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June 13, 2007

Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad: A Response to Gorman

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Encyclopedia Britannica has started a Web 2.0 Forum, where they are hosting a conversation going on around a set of posts by Michael Gorman. The first post, in two parts, is titled Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and is a defense of the print culture against alteration by digital technologies. This is my response, which will be going up on the Britannica site later this week.

Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters starts with a broad list of complaints against the current culture, from biblical literalism to interest in alternatives to Western medicine.

The life of the mind in the age of Web 2.0 suffers, in many ways, from an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise. Bloggers are called “citizen journalists”; alternatives to Western medicine are increasingly popular, though we can thank our stars there is no discernable “citizen surgeon” movement; millions of Americans are believers in Biblical inerrancy—the belief that every word in the Bible is both true and the literal word of God, something that, among other things, pits faith against carbon dating; and, scientific truths on such matters as medical research, accepted by all mainstream scientists, are rejected by substantial numbers of citizens and many in politics. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s Dr. Nathan Null, “a White House Situational Science Adviser,” tells us that: “Situational science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by facts.”

This is meant to set the argument against a big canvas of social change, but the list is so at odds with the historical record as to be self-defeating.

The percentage of the US population believing in the literal truth of the Bible has remained relatively constant since the 1980s, while the percentage listing themselves as having “no religion” has grown. Interest in alternative medicine dates to at least the patent medicines of the 19th century; the biggest recent boost for that movement came under Reagan, when health supplements, soi-disant, were exempted from FDA scrutiny. Trudeau’s welcome critique of the White House’s assault on reason targets a political minority, not the internet-using population, and so on. If you didn’t know that this litany appeared under the heading Web 2.0, you might suspect Gorman’s target was anti-intellectualism during Republican administrations.

Even the part of the list specific to new technology gets it wrong. Bloggers aren’t called citizen-journalists; bloggers are called bloggers. Citizen-journalist describes people like Alisara Chirapongse, the Thai student who posted photos and observations of the recent coup during a press blackout. If Gorman can think of a better label for times when citizens operate as journalists, he hasn’t shared it with us.

Similarly, lumping Biblical literalism with Web 2.0 misses the mark. Many of the most active social media sites — Slashdot, Digg, Reddit — are rallying points for those committed to scientific truth. Wikipedia users have so successfully defended articles on Evolution, Creationism and so on from the introduction of counter-factual beliefs that frustrated literalists helped found Conservapedia, whose entry on Evolution is a farrago of anti-scientific nonsense.

But wait — if use of social media is bad, and attacks on the scientific method are bad, what are we to make of social media sites that defend the scientific method? Surely Wikipedia is better than Conservapedia on that score, no? Well, it all gets confusing when you start looking at the details, but Gorman is not interested in the details. His grand theory, of the hell-in-a-handbasket variety, avoids any look at specific instantiations of these tools — how do the social models of Digg and Wikipedia differ? does Huffington Post do better or worse than Instapundit on factual accuracy? — in favor of one sweeping theme: defense of incumbent stewards of knowledge against attenuation of their erstwhile roles.

There are two alternate theories of technology on display in Sleep of Reason. The first is that technology is an empty vessel, into which social norms may be poured. This is the theory behind statements like “The difference is not, emphatically not, in the communication technology involved.” (Emphasis his.) The second theory is that intellectual revolutions are shaped in part by the tools that sustain them. This is the theory behind his observation that the virtues of print were “…often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.”

These two theories cannot both be true, so it’s odd to find them side by side, but Gorman does not seem to be comfortable with either of them as a general case. This leads to a certain schizophrenic quality to the writing. We’re told that print does not necessarily bestow authenticity and that some digital material does, but we’re also told that he consulted “authoritative printed sources” on Goya. If authenticity is an option for both printed and digital material, why does printedness matter? Would the same words on the screen be less scholarly somehow?

Gorman is adopting a historically contingent view: Revolution then was good, revolution now is bad. As a result, according to Gorman, the shift to digital and networked reproduction of information will fail unless it recapitulates the institutions and habits that have grown up around print.

Gorman’s theory about print — its capabilities ushered in an age very different from manuscript culture — is correct, and the same kind of shift is at work today. As with the transition from manuscripts to print, the new technologies offer virtues that did not previously exist, but are now an assumed and permanent part of our intellectual environment. When reproduction, distribution, and findability were all hard, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed specialists to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated them for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have instead become obstacles to direct access.

Digital and networked production vastly increase three kinds of freedom: freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. This perforce increases the freedom of anyone to say anything at any time. This freedom has led to an explosion in novel content, much of it mediocre, but freedom is like that. Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain are as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline. Experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect — the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.

This improved ability to find both content and people is one of the core virtues of our age. Gorman insists that he was able to find “…the recorded knowledge and information I wanted [about Goya] in seconds.” This is obviously an impossibility for most of the population; if you wanted detailed printed information on Goya and worked in any environment other than a library, it would take you hours at least. This scholars-eye view is the key to Gorman’s lament: so long as scholars are content with their culture, the inability of most people to enjoy similar access is not even a consideration.

Wikipedia is the best known example of improved findability of knowledge. Gorman is correct that an encyclopedia is not the product of a collective mind; this is as true of Wikipedia as of Britannica. Gorman’s unfamiliarity and even distaste for Wikipedia leads him to mistake the dumbest utterances of its most credulous observers for an authentic accounting of its mechanisms; people pushing arguments about digital collectivism, pro or con, known nothing about how Wikipedia actually works. Wikipedia is the product not of collectivism but of unending argumentation; the corpus grows not from harmonious thought but from constant scrutiny and emendation.

