If you are a civilian like me (an anthropologist, that is, without much technical savvy), it’s a little mystifying. Will Internet 2.0 (aka Web 2.0) change everything or just some things? Is this a revolutionary moment or an evolutionary one? Is everything I know wrong, or just this, that and the other thing? Is this 2.0h! or merely 2.0.
I was listening to a podcast in which Jenny Attiyeh interviews David Weinberger, Chris Nolan, and Stowe Boyd. And it filled me with that sense of panic that always happens when I listen to people talk about the future. Intellectually, I begin to hyperventilate. What if everything I know is wrong! Maybe the world is once more taking leave of my senses.
Here are three models that sort out the possibilities for me. Consider them a kind of telescope. Those who buy model 3, probably also buy models 2 and 1. Those who buy 2, probably also buy 1 (but not 3). Those who buy model 1 only buy model 1. I make no claims for the veracity or the utility of these models. But writing them out helped return my pulse almost to normal.
Model one: disintermediation
The Internet is an efficiency machine. It removes the friction that stands between buyers and sellers. Now Dell can sell directly, from factories to consumers. Now Amazon can disintermediate the bookstore and someday the publisher. We are on the verge of being able to tell how much of the marketplace was about the accidents, not the essentials, of supply and demand. Markets will verge on maximal efficiency.
In this model, the revolution runs deep but its structural effects are limited. Really, we live in the same old world. It’s just that certain pieces have been taken out. Hey, we didn’t need them anyhow. The world is merely more compact, more elegant. And that’s a good thing.
Model two: long tail
The Internet is a profusion machine. It allows small cultural producers to find small cultural consumers, and as a result, all hell is breaking lose. Chris Anderson’s long tail model (and my own plenitude model) says that the tiny acts of innovation, rebellion and refusal that used to die in obscurity can now, some of them, find just enough fellow travellers to sustain themselves. As a result, the gravitational power of the center is being made to creak like the mast of an 18th century man of war in a perfect storm. It might hold…or maybe this is the moment to throw ourselves overboard.
I recently had dinner with a journalist who belongs to the upper reaches of the newspaper elite. Casually, ever so casually, she let slip that the great newspapers may not exist five years from now. This is a very good way to get an anthropologist’s attention and make his head spin. I had to leave the table. My paper bag was in the cloak room.
In effect, the long tail model is an efficiency model too. It says that now that people can reach one another, they will reach one another. The costs of access, the friction created by the media, has dropped to almost nothing. But this model goes vastly beyond the efficiency model. It says that the structural effects of the Internet 2.0 will not be merely a matter of making the economy more efficient. There will also be social consequences large and small. The world will ramify. Elites will fall. Diversity will flourish. The fundamentals of association and government will transform. In short, the very nature of the social beast will change.
This is not a disintermediated world with "bits taken out." This is the world less hierarchical and more heterogeneous, a whole with more, and more various, parts now wired and networked in new ways.
Model three: reformation
The Internet is a reformation machine. It will create new fundamentals of and for our world. It change the units of analysis and the relationships between them. This reformation model says, in other words, that the coming changes will deeply cultural…and not merely social (model 2) and economic (model 1).
I noticed this doing research in Korea. Teens and college students were creating new networks with webpages (the local equivalent of MySpace) and and the clouds of photos and messages they were sending one another. I assumed that this was Model 2 stuff, a change in fundamentals of interaction, until they began to talk about themselves in new ways.
It became clear eventually that these people were reforming personhood and the self. The self was not merely better connected, but now more porous, more distributed, more cloud like. This cultural fundamental, the definition of what and who a person is, was changing. (In the Attiyeh interview, Weinberger talks about buddy lists in the West and what he calls the "continuous presence" of friends.)
When I listen to Clay Shirky (pictured) talk about categories of knowledge and the tags by which it is organized, I begin to wonder, as he does more brilliantly than I could hope to, whether we are looking at new ideas of the idea. This too is a good way to get the anthropologist’s attention. If there is something my tribe cares about, it is culture and the way in which culture defines knowledge of and in the world. To think that this is now "under construction" is quite enough to make me reach for a paper bag and my best hyperventilation cessation technique. Just give me a minute. No, really, I’ll be fine.
The reformation model says fundamental categories of our culture (particularly the self and the group and the terms with which we think about them) are changing. We are now down to what is sometimes called the DNA level of things. This isn’t actually a great metaphor for anthropological purposes, but the phrase is a tag, so you know what I mean. Model 3 is not about faster markets or new networks. This is a change in the basic terms of reference, the very internal blue print with which we understand and construct the world.
Model four: continuous presence (everything and everyone all the time)
One way to assess innovations is to make a guess about where we are headed. I think our economic, social and cultural destination might be this: we will be continuously connected to all knowledge and all people with a minimum of friction, and priviledge will be measured, in part, by how good are the filters with which we make contact with all but only the people and knowledge we care about. One of these filters will, I hope, be a "pattern recognition" system that detects the fundamental changes set in train by models 1, 2 and 3 so that we can have a little early warning. Because, frankly, you know, I’ve just about had it.
Jenny Attiyeh interviews David Weinberger, Chris Nolan, and Stowe Boyd. Thoughtcast. here.
Shirky, Clay. 2005. Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags. Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet. here.