Tag Archives: Linux

Review of Here Comes Everybody

In the early days of Wikipedia, one of their editors joked that their freely-editable encyclopedia was a project that could work only in practice, never in theory. If you had asked someone in the 1990s whether such a project could ever succeed, you would have been hard-pressed to find many supporters. In theory it sounded ludicrous. Why would anyone donate their time to write articles, much less subject experts, many of whom need to get credit for publishing? How could you prevent articles from becoming overly slanted, or simply vandalized? How could something written collaboratively by mostly anonymous authors ever be a reliable source of knowledge?

Yet there it is; and for the most part, it’s actually quite good. I use Wikipedia all the time to lookup basic bits of information, like dates or names (for which it seems highly reliable), and occasionally use it as a starting point for researching a new subject. Some articles are of course better than others, but the fact that any of it is of high quality is really counter-intuitive.

But “counter-intuitive” is really just shorthand for saying that it doesn’t fit into our existing theoretical models of how society supposedly works. We all walk around with these mental models that help us interpret phenomenon and predict outcomes, but they also limit what we think is possible. When we then encounter something in practice that we formerly thought was impossible in theory, we are faced with a dilemma: do we reinterpret the thing so that it continues to fit within our existing models; or do we reevaluate our model, potentially changing it to accommodate this formerly inexplicable reality?

In the wake of successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia and the open-source operating system Linux, sociologists and economists have actually been doing a bit of both as they attempt to explain how and why such things occurred. Some have concentrated on researching how these projects actually work, showing that they are not really as undirected, noncommercial, or anti-corporate as the press coverage might lead you to believe. Others have argued that they are anomalous, something that can’t be repeated. But others have been developing new theories (or more commonly, pulling more esoteric ones out of the closet) to make these seeming anomalies fit again.

Here Comes Everybody.jpgClay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is an insightful popularization not only of these efforts, but also his own ongoing research of Internet culture. As the subtitle suggests, he focuses on how social media tools have made it easier than ever for people to organize, whether it be for the purposes of general communication and knowledge-sharing, or the more difficult activities of collaborative production and collective action. Social tools, he argues, have lowered the costs not only of group formation, but also those of ongoing coordination. As a result, we are now trying out new forms of organization that are not simply improvements upon our existing institutions—they are fundamental shifts towards a new type of social organization, one that he thinks will soon become dominant.

What will that new structure look like? It’s too early to tell, but he identifies a few trends that he argues will likely continue. First is the mass-amateurization of efforts that previously had been restricted to groups of professionals. There are many examples of this: music production and distribution; journalism; encyclopedia production; stock photography; even advertising. In all of these cases, the professional class had enjoyed an almost exclusive control over the means of production and distribution, but that control has now been undermined by digital and networked technologies. His stock photography example was especially interesting: web sites like iStockPhoto allow amateurs to sell stock photos for a fraction of the price a professional would charge. The artistic quality of amateur photos might not be as high, but for many users of stock photography, it is plenty good-enough. This will no doubt redefine what is means to be a professional photographer, but I think it would be overstating things to say that professional photographers will soon go the way of travel agents.

The second and related trend he identifies is a shift from filter-then-publish to publish-then-filter. The economics of traditional journalism or music production required that professionals filtered and selected only a subset of the available material for publication. This gatekeeper role gave them enormous control over what the public saw and heard, but that control has been weakened considerably by the self-publication enabled by inexpensive digital and networked technologies. This has resulted in a flood of new content, only a subset of which is interesting to any given person. Thus, great effort is being put into developing mechanisms by which one can find those interesting gems amongst the rubble, some of which are purely algorithmic (e.g., Google search), and others of which rely on an army of amateur taggers and filterers (e.g., digg, del.ico.us, and blogs like this one).

The third trend is a shift away from hierarchical forms of organization towards more loosely-joined networks. We tend to think of hierarchically organized firms as a kind of “natural” organizational form blessed by God, but this kind of organization is the product of a historical context, one that is perhaps not so relevant anymore. Shirky provides a number of examples of networked cooperative production, but most are centered around some kind of information-processing. One is left wondering if such a model could really be extended into something like manufacturing, an arena where hierarchical organizations have historically thrived.