The success of Wikipedia forces a profound question on print culture: how is information is to be shared with the majority of the population? This is an especially tough question, as print culture has so manifestly failed at the transition to a world of unlimited perfect copies. Because Wikipedia’s contents are both useful and available, it has eroded the monopoly held by earlier modes of production. Other encyclopedias now have to compete for value to the user, and they are failing because their model mainly commits them to denying access and forbidding sharing. If Gorman wants more people reading Britannica, the choice lies with its management. Were they to allow users unfettered access to read and share Britannica’s content tomorrow, the only interesting question is whether their readership would rise a ten-fold or a hundred-fold.

Britannica will tell you that they don’t want to compete on universality of access or sharability, but this is the lament of the scribe who thinks that writing fast shouldn’t be part of the test. In a world where copies have become cost-free, people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing are forgoing the principal advantages of the new tools, and this dilemma is common to every institution modeled on the scarcity and fragility of physical copies. Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themselves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material.

If Gorman were looking at Web 2.0 and wondering how print culture could aspire to that level of accessibility, he would be doing something to bridge the gap he laments. Instead, he insists that the historical mediators of access “…promote intellectual development by exercising judgment and expertise to make the task of the seeker of knowledge easier.” This is the argument Catholic priests made to the operators of printing presses against publishing translations of the Bible — the laity shouldn’t have direct access to the source material, because they won’t understand it properly without us. Gorman offers no hint as to why direct access was an improvement when created by the printing press then but a degradation when created by the computer. Despite the high-minded tone, Gorman’s ultimate sentiment is no different from that of everyone from music executives to newspaper publishers: Old revolutions good, new revolutions bad.

Comments (48) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. Calvin on June 13, 2007 12:34 PM writes...

Thanks, Clay, for your insightful rebuttal. What I find ironic, is the use of Web 2.0 technology (a blog) to argue against Web 2.0 technology. In the tradition of "your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear what you are saying," the Britannica--by putting up a blog and allowing comments--and Gorman--for buying into Web 2.0 by posting--are behaving Web 2.0 so loudly, I can't quite hear what they are saying.

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2. Lynda Radosevich on June 13, 2007 1:47 PM writes...

After reading your piece here, I went back and read Michael Gorman's original post. You do a great job exposing the logic holes of his essay and there are even more ironies: I'm grateful that my RSS reader lead me to your post linking me to his piece so I could read his colorful, if incoherent, anti-Web 2.0 rant.

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3. Frank on June 13, 2007 3:47 PM writes...

GREAT, great commentary. I just want to contest the point about the most interesting question for Brittanica. It is not how much readership goes up, it is how much operating profit goes down. Brittanica is not a social or civil organization for the betterment of mankind. It is a business with profit as its motive.

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4. David Louis Edelman on June 13, 2007 4:01 PM writes...

I'm unclear why you believe that Gorman's piece is an "anti-Web 2.0 rant." It's nothing of the kind. His point is very simple: knowledge used to flow downhill from widely acknowledged and credentialed experts. Now in the Web 2.0 world, everyone's an expert. How do you trust that these experts have their facts straight?

I know that advocates of Web 2.0 have plenty of good answers to this dilemma. My feeling is that the Web 2.0 advocates have the better argument at the end of the day. But reframing Gorman's (rather calm, rational) piece as a Luddite rant is disingenuous, to say the least, and does nothing to advance the argument.

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5. Al Billings on June 13, 2007 4:35 PM writes...

How do we trust that these experts have their facts straight?

Frankly, as someone finishing off his Master's degree and who knows quite a few people with their PhDs, I'm surprised at that thought. It is pretty clear to me that many experts, with the nice three letters after their name or not, do not really know what they are talking about. The illusion of competence is just that, an illusion, and it always has been. There is no way of knowing whether ANY expert truly knows what they are talking about without examining what they say closely or looking at their opinions over time. It doesn't matter what comes after their name...

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6. michael confoy on June 13, 2007 5:16 PM writes...

I agree with David Louis Edeleman, not sure what is setting off this reaction, nor do I see anything saying that is trying to say this is an advertisement for Brittanica. He discussion is much more general than that, but I guess the lack of understanding of what he is trying to say makes his point? (That should get the flammers going :-) ) Seriously though, its as if people are talking about something completely different and what is setting them off is beyond me. But then this very medium will make it difficult to ever clarify that with most people. And as I noted on Gorman's blog, can anyone tell me why the Wikipedia entry on the Ramones says that their biggest musical influence is the Beatles?. At least with a book, it will be reviewed by newspapers, amazon even, but this?

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7. Bruce LeSourd on June 13, 2007 6:02 PM writes...

All this argument is moot, since we've already jumped off the cliff of/launched into orbit with the digital age. But acknowledging that is no fun, so I'll jump in the fray:

Brittanica advocates are constantly talking about these "widely acknowledged and credentialed experts" (to quote David Edelman's comment). What they never acknowledge is that these experts, particularly in academia, succeed in their careers by staking out conflicting theoretical territory. Asking a single "credentialed expert", or even the entire faculty from a single University department, to write an article on a particular topic they have expertise in is no different from getting an unusual surgery without a second opinion. Thus, assuming a Brittanica article on a particular topic is "authoritative" is at least as dangerous as assuming a Wikipedia article is authoritative, since it is almost guaranteed to represent a strong bias toward a particular theoretical viewpoint.

This problem is compounded by the dominance of scarcity in the Brittanica model. Since experts are expensive to hire and books are expensive to print, Brittanica must make hard choices about how many topics it covers and how long the articles can be. This means that yet another panel of "experts" with their own, even less transparent, specific agendas shape what is deemed fit for inclusion. Lack of comprehensiveness is just as big a source of inaccuracy, from the perspective of documenting our culture, as putting wrong things in. Wikipedia will never have this problem.

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8. Steve Cameron on June 13, 2007 6:07 PM writes...

