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the web is... too good for us?

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Aleks Krotoski | 12:58 UK time, Friday, 10 July 2009

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.

(How you can get involved


  • Comment number 1.

    The beauty of the web is the (illusion) of the infinite journey opened up to us by the hyperlink.
    No story is finished, no full stop is reached. You can hop and hop and hop, going deeper and deeper like Alice down the rabbit hole.

    But it is an illusion because all to often governments, companies, individuals want that journey to be curtailed, re-directed, stopped, reversed.

    And yet we remain so passionate about the web because we know the possibility of the endless journey remains.

    I am so looking forward to this programme and engaging with the programme makers in a new and original way, one in keeping with the spirit of the web.

    Good luck.

  • Comment number 2.

    "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.


    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"

    On the other hand, these hierarchies are smaller and more fragile than those that stood before it, and are eroding the established ones day by day.

    It is certainly too much to ask that everybody gets to be equal- not everybody *wants* to be equal, some people lack the skills to run a community and would prefer to be part of someone else's, and that's fine- but we're far from being in a position to claim that the internet has failed as a leveller.

    It's silly to expect that on day one of the internet, News Corporation and Disney were going to immediately implode and that we'd all be one-man shows doing our respective things on our own, but there's no getting around that new companies that used the internet well such as Google and Valve, as well as established-but-not-hyperhuge companies like Apple, in getting their status of large corporations have, while not reaching the heady heights of News Corp and Disney, have certainly whittle away part of the leaders in their respective fields- and it takes a company the sie of Google to make a significant difference.

    Let's face it, the biggest threat YouTube poses to ITV isn't piracy of their programmes but people watching non-broadcast videos on the website.

    The next people to come along won't ever be as big as Google is now- but they will take their chunk out of the bigs and everything will gradually get, well, leveller.

    Again, probably still very idealist. People will always be above or below others. But we've certainly seen the back of oligarchies of a certain size.


  • Comment number 3.

    You're no doubt familiar with the "long tail" concept of the internet. Any musician who writes a bagpipe glitch opera will be shown the door by the major record companies. However, if that musician releases his opera on the net under a Creative Commons licence, the 5,000 people around the world who have always fancied some chopped-up tartan windbaggery will finally have their thirst quenched. That artist now has 5,000 fans and can start to think about making a living, or at least a supplement to his/her regular income, through exploiting the net's negligible production and distribution costs. A revenue stream has been created where previously there was none.

    Thanks to the advent of Creative Commons licences, which enable artists to retain control over their music while giving it away to the public to be copied, shared and, in some cases, remixed, the internet has helped me to explore, for free, unfamiliar genres of music such as glitch, IDM, breakcore, minimal and ambient. Free music has thus, paradoxically, created a new consumer who is willing to pay for music that previously he would have ignored.

    My curiosity about new music has spurred me to try many new things: a blog, RSS feeds, Twitter(!), net analytics, translation programmes and graphics programmes. The net has provided hours of free entertainment and, one hopes, much intellectual stimulation and cultural enrichment. My curiosity has prised open my wallet and given cash to people I would never have heard of but for the internet. Creative Commons music has the potential to help artists make a living from their music. The Madonnas of this world won't suffer too much; there might be fewer multi-millionaire musicians in the future, but there could be more jobbing musicians who can follow their dreams thanks to cheap music production and social engineering software.

    I've nearly finished boring you, but before I go, here's a couple of links. (Don't groan, Aleks - there's a not altogether flimsy reason for them.) Online society is now so prevalent that it is almost seen as rude, if not suspicious, to fail to leave a contact address and/or profile. It acts as verification as well as useful publicity.

    My amateurish blog, Catching The Waves, about (legally) free netlabel & Creative Commons music:


    ...and the near obligatory Twitter address:


    Was that a gratuitous plug or merely a modern form of a "Yours sincerely" and a signature? I'll let you decide. :)

  • Comment number 4.

    We have made, and are making, the web in our own image. How can we do otherwise? And it is for better AND for worse; it reflects the best and worst of us. Question - if you do not like what you see in the mirror, do you blame the mirror?