Shirky’s analysis of all this adheres generally to the social-shaping position, striking a nice balance between technological determinism (adopted technologies deterministically cause social change) and social determinism (technologies are neutral tools completely controlled by social forces). He acknowledges the ways in which social media change not only the economics of organization, but also the way we think about what is possible and good. But he also is careful to note that the same tools used in different contexts have generated different results, a clear indication that the technologies are to some degree shaped by the culture that adopts them.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book to those who are trying to understand how the Internet and social media are enabling deep structural changes in our society.

Gadget Part IV: The End

I recently finished Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. I have to admit that the book has grown on me a bit since I started reading it. At first, the book really frustrated me, as Lanier is not what you would call an analytical thinker–that is, he doesn’t procede from one point to the next, linearly building an argument to prove a thesis. Rather, he tells stories and discusses networks of ideas as he swirls around a general topic he wishes to explore. That kind of thinking can often produce highly creative insights, but it is difficult to then summarize in a short review (which, I’m sure he would say, is precisely the problem with blogging!). I often liken his style of thinking to watching a pointillistic painting in progress: you watch the artist make a point here, a point there, but it’s not until the picture is finished that you can step back and understand it as a whole.

Section three of the book covers Lanier’s last big complaint about web 2.0 systems and the digital culture that surrounds them: despite their ability to harness the creativity of the hive mind, they can’t seem to produce anything truly innovative. Lanier argues that for the last two decades, digital culture denizens have simply rehashed old ideas, applying them to new contexts for sure, but without any substantial improvement.

He offers three chief examples. First, he discusses the open source operating system Linux, describing it as simply a port of a messy, difficult-to-use, 40-year-old operating system to the Intel PC. Despite the immense increase in processing power since the 1970s, Linux uses essentially the same design, and offers pretty much the same features as the early UNIX variants. Linux lovers usually say that there’s no need to improve on good design, but Lanier thinks that this lack of improvement is due to the “crowd” not having the same level of creative potential that singular people do.

I have used Linux myself, and have done research into the history and sociology of open-source software, and much of what Lanier says rings true. Linux is most certainly reliable and powerful, but it really is the kind of mess that only a balding man with a long beard and Birkenstocks could love. Much of the innovation in Linux these days is actually funded by commercial corporations that either sell related services, or rely on it to run their core business. Successful open source projects also tend to have strong leaders who set the agenda and overal design for the product.

Lanier’s second example is his familiar whipping boy, Wikipedia. There is of course nothing new about the idea of an encyclopedia, and although Wikipedia fundamentally changed the notion of authorship and the scope of entries, Lanier thinks that their contributions have not really improved on the earlier forms, much less created a radically new kind of knowledge source. He summarizes his disappointment with this rather scathing passage:

Let’s suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, “In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!” It would have sounded utterly pathetic (121-122).

Later in the book, Lanier asks why the open source community has so far only managed to produce nicely-polished versions of antiques, while commercial industry has continued to produce game-changing innovations like the iPhone and iPad. His conclusion: people are creative, not crowds.

His third example is pop music, and the claim he makes here is perhaps his most provocative and certainly the most suspect. Lanier asserts that pop music has been essentially frozen in time over the last two decades, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to place a recent but unfamiliar pop song in its proper decade. Why? Because pop music is in a posture of nostalgia and dominated by inflexible digital models like MIDI. He also implies that homogenizing web 2.0 systems are dulling consumers’ appetites for new and creative expressions.

Lanier is most likely overstating his case in this section; one could probably find counter examples that defy his general claims, but his underlying thesis–that people are creative, not crowds–is an intriguing one. It is a restatement of that old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” and the joke that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” (which is really unfair to camels). It may be true that the collective knowledge of the crowd is more reliable than the claims of any one person, but when that same logic is applied to creativity, the results tend to be conservative, nostalgic, or just plain messy.

Lanier ends the book with two sections on how he thinks digital technologies could be developed and used in ways that are more honoring of, and beneficial to, human beings. He focuses mostly on modeling and understanding human cognition, a field in which he is currently participating. He offers a different computational metaphor for the human brain, one based on incremental evolution, and explores the possibilities of using virtual reality to communicate in a fluid stream of concrete images.

On the whole, I recommend reading the book if you are interested in the issues surrounding web 2.0 information systems. But don’t expect a linear argument–instead, prepare yourself for a journey through ideas with a technologist who has been at the forefront of innovation for at least three decades.

I’ll leave you with a video he mentions in the closing chapter of the book. Watch it closely; the octopus being filmed can literality change the color and texture of its skin to match its environment, morphing itself much like what we see in science fiction films. Will we figure out how to introduce this trait into humans with genetic engineering?