, they have an interest in muddying the waters and making efficency seem convient.

There are some passages in Evan Eisenberg's book about the development of recorded music (The Recording Angel) that seem to me related to this - if you've not read it, it's well worth having a look through.

Posted by: Alex Watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 10:55 AM

I am not sure what your point is Nick. It could be that you want to claim that the web never can have effects culturally or socially, or, that for instance the effect of the technology-drive efficiencies in business cannot mean that you could have similar effects when applied to similar/analogous socially/cultural concept. Regardless of which point, I think you are over generalizing as so are the too fundamental believers in the social web arguing the the true, sole solution to the troubles of humanity. :-)

Basically, what I believe is that "both sides" make the crucial mistake of analyzing technology in a general sense without putting it into any context i.e. not in comparison to the problem/issue you are facing. Web 2.0 or the social web can be used for a whole variety of problems, but can be useless in others.

But I might have misunderstood the post...

Posted by: Erik Sundelof [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 12, 2007 09:47 PM

Remember Kranzberg’s First Law
“Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” The discussion seems to be about what business calls topline and bottom benefits. Business can operate on the bottom line faster than the top e.g. move call centre off shore but to do an effective web site 2.0 takes a lot of social interaction and maybe culture change (effective innovation) so it means investment of time, attention, money, etc. which is hard to talk about at the golf club with other ceo's (joke). Social networks that arise from interactions seem now to be spawning physical meetings in coffee shops, etc. so that people can interact face-to-face and bulid a relationship that decays more slowly on the net (gives the interval for the real meetings to happen). This is all topline stuff that needs comittment to a "cause"
so we are likely to dip in and out again if it doesn't quite fit... sounds like a social life to me!

Posted by: tartle [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2007 04:16 AM

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