In response to David Louis Edelman, I think that Gorman makes it pretty clear from the title of his post, "Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason", and from it's opening line that he has a less than glowing opinion of Web 2.0: "The life of the mind in the age of Web 2.0 suffers, in many ways, from an increase in credulity and an associated flight from expertise." I agree that it's not quite the "anti-Web 2.0 rant" Clay Shirky makes it out to be, but at least Shirky's mis-representations are limited to rhetorical flourishes and not the substance of his arguments, as in Gorman's case.

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9. Clay Shirky on June 13, 2007 6:38 PM writes...

Several reactions,. seriatim:

@Frank: Yes, obviously EB's business model requires enforced scarcity, but that is the part of Gorman's argument I am trying to highlight -- their competitive disadvantage relative to Wikipedia is self-inflicted. The fact that the self-infliction is in service of revenue doesn't change that.

@David: You are right that I am being unfair in framing Gorman as a Luddite, but the unfairness comes from a different quarter than you understand. I have read all five of Gorman's upcoming pieces, only two of which have so far appeared. You will be amused to know that next week, Gorman specifically tries to rescue the Luddite program, by saying "Ned Ludd and his friends had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution." As his overall goal is to ensure that incumbents have veto power over key aspects of new tools, I'd say that Gorman's own embrace of Ludd gets it about right.

@Steve: Thanks, and in further defense, I'll point out that the 'anti-Web 2.0 rant' label was a telegraphic point on BoingBoing, and does not appear in the piece here, nor will it appear on the Britannica site.

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10. Seth Finkelstein on June 13, 2007 7:01 PM writes...

"Ned Ludd and his friends had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution"

But this correct. "Luddite" is a dirty word, the techie version of "counter-revolutionary". But the origins show a depth of meaning that gets missed when it's used as an epithet.

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11. Clay Shirky on June 13, 2007 7:23 PM writes...

@Seth, from my point of view, it's only _half_ correct.

Ludd and the pre-industrial weavers were obviously adversely affected by mechanical looms. But Gorman labels their grievance -- technology has automated previously hard jobs -- legitimate. This is, precisely, a counter-revolutionary attitude, one that finds its parallel today in everything from pro-DRM arguments to attempts to to shut down VoIP.

It's entirely consistent with the rest of Groman's observations to label his views Luddite, as countering the current revolution, particularly in the direction of preserving the shape of society prior to recent technological change, is his goal. You can certainly think of the Luddite program as legitimate, but if you do anything from wearing machine-woven cloth to reading the web, your beliefs are inconsistent with your actions.

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12. Derek Tutschulte on June 13, 2007 7:23 PM writes...

I commend you for taking Gorman's argument seriously enough to craft a measured response.

I was recently disturbed to hear Andrew Keen's similar argument on the Brian Lehrer show. Both authors seem to have no knowledge of human and algorithmic filtering of content. To them, the internet is just one, indistinguishable voice, and as a result, understandably fear the monster they have created in their own minds.

I suggest they take their own advice, and leave the explanations of the internet and "Web 2.0" to the experts.


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13. Clay Shirky on June 13, 2007 7:26 PM writes...

@Seth, from my point of view, it's only _half_ correct.

Ludd and the pre-industrial weavers were obviously adversely affected by mechanical looms, and I say that in my forthcoming reply. But Gorman labels their grievance (technology has automated previously hard jobs) legitimate. This is, precisely, a counter-revolutionary attitude, one that finds its parallel today in everything from pro-DRM arguments to attempts to to shut down VoIP.

It's entirely consistent with the rest of Groman's observations to label his views both Luddite and counter-revolutionary, as his goal is in fact countering the current revolution, by preserving the shape of society prior to recent technological change.

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14. David HM Spector on June 13, 2007 8:24 PM writes...

HG Wells put it best:

"New and stirring things are belittled because if they are not belittled, the humiliating question arises, 'Why then are you not taking part in them?'"


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15. Seth Finkelstein on June 13, 2007 8:58 PM writes...

I would not label the Luddite's grievance "technology has automated previously hard jobs" - which might as well be "technology has thrown those lazy goldbricks out of their cushy featherbedding union jobs" for how it comes across - but rather "technology was used as a weapon of the wealthy against the economic security of the working class". A much more complex story.

By the way, this is a reason I find "Web 2.0" evangelism so horribly plutocratic, despite the rhetoric - anyone who protests the obvious way the rich and powerful use the technology in economic warfare, is reflexively smeared as anti-technology. That ought to tell you something about what's going on.
(hint: it's not just about technology)

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16. Clay Shirky on June 13, 2007 9:26 PM writes...

@Seth, we agree about the facts -- wide-frame looms destroyed the economic livelihoods of the pre-industrial weavers. (I'm not quite sure why this doesn't constitute "automating previously hard jobs" -- this automation is precisely what led to the collapse of the the cost of woven goods.) The Luddite reaction was to try to prevent this lowering of prices by destroying those looms.

It's possible to disagree about the legitimacy of this program while agreeing about those facts. I suspect you think the Luddite program was basically just. I don't. But that difference of opinion doesn't hinge on the underlying facts and doesn't, in my view, affect the basic accuracy of these two statements: the Luddite program was specifically counter-revolutionary and opposed to technological change, and Michael Gorman is a Luddite.

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17. Seth Finkelstein on June 13, 2007 9:39 PM writes...

Well, are labor strikes "just"? Especially when strikers try to intimidate scabs?

What you're ignoring is that it was not technologically determined that the workers would not share in the productivity gains from the advance - that was a specific social arrangement favored by the owners, which is a vital part of the Luddites' grievance and not considered when the story is told.

Let's put it this way: There's a very facile, one-sided portrayal of workers as venial and crazy, such portrayal usually benefiting their corporate opponents. I would not be eager to reinforce such a narrative. Are you?

I think your statements are misplaced in their emphasis. It could equally be said that you're a shill (no offense intended here - I mean only that if you justify dismissing the points Gorman makes with such an economic label, it would seem a similar dismissal could be done in the reverse - neither viewpoint is accurate in my view, but I'm reversing the caricature to show what's wrong with that oversimplification).