    The internet is restoring the social engagement that broadcast media - the ubiquitous boob tube, a voice we could not reply to - was killing.

    It is not fundamentally different to before, it is still just people doing what people do; talking, trading, sharing, arguing, conspiring, joking, planning, loving and hating, only faster and more conveniently - a trend that started with the printing press. Probably earlier but you see my point.

    If the internet is changing, then the world is changing too and the relationship is not one of cause and effect but of a single thing changing - the internet is part of the world, and an increasingly significant part, and the world is not the same as it was when I joined the internet sixteen years ago.

    One thing I remember from when I joined was an old-hand's signature, that read "The Internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it." That much is true. Perhaps it was designed by universities, but there was military involvement too, and they wished for a communications system that could withstand attack. They should have known to be careful what they wish for.

    If government, businesses or other corporate entities fear the Internet, then perhaps they are right to - the danger is that they might become irrelevant. Better for them to embrace it, just as it has always been better to listen to the people and talk with them than to ignore them.

    Just a few thoughts.

  • Comment number 5.

    Aleks, please contact me.

    I work on board luxury cruise ships lecturing about the internet and I need to be involved in your Digital Revolution project.

    Preaching the information you are about to collect is my very purpose in life and I can add many viewpoints to your world-affecting story.

    Earlier today I watched the video clip of Tim Berners-Lee and yourself filmed during the launch for Digital Revolution and it was religious... my calling in life was reinforced.

    Mike Smith :)
    Regent Seven Seas Mariner, Alaska
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 6.

    Surfing the web or reading about it I often notice that many people see it as some kind of World on its own. In my opinion it is for the most part a very well crafted replica of our own world which makes life profoundly easier. Evaluating the internet in terms of freedom one for the most part feels compelled to consider all the issues with DRM etc. All the same i doubt that equaling freedom to an unrestricted access to digital content is the right thing to do. Internets contribution to our freedom originates for the most part from its tow most prominent characteristics:

    1. its potential to facilitate tasks which might take much longer to accomplish without it(e.g. Ebay prior to the introduction to the web you might have spent days or weeks looking for a potential buyer ) and of course the abundance of information it provides. To me information almost equals freedom. Being well informed bestows the ability to make the right decisions and to avoid the wrong ones. High quality information helps overcoming biases and enables oneself to form well based opinions and ideas. All in All information helps overcoming manipulation and thus bolsters the freedom of thought.

    2. What is more using the net to accomplish certain tasks faster provides more spare time. In todays world and society every additional minute that you have for you own disposal represents an expansion of ones freedom.

    Therefore I think that it is neither proper nor correct to judge the nets contribution to our freedom solely in respect to content availability.

    Another idea I would like to contribute is that rules and structure do not restrict but support freedom and help retaining the assets of the internet.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm not sure the question at the start of all this has any real sense in the big scheme of things. It isn't simply a case of opening a cage and letting all data fly free in the digital skies, it is all down to personal choice. The web is just another system in which we can express ourselves, inspire people, mislead others, and pretty much do what we generally do in social situations; except this is on a much bigger scale. The bloke down the pub coming out with made-up but amusing quotes about famous people can now put them on Wikipedia to be read by all, the gossip in the workplace can now be blogged to the world, and the glossy corporate images can be peddled across borders rather than just the high street. In the infant days of the web, most people trusted what they read to be the truth. Now in its early teenage years, I believe people have learned (or are learning fast) that what they read digitally is as subjective as any other form of information, and that they should apply their own judgement as to the validity of it. The big question isn't about freeing data, it is about whether individuals should be free to create the data.

  • Comment number 8.

