the web is... too good for us?
To free data or not to free data: that is quite a big question. The cases for opening up data are revolutionary: data freedom would utterly transform what we could do for ourselves, for each other, for the world. The cases against are usually wrapped up in the context of commercial ownership, intellectual property and national security.
Personally, I am cautiously, respectfully sceptical. As a social psychologist who studies the human interactions that criss-cross the Internet, I see a whole lot of community phenomena that challenge my faith in the liberated digital culture that the data freedom contingent describes, but I don't believe it should be owned either. Nicely on the fence, then. The problem as I see it is that technologically, an open data system would be remarkable; socially, it simply wouldn't last.
We are wonderfully fallible creatures with extraordinary dreams and the capacity to follow them. The founders of the Web came to this new communication platform with liberal, libertarian ideas, dreaming of a utopia where information would be shared freely and equally amongst its inhabitants. They were idealists, and the tools they built reflected this. As the Web rolled out, people with similar mindsets tuned in to their passions and realised the possibilities, and set about establishing the first borderless communities in a Wild West digital frontier.
Everything was good for a while. People talked about the levelling ground of the web, where class, gender, race and physical ability didn't matter, where everyone could be self-actualised, where society could transcend the physical, graduating into the cerebral. We didn't need to be constrained by our corporeal inequalities anymore: society would advance online in a whole new and wonderful way. All our needs would be met through this technology. The kernel of revolution was born, as it had been many times before.
Now, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, we know these crazy dreams belonged to the digital utopians. They were impossible. Almost immediately, people started establishing boundaries, putting flags in the virtual sand, declaring ownership of thoughts, ideas, concepts. Hierarchies started to form, at first based on the technological prowess of the so-called Wizards of online communities, who had access to and could amend the back-end servers and databases that ran the consensual hallucinations people were operating in, and later on the lines of social acceptability that people drew in the sand: the conceptual boundaries started to morph the egalitarian ideals into clusters of Us versus Them, rights versus wrongs. Virtual things started to develop value, little digital pieces of ephemera that had no relative value offline, but meant the world to people inside the communities. And then people started claiming ownership to this stuff, getting defensive about it, wanting it only for themselves.
And then the pragmatists arrived: commerce sniffed out the Internet and things really changed. Since then, our consumption of the content on the Internet has transformed completely, as we engage with a layer on top of the technology that is almost entirely owned by commercial interests.
I think the reason we're so passionate, so fascinated by the Web today is because it taps into something inside us that really, desperately wants the world to be free, open and level, but it continues to reflect us so beautifully, so perfectly, that it magnifies our bizarre foibles that make us human. We stare, mouths agape, at stories about how we aggregate under virtual governments and policing forces, how we create brands and gatekeepers to help identify what information we should and shouldn't trust, how we draw lines in the sand and claim ownership over 1s and 0s. The Web is a reflection of our isms, and even in the most libertarian spaces, order and hierarchy re-assert themselves.
This is the theme I'd like to explore in the first episode of Digital Revolution, and in a series of four posts over the next few weeks, I will look at some of these issues: the hierarchies that have evolved from the 'flat' Wikipedia; the transformation from the blogosphere's new media idealism into old media institutionalisation; the power brokers of the Internet; and just how far we can be pushed before we claim ownership of our intellectual property.
These are issues I'm trying on for size. They are not fully formed manifestos, but the beginnings of a process that I hope will inform my understanding of the bigger issues of the Web, and will help us shape the programme that we will produce.