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18. David Monniaux on June 14, 2007 1:41 AM writes...

"His point is very simple: knowledge used to flow downhill from widely acknowledged and credentialed experts."

Yet this point is incorrect.

In practice, for most of the population, knowledge used to flow from widely acknowledged and credentialed experts... that were not listened to by the general public. Instead, the general public got informed through many layers of filters and alterations, especially the media and popular fiction.

The general public did not get informed about scientific discoveries by reading a piece from a credentialed researcher. Instead, it saw an item in a newspaper, most of which was totally inaccurate. This is after all unsurprising, since most media outlets do not have journalists knowledgeable about the topics they cover; an article on science is likely to have been written by an intern with a vague literature or journalism degree!

Many people out there do not read books written by true experts. They watch TV news, they watch fiction films, they read newspapers, *and they think that what they see represents reality*. This is the real problem.

In the real world, few people have access to large, well-stocked, libraries. Or, if they do (for instance they are in a wealthy city with good public libraries) they may not have the cultural reflex to go there. In any case, people living in villages, smaller towns etc. do not have that luxury.

Thus, lamenting that Wikipedia et al. replace good academic sources is besides the point. What they replace is the torrent of mediocrity that's information directly brought by the mass media.

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19. Martijn Kriens on June 14, 2007 1:49 AM writes...

I think there is one point overlooked in what Gorman says. Of course is unlimited information flows good. People can express themselves and lots of different opinions are available.

However, filtering and rating information is important, in science as well as in everyday news. We have to know how far we can trust the information and the source. In the "old days" our filter were based in the production side. Production was costly through printing and distribution. To make these decisions we employed professionals. Maybe not the best model overall but the best of all the bad models available at us at that time.

With Web 2.0 our filters from the production side have been removed so now we are flooded with information where it is hard to distinguish in objective quality. One of the scientific risks is that this leads to the use of information one likes without the check on the validity of conclusion. Science does need a thorough process of checks to determine quality. And again, peer review is the best of all the bad models we have for this.

We have to understand why and how our quality mechanisms work in the physical production and distribution in order to make the translation to how we deal with it in the digital world. The goals remain the same (quality and trustworthy information) but the mechanisms will be fundamentally different because the new possibilities web 2.0 gives us. Exciting new possibilities and maybe even better ones than we had in the physical domain.

That I think is also how you can read Gorman.

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20. David Gerard on June 14, 2007 6:14 AM writes...

Indeed. There's quite enough real defects in English Wikipedia (which is the specific instance most of the criticisms are of) - and no-one is more aware of them than those of us in the middle of it - and answering spurious ones that literally make no sense but get wide filtered by experts exposure is ... unnecessarily annoying.

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21. Nick Carr on June 14, 2007 8:35 AM writes...

Clay,

Regarding:

There are two alternate theories of technology on display in Sleep of Reason. The first is that technology is an empty vessel, into which social norms may be poured. This is the theory behind statements like “The difference is not, emphatically not, in the communication technology involved.” (Emphasis his.) The second theory is that intellectual revolutions are shaped in part by the tools that sustain them. This is the theory behind his observation that the virtues of print were “…often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.” These two theories cannot both be true ...

You're absolutely right, and why Gorman would dismiss the importance of the "communication technology" is beyond me. I think his reason went to sleep for a moment.

Regarding: "Because Wikipedia’s contents are both useful and available, it has eroded the monopoly held by earlier modes of production." But is it establishing a new and narrower monopoly in the place of the alleged old one? "If Gorman wants more people reading Britannica, the choice lies with its management. Were they to allow users unfettered access to read and share Britannica’s content tomorrow, the only interesting question is whether their readership would rise a ten-fold or a hundred-fold." This strikes me as a great oversimplification; the question of the size of the readership is far from the only interesting one. Sure, if Britannica reinvents itself on the Wikipedia (free and open) model it would probably get a lot more traffic. But it would no longer be Britannica; it would be something else. To change the consumption model, you have to change the production model, and once you do that you've changed the thing that you're producing. It's true that "people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing are forgoing the principal advantages of the new tools," but in fairness they're also trying to avoid the disadvantages of the new tools (or at least sustain the advantages of the old tools). Maybe they're just Luddites and the disadvantages are merely figments of their benighted imaginations, but nevertheless what you're underscoring here is the power of the newly emerging techno-economic monopoly to govern and constrain the way intellectual or informational goods are produced and consumed. There's more at stake here than the number of eyeballs Britannica or Wikipedia attracts.

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22. Steve Cameron on June 14, 2007 11:32 AM writes...

@ Clay : your comment #11 : "You can certainly think of the Luddite program as legitimate, but if you do anything from wearing machine-woven cloth to reading the web, your beliefs are inconsistent with your actions." reminded me of this appropriate cartoon :

http://www.wellingtongrey.net/miscellanea/archive/2007-05-20--when-im-king.html

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23. Steve Cameron on June 14, 2007 11:53 AM writes...

@ Nick (comment #21) regarding you're second point : I don't think Clay is arguing that Britannica should become open-source/editable by its readership like Wikipedia is to be competitive. He is arguing, from my understanding, that Britannica should be a free online resource like Wikipedia. Keep the experts and then people would have a reason to visit their site as opposed to Wikipedia. I think the OED should do this too, and there's no better time to do it than now, before the new Wikipedia off-shoot, the Wiktionary, takes hold.

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24. Melissa Shepherd on June 14, 2007 12:21 PM writes...