    It is interesting that most change can be viewed in a positive and a negative light. 10 years ago the cost and technical challenges of providing content to a worldwide audience was known as the slashdot effect. Today almost everyone can make content available at low cost of even free and it will be available to a worldwide audience. Commercial interested are paying for the platforms and would even be considered evil by some individuals.
    Another interesting phenomena is the change in conversation styles; where 20 or more years ago people wrote verbose and well thought out arguments, opinions etc to upload to BSS or post on Usenet. The roundtrip was days or weeks. With chatting or micro-blogging the roundtrip is seconds or minutes and the content has shrunk to 140 characters. What are the side-effects of these changes on people in general and how does it change the way we interact or the reasons for interaction.
    I am an idealist myself and would like to believe that what we do has to has some kind of meaning and effect on other people.
    It seems however that idealists are in the minority and the majority of the people would rather run through the library screeming and shouting and sliding on the polished floors.

  • Comment number 9.

    This is excellent feedback folks, thanks very much. And, @corneil_dup, the arguments seem rather well-thought out ;)

    A few thoughts of my own, based on your comments:

    @beemoh, is there not a danger that the next oligarchs will come from the Web? We will be getting into that in the next couple of weeks, but I'm keen to hear your (and others') thoughts.

    @boldwing, very provocative:

    "rules and structure do not restrict but support freedom and help retaining the assets of the internet."

    can you explain further? your comments about content are also very interesting, as are yours, @WyrmUK.

    @regentmike - you're already involved! welcome to digital revolution :)

    And as for you, @darrenwaters, we're thrilled to have you along for the ride.

  • Comment number 10.

    >> 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.

    Hmm rhetorically speaking, Im quite suspicious of the way this paragraph brings together two different idea sets, and then uses one to denigrate the other.

    It seems to begin by defining one of the webs key and authentically novel properties the way that it creates a geography of interest, and allows people to set the terms on which they engage with others within that geography.

    Then, it equates that with the nuttier promises of transcendent digital utopians, who created a fundamentally Gnostic myth structure within which the spiritual purity of discorporate online life would break the muddy material negatives of meatspace.

    By making them equivalent, its able to trash both equally. Personally, I think the digital Gnostics deserve the trashing; but to use them as a stick with which to beat the webs broader hierarchy breaking / distance removing / relationship enabling qualities seems (to me, at least) in this context a bit conservative.

    Im intrigued also that you read the establishment of groups and hierarchies as a kind of fall, and that that hierarchy-creating fall problematises the free sharing of data.

    Peoples tribal self-organization might lead to all kind of them-and-us based negatives, but it also leads to the creation of deep mutual connections that help create clearly defined, very substantial knowledge bases. Those knowledge bases can help people learn more about, and make far better use of, open data than would otherwise be the case.

    (eg anything from the development of Linux over the last fifteen years or so, to the way that obsessive fans get together to decode programs like Lost online, or communities that help people create machinima, creative stuff like magnificent EVE Online dramas Clear Skies 1 & 2, new Star Trek episodes, solutions to big corporate scientific / R&D problems, etc)

    Of course, hierarchy persists within these groups but (at best) these are hierarchies based on engagement and contribution ie ones whose terms are controlled by the user groups themselves, rather than externally imposed, and which support and encourage real and substantial productivity within each group, rather than maintenance of a less productive status quo.

    Surely this is an ideal context within which to release data? One where highly knowledgeable people are highly motivated to apply their abilities to data, do interesting things to it, and share the fruits of that action with anyone else whos similarly obsessed?

    Oh, and Im fascinated by the corporate control thing and agree that its really central to how the webs developing but I think its part of a broader argument about who controls the architecture of our lives, whether on- or off-line, and to what extent were willing to let our personal interests be merged with / overwritten by commercial interests in general.

    The webs a lightning rod for all this because it can be so obvious there and a lightning rod for other key modernity issue as well looking forward to seeing how youre going to bring this kind of wider context into the programs, and use the web as a way of talking about modernity in general.

    And finally, because the BBC blogging set up doesnt seem to let me link back out to me-ness (which is a bit surprising, as for me one of the points of blog comments has always been to lead to interesting new people who are obsessing about whatever the blog post's about), I ramble even more about all this sort of thing here (media and marketing), here (fiction, poetry and music) and here (Twitter). Apologies for the self-plugging, but alas there doesnt seem to be a way to do it more subtly / traditionally!