I like this: "We have to understand why and how our quality mechanisms work in the physical production and distribution in order to make the translation to how we deal with it in the digital world. The goals remain the same (quality and trustworthy information) but the mechanisms will be fundamentally different because the new possibilities web 2.0 gives us. Exciting new possibilities and maybe even better ones than we had in the physical domain."
What we are seeing is a new approach to quality assessment of "fact" on the user end--the end user filters and assesses what THEY need on the way out, not what "experts" have pre-filtered on the way in.(Thanks David Weinberger) When viewing any media now, to get the best results, the user must think intuitively in terms of probability of accuracy of every statement and bit of information. Perhaps a user personally assesses a "fact" as 80% correct from one site, a "fact" from another as 65% correct, and what that user personally "knows" already as 90% correct. A shift occurs as the user collects and processes information from various sources, forming conclusions, and suspending judgment. Even after judgment, the user must only think of their conclusion as "likely to be x%" accurate. Really, this is the same mental process and shift as has always happened with information processing. We have just never seen it happen so fast, from so many easily accessible "non-expert" sources before. The users who can take in and process the most information are the ones who will arrive at conclusions that have a high probability of being valid.
It means that schools and libraries must find an updated way to present the skills of validity checking to students and new researchers because the filter has flipped. Probably the youngest researchers will be teaching this to librarians as we go...

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25. Seth Finkelstein on June 14, 2007 12:44 PM writes...

@Melissa - "What we are seeing is a new approach to quality assessment of "fact" on the user end ..."

Yes indeed, as elaborated by that great intellectual, Stephen Colbert:

"Well, anybody who knows me knows that I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart."

The problem is that there's too much "Web 2.0" evangelism that puts forth that view in all seriousness!


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26. Nick Carr on June 14, 2007 3:42 PM writes...

Steve, I meant "open" as in freely share-able rather than as in open-source. Sorry for the ambiguity, and thanks for pointing it out. Nick

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27. Clay Shirky on June 14, 2007 4:13 PM writes...

@Seth:

You ask Well, are labor strikes "just"? It depends on both their motivations and targets, of course. A union is a cartel of labor, and a cartel has a range of behaviors they can engage in. If a strike is called in order to destroy more efficient forms of production, I'd say No. Take, as an example, that insane proposal that Google pay newspapers because it made finding information too easy -- imagine that newspaper people took that idea seriously, and began a DoS attack on Google, the 21st century of Luddite vandalism. I'd call that unjust.

As for the Luddites not sharing in the productivity gains, why should they? They weren't doing the work. That would be like Ford paying buggy manufacturers. The cushion for creative destruction shouldn't come as reparations from the people making systems more efficient, they should come from the state, who taxes all industries and uses the proceeds to offer some form of state support. Taxing the people doing the most innovative work in destroying traditional inefficiencies risks making such innovation less desirable.

Put another way, the Luddite's complaint was obviously real -- they couldn't keep up with machines -- but their reaction was illegitimate, in that they did not take their grievance to the state, but rather tried to hold the citizenry hostage to "customary" prices for woven material. The fact that everyone who has ever been in a competitive situation would like to exit the market mechanism doesn't make it just, and much of what's wrong with the modern world comes from businesses, from music companies to agribusiness, who have succeeded at the plans the Luddites failed at.

Obviously my economic critique of Gorman can be reversed, but to say that two points of view are possible does not mean that they are equally good. I'm happy to be called a shill, if being a shill means defending innovation from veto by incumbents. I think Gorman is engaged in the same kind of special pleading the Luddites were, where technological improvement is portrayed as bad for society if it is bad for one particular profession.

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28. Al Abut on June 14, 2007 4:19 PM writes...

Ooo, reading the comments gave me a great idea for a tshirt slogan: "anti-counter-revolutionary".

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29. Al Abut on June 14, 2007 4:32 PM writes...

Crap, that's what I get for posting without googling for background info. Apparently the phrase is associated with Mao deploying the military against student demonstrations in the late 80's.

The slogan "against those that are against the web revolution" doesn't have the same ring to it.

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30. LostInDaJungle on June 14, 2007 5:57 PM writes...

Are the Luddites just after one person dies for lack of a winter coat? Extreme, I know, but the lowering of those prices has been a net gain for the poor.

If they invented a machine that could be a doctor and made quality medicine affordable to all, would your local GP be justified in trying to destroy the machine just to maintain their current scarcity and earnings?

As the Luddites watched the Loom jobs go away, there opened up jobs for loom machine manufacturers, repair men, salesmen... (And in a lot of other places.)

Both Gorman and the Luddites share the same natural fear of their livelyhoods and traditions being destroyed, but you can't fight progress.

The funny thing is that Brittanica, Webster's, etc... were founded by guys with a vision of getting information to the masses, and people questioned how they'd make money doing that. Now in their fear of giving it away free, they're about to lose their "brand". If Brittanica doesn't exist in 10 years it will be because a more accessible alternative has taken it's place.

If access to that information helps a third-world kid with a OLPC cure cancer, what of Brittanica's closed model then?

A patent clerk explained the Universe for us. Not a university professor. Knowledge increases in value as it multiplies.

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31. Seth Finkelstein on June 14, 2007 7:01 PM writes...

@Clay

If you're going to beg the questions, what's the point? I can say "Take the very reasonable proposal that Google should pay royalties instead of infringing on newspaper's work" - in fact, seriously, it is NOT obvious that Google is correct according to copyright law in the situation of Google News, and they've *lost* at times in front of real live judges, as in the Belgium case (n.b. my personal view is that all things considered, Google is probably correct there, but it's a delicate enough question that I think it's not so obvious that anyone who thinks otherwise should immediately be subjected to rebuttal-by-definition-of-opposition).

"As for the Luddites not sharing in the productivity gains, why should they?" - and this is the key. Why should we have Social Security, or Unemployment Insurance, or Medicare or Medicaid, or Public Schools, or anything other that most dog-eat-dog if-you-can't-work-STARVE Social Darwinist sort of society? If you acknowledge what was going was quite literally class warfare, and you want to say the wealthy were completely right and the poor completely wrong, well, we can debate that, but let's not *ignore* that's part of what it was about - not "technology" in some abstract sense.