    Anyway, great event on Friday, good to say hi there, and looking forward to seeing where all this leads.

  • Comment number 11.

    I find this whole exercise deeply depressing and potentially alienating for many web users.

    I spent my entire working life in the computer industry and was an early user of the internet. The web plays an integral role in my daily life, yet I scarcely recognise what I read on https://xrl.us/be3hnt or here.

    This whole project seems to be aimed at wallowing in the superficial, the juvenile, the sheer banality of the ways that many people choose to use the internet. I don't 'twitter'; I know practically nothing about 'facebook' and have little interest in the kind of nonsense served up on 'youtube'.

    Nonetheless I have, over a very long time, found the Internet to be an extraordinarily valuable resource.

    Have you, perhaps, failed to recognise that there are huge numbers of web users who have no interest whatever in the kind of trivia with which you seem to be so preoccupied?

  • Comment number 12.

    But the web was not really free in the beginning. While its structure was open for everyone and websites bloomed and blossomed by copying code and design from others, the content of sites stayed closed by copyright.

    There were many thoughts of freedom in the original web, but the structure gave more freedom than the law, and the easy copying inside the new medium still didn't reach the slow legal body of our offline communities.

    Online, though, laws were first ignored, then bent and finally used to create new rules within the laws themselves.

    Thus came free software a quarter of a century ago, even before the web was officially called, but already with its basic property of cheap infinite copying, when coders realized that the traditional copyright didn't fit their way of cooperating and curtailed their creative work. It spread and became the base and foundation of todays internet infrastructure, with Apache webservers on GNU/Linux computers serving its content - unbeknown to most of its users.

    And from the same spring came creative commons, about 20 years later, used by artists who realize that the traditional rules do more harm than good to them.

    The new digital world began before the internet was started by making the copy an integral part of even looking at data, but it grew with the internet which pushed the effects of this new technology right into the face of our societies. And so the digital world which currently finds its most well known expression in the internet is an ownership breaker by design, and many battles were fought over this most beloved and most hated feature.

    You can no longer control what people do with things you put into the internet, as long as you allow them to see them. Once they saw them, if even for a moment, they could have a copy. You can only use social rules to keep them from passing on their copies, or take over their computers.

    Even while I write this comment, I don't do it on your website. I write it in a local copy of your website which is stored by my browser, and I could go on writing it long after your website disappeared, as long as my computer kept the copy.

    The only way around this is to go back to the analog age, where showing doesn't equal handing out a copy, or to allow some entity complete control over our computers to enforce certain rules - and over our lives which more and more move towards the digital space.

    To come back to the question: The web is not too good for us. It provides more openness than many people want to provide, and far more than the law offers, but this openness gave rise to movements which shaped the openness into freedom by establishing the rule that whatever is freed must never be shackled again. They took the single inherent freedom of copying and added the freedoms of changing and using. From that source came free software which drives the internet and the Wikipedia which provides the worlds largest publicly accessable knowledge base. Creative Commons walks a similar path by always allowing the copying of the creative works, but it allows for much more control by the creator.

    The internet globally removes the restriction on copying which is inherent in our analog world. Our societies and legal systems, though, will take time to adapt. If we're lucky they'll accept the internet as freedom and adapt as free software and the wikipedia did. If we're unlucky they'll try to limit the openness, either through technology or through laws. They could turn that openness from an openness for people into an openness of people, because copying doesn't only go one direction. They can just as well copy a record of every move me make and use this to create an almost perfect surveillance system with all its implications on freedom.

    And they wouldn't necessarily need to establish the punishing based rules we currently have as laws. They could just as well use digital shackles, which not just disallow some action but make it impossible. The rules could be like a car which makes it impossible for me to drive faster than the law allows while my child bleeds to dead on the backseat.

    So the web is neither good or bad. It's simply a world which operates on slighly different rules than the physical world, and we're still only learning the implications, promises and dangers of that tiny change of rules.

    PS: Since this comment turned into article-size itself, I also published it on my website under free licenses :)


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