But I agree with you that the destruction is no good solution. Where I take issue is the framing of it as some sort of deeply irrational action by people who hated technology _per se_, rather than a desperate action of workers where the state (in the form of owners) was not addressing the economic effects. It's trivially easy to wag a finger and recite free-market economics - but that does a disservice to understanding the inevitable flaws of the marketplace approach to society.

The potential shilling is not some noble "defending innovation", but defending demagoguery and a rhetorical framework that would not be out of place in any union-busting corporate public relations firm.

[note I should disclaim my general views are not nearly as harsh as my rhetoric here. But I believe aspects of Web-evangelism that seem to fit so well with the worst of corporatist ideology, deserve some push-back]

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32. Clay Shirky on June 14, 2007 8:26 PM writes...

@Seth, fair enough on the Google/copyright issue. I didn't mean to be begging the question, since I'm not actually contesting legitimacy of motivations but of actions, both for the Luddites, and in the hypothetical DoS case.

So let's set aside questions of copyright law and search, and let's further stipulate that the people who work at newspapers are correct in believing that the web is destroying the economics of their business, which gives them the same grievance as the Luddites. Why should they not, by Luddite logic, be able to DoS eBay and Monster and Craig's eponymous list? There is no possible copyright issue there, but those sites have nevertheless led to a precipitate decline in the "customary" price, to channel King Ludd, of classified, job, and real estate listings. IF what the Luddites did was legitimate, than surely DoSing eBay would be as well, no? And if DoSing is not legitimate, why was destroying looms?

The question of whether the Luddites were anti-technological-change _per se_, or were reacting to the economics of the time is a more complex issue, and one I've been meaning to post about, which post this conversation has finally prodded me to start working on.e case.

So lets set aside questions of copyright law and search, and lets further stipulate that the people who work at newspapers are correct in believing that the web is destroying the economics of their business, whgives them the same grievance as the Luddites. Why should they not, by Luddite logic, be able to DoS eBay and Monster and Craig's eponymous list. There is no possible copyright issue there, but those sites have nevertheless led to a precipitate decline

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33. Seth Finkelstein on June 14, 2007 10:02 PM writes...

@Clay:

C'mon, I'm not condoning violence. That's a silly rhetorical ploy. But I am putting the violence into the economic context, which is akin more to labor strikes or the hunger riots of the Great Depression, than the impression given of some sort of anti-tech cult. And I believe part of the reason to have a social safety net is to manage economic disruption so that it doesn't turn into problems like that.

The topic of copyright is in fact deeply related here, because copyright is law concerned with the economic aspects of the printing press. And it shows how very very propagandistic is so much of the "Web 2.0" boosterism. The only time you hear about the printing press is something like "The printing press ordinary *PEOPLE* DOUBLEPLUS GOOD, against the Church *PRIESTS* DOUBLEPLUS BAD". Maybe, maybe, someone might mention copyright's unsavory origins in state control of printing. But we have a whole body of LAW TO REGULATE THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY, precisely against what would be its natural, unconstrained, economic effects. It's so woven into our norms that often talking about it as less than completely obvious gets one marginalized as a dangerous radical.

So I have little regard for the reflexive bashing done to Web 2.0 critics. I'll believe the boosters are really for laissez-faire in technology when they denounce copyright law as a restriction on freedom of speech (I'll grant there are in fact a few who will engage that issue, but they're rare, almost all the ones who are nothing but hucksters know that they have to serve power).

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34. Clay Shirky on June 15, 2007 9:09 AM writes...

@Nick:

To your comment, you wonder why Gorman would dismiss communications technologies, and chalk it up to an oversight.

I think instead that it is a telling mistake -- if communications technologies mattered, then Gorman would have to take digital and networked tools seriously on their own merits, which would take him far from his main thesis: The technological advantages offered by movable type were better than anything that went before, and are also better than anything that could come after. The lack of a coherent attitude about communications tools is what makes the exercise with Gorman frustrating, in fact.

(ObFanBoy: I was talking to my editor today about _Cult of the Amateur_, and lamenting that it was Keen and not you that kicked that conversation out to a broader public. It is a sad commentary on print culture that a hastily written book gets more coverage than thoughtful work on the web.)

To your more serious questions about Wikipedia:

I've never suggested that EB had a monopoly, nor do I think its current difficulties stem from its previous primacy. I think they stem from an inability to embrace digitality without challenging assumptions honed by two centuries of expertise in a print world, the principal assumption being "we can't let just anybody read this stuff."

The question of Wikipedia and monopoly is more complicated, of course, and goes back to the Weblogs and Powerlaws work. Wikipedia has obviously achieved a kind of homeostasis that would be extremely hard to displace. As an aside, my search preferences are highly conserved -- I used Yahoo almost exclusively from 1994 to 1999, and Google from 2000 to this year. This year, though, I noticed that Google has come to be merely a redirection layer for a certain class of Wikipedia entries that show up as the #1 link. When I was looking up the Crimean War recently, I intuited that the top Google link would just be to Wikipedia anyway, so I went there directly. That kind of behavioral change will not be impossible to undo, but it will be hard.

So I can only answer, I suppose, "Wikipedia has as much of a monopoly as you can have with a open service, save Google. Whether that is worrisome depends on the difficulty a superior service would have in displacing it." Yahoo, which looked similarly entrenched in 1999, was displaced relatively quickly, while Amazon, which looked like it might be in a crowded category has in fact never been in second place. I _think_ Wikipedia is more like Yahoo -- displacable if something better comes along -- but it may be like Amazon.

Your most serious question is about EB's business model, and let me here first cop to oversimplification. I don't mean to suggest that audience count is the most important issue.

I _do_ mean to suggest, however, that audience count is vital, more vital than you've sometimes given it credit for. You recently derided Wikipedia as having little more than an audience, but that audience is an indicator of otherwise unmet demand. This is especially important in the context of encyclopedias, because Wikipedia's success is driven by attention, which serves as a recruiting mechanism for further contribution and defense, while EB has committed themselves to erecting barriers to similar audience growth.

I don't believe that to change the consumption model, you have to change the production model -- to introduce two counter-examples, the NY Times takes material produced in the old way and makes it consumable in the new way, and the Public Library of Science efforts have implemented the old design of a peer reviewed journal on the web.

Whether that would be good for Britannica's business is of course the million dollar question, but that question is enjoined no matter what strategies EB pursues. For this reason, I disagree with your sense that EB is trying to sustain the advantages of the old tools. They are trying to preserve the _dis_advantages of the old tools, including scarcity, cost, poor reproducibility and low velocity of superdistribution.

This doesn't make them Luddites -- they believe that spending money to avoid the native advantages of digital material beat trying to work with them, which is their choice to make. To be a Luddite, in my view, is to try to preserve old disadvantages by attacking the new tools. EB has put up a pay wall, which is no more Luddite than music companies using DRM. (The people trying to close the analog hole are Luddites.)

Note too that your description presumes that Luddites are irrational, but that's an funny reading of the movement. Luddite fear is perfectly rational -- new tools destroy traditional models. That's what the new tools are for. Luddites are in a battle for their way of life, and they fight it by trying to prevent new advantages from taking hold, but the battle is with those of use who want to embrace those advantages, so we want them to lose.

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35. Seth Finkelstein on June 15, 2007 12:08 PM writes...

@Clay: "which is no more Luddite than music companies using DRM ..."

But you neglect music companies using the law to make it illegal to undo DRM. I think it's extremely revealing of the politics of Web 2.0 that you're omitting here the music industries' far-reaching legal changes to restrict technology - which have resulted in enormous lawsuits against new companies which are, basically, innovative users of new economic models and actual developers of technology (peer-to-peer), while raining down harsh denunciation on someone who is fundamentally no more than merely a loud noise in certain intellectual quarters.

That is: "To be a Luddite, in my view, is to try to preserve old disadvantages by attacking the new tools"

The phase "attacking the new tools" is so flexible. It apparently doesn't include actually making those tools illegal, if done by powerful existing businesses. It does seem to include writing essays saying, roughly, this is all a bunch of unmitigated crap which will lead to the decline and fall of Western Civilization.

Again, you might consider the implications there. Just a thought.

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36. Clay Shirky on June 15, 2007 12:23 PM writes...

@Seth, I didn't mean to neglect them, I just can't put an exhaustive list in a short post. Yes, of course restricting the users freedom to do as they like with material they pay for is also Luddite -- examples abound, so I can't list them all.

As for this, "It apparently doesn't include actually making those tools illegal", I'm not sure if you read my previous comment. Attempts to close the analog hole are exactly what you accuse me of neglecting -- attempts to make current tools illegal -- so I can't see what ommission I've made there. I also don't see how responding to Gorman weakens or even changes the negative effects of DRM.

I'm also having a hard time squaring your support for (historical) Luddite attacks on technology but opposing (analogously) Luddite attacks like the DMCA. Isn't the logic identical?

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37. David Gerard on June 15, 2007 3:34 PM writes...

Er, the Luddite attacks were on deliberate exploitation of them using the technology, not on the existence of technology itself. That's the incredibly subtle point you appear to be missing.

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38. Clay Shirky on June 15, 2007 4:20 PM writes...

@David,

That isn't a subtle point, it's simply incorrect.

The Luddites weren't being exploited, they were being competed with. Exploitation would be someone taking their cloth and not paying for it -- that's not what happened. Someone figured out a way to make cheaper cloth, and the homespun market collapsed.

And for all the seeming sophistication of suggesting the attacks were on "deliberate exploitation", you can't actually attack such a thing. They attacked the technology, quite literally. They DoSed the looms.

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39. Seth Finkelstein on June 15, 2007 4:22 PM writes...

@Clay, it's not about being exhaustive - the most obvious, overwhelming, by far the most dramatic example of entrenched interests rejecting laissez-faire in technology in favor of intervention to promote social interests ("incumbents have veto power over key aspects of new tools") - is copyright and then the DMCA. Not "trying to close the analog hole". Laws in place right now, which result in criminal charges for technologists. This tells us something. What it tells us is that technological freedom is *not* considered an overriding value against economic interests. Thus, I feel the focus on a centuries-ago bunch of people reacting violently to losing their jobs (who don't really have their side of the story all that available) as a curse-word for all that is anti-technology-progress, is severely misplaced. This is not support for violence. It's a sharp disputation of the way the issue is framed, of the subtext roughly, bad workers against economic progress via technology (and who would ever want to be on the same side as *them*?). There's quite a few bad *rich* people very blatantly against technological progress, yet their reasoning is widely publicized and nowhere near as criticized by public intellectuals (though, again, it happens, however it's a socially difficult task).

Let me try to ask what's the core of the argument. Instead of "Luddite", let's try the term "laissez-faire technology on economics".

Is your argument:

1) Nobody should oppose laissez-faire technology on economics

If so, while intellectually consistent, you have your work cut out for you. That's what copyright *does*. That's what the DMCA *does*.

2) Workers should not oppose laissez-faire technology on economics when it benefits capital

Then why the special pleading for capital, when capital certainly opposes laissez-faire technology on economics when it benefits others?!

Where I object is that I believe "Luddite" *sounds* like argument #1, but *functions in practice* as argument #2.

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40. Peter Timusk on June 15, 2007 4:37 PM writes...

Your use of schizophrenia to describe two opposing arguments is bad. Schizophrenia has nothing to do with this type of split. As long as I am academia I will speak out against this rubbish speach. Now the rest of your article is fine but brush up on your mental health knowledge please. Yes, I know you're just using the schizophrenia word like every other stupid myth perpetrating academic does but it can stop. We are not "Faces of Eve" but instead a person/people with the history of the 1% and we are poor and hungry and ready to deface you.

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41. Clay Shirky on June 15, 2007 7:02 PM writes...

@Seth,

You said:

"1) Nobody should oppose laissez-faire technology on economics

If so, while intellectually consistent, you have your work cut out for you. That's what copyright *does*. That's what the DMCA *does*."

If having my work cut out for me means opposing the DMCA and thinking the current copyright regime is broken because it is based on analog inefficiencies, I don't have my work cut out for me -- those are my positions, and have been for over a decade. I was the vice-president of EFF/NYC and fighting against these kinds of restrictions before there was a web. I was writing OpEds for the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal extolling Napster while it was still in business. Etc.

We can debate whether the DMCA or proposals to close the analog hole hew more closely to some definition of Luddite, but since both of those are attacks by the same industries on the same technologies and since I oppose both of them, that conversation seems pretty minor, so I will now adopt the DMCA as my avatar of Luddite behavior.

Then this:

"2) Workers should not oppose laissez-faire technology on economics when it benefits capital

Then why the special pleading for capital, when capital certainly opposes laissez-faire technology on economics when it benefits others?!"

What special pleading? I don't think _anyone_ should oppose technology to preserve traditional inefficiencies, whether it's David Geffen or linotype operators. What confuses me is how you could dislike the DMCA but approve of the Luddite program.

You said, earlier, that you aren't pro-violence, but that rings a bit hollow to me. If you were expressing sympathy with pre-industrial weavers for being out-competed by machines, that's not a pro-violence position, but that's not the position you've taken. The Luddites weren't an economics debating society that got rowdy one night and broke some shit, they were both violent and anti-tech, from inception and by design. If what they did was OK, what's wrong with the DMCA?

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42. Seth Finkelstein on June 16, 2007 12:54 AM writes...

@Clay :

Well, I compliment you on your efforts. I believe the DMCA is far more relevant than the analog hole efforts, since the DMCA is already law and has resulted in criminal trials about "circumvention" technology. Indeed, the word "technology" in the DMCA has been very expansively defined by court cases.

Let me approach the DMCA and Luddites points from a different angle - the Luddites are *dead*. They've been dead for many generations. I am suspicious that what's being used is merely a rhetorical strawman given force by repetition, and relate it to the closest modern equivalent, e.g. labor strikes. Once again, this is not meant to condone violence. But it is meant to say there is an economic context that is being elided to make a story more favorable for the interests of the wealthy. Yes, this is more sympathetic than a demonic caricature. But if Gorman is getting not only guilt by association, but guilt by association with likely a somewhat fictional victors-write-history stance, a bit of sympathy for unexamined aspects of the story seems salutary.

I'd say the DMCA is a real example of what the Luddites are made to serve as bogyman.

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43. SpragueD on June 16, 2007 5:57 PM writes...

Clay,

I think you consciously elide the earnest concerns of Gorman by summarizing his position(s) in the catchphrase "Old Revolutions Good / New Revolutions Bad". If anything, I think he's trying to point out that in *any* revolution there are untoward effects and the revolutionaries, in their zeal for change, can risk losing things of real value.

Also, by concentrating so much on the EB vs. Wikipedia angle, you miss addressing the larger issue related to "social media": it's a business-driven phenomenon that makes user-generated content extremely valuable to the business owner, but maybe not so valuable to the consumer. It gets enrobed in faux-populism, but it's dollars and cents all the way, closely akin to "reality TV", and based on the same business models.

I'm concerned about the devaluation of professionalism (expertism, elitism, call it what you like) that seems to be a by-product of this phenomenon and the softening of standards that seems to be occurring especially in online media channels.

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44. Patricia Thompson on June 17, 2007 8:41 AM writes...

Clay wrote:
"In a world where copies have become cost-free, people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing are forgoing the principal advantages of the new tools, and this dilemma is common to every institution modeled on the scarcity and fragility of physical copies. Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themselves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material."

You obviously do not understand the difference between a publisher and a library.

Libraries have not "outsourced themselves" to the publishers. Libraries have never been in the publishing business. In the past, the libraries purchased the print subscriptions and put the print journals in a building and people went there to read them. In the digital age, libraries still have to purchase these subscriptions, even though they are digital.

Publishers like Reed-Elsevier charge exhorbitant rates for access to this published information. Libraries have to come up with the bucks in order for their users to read it. Libraries have to put authorizations in place so that ONLY the users included in the license with the publisher can get to this information. If they do not do this, they can be prosecuted for violating the terms of the license.

Publishers like Reed-Elsevier control the scholarly material because the current culture of scholarly publishing requires that researchers submit their work to such publishers in order for it to be accepted and for them to get credit and recognition for publishing in certain high-profile, peer reviewed journals.

Libraries have been in the forefront of the open-access movement, trying to develop alternative publishing models that bypass the publishers like Reed-Elsevier while retaining the peer-review process. Libraries have made other methods available, such as institutional repositories.

Yes, "copies" have become cost-free, but you leave out the whole discussion of copyright. Many of the "people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing" are not doing this because of the "scarcity and fragility of physical copies." They are doing it to preserve their ability to get paid for producing or disseminating intellectual work. The free sharing of information is leading to a collapse of the traditional economic models, and publishers are struggling to preserve their livelihoods.

To blame libraries for this and to accuse them of trying to prevent access to information is both ignorant and unfair.

Patricia Thompson, Librarian

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45. Nick Carr on June 17, 2007 1:31 PM writes...

I think they stem from [EB's] inability to embrace digitality without challenging assumptions honed by two centuries of expertise in a print world, the principal assumption being "we can't let just anybody read this stuff."

I'm no expert on Britannica, but I think this is bogus. The company has been struggling with "digitality" for 20 years (since the Encarta CD - a much more traumatic competitor than Wikipedia), and for a time (a few years back) it did "let just anybody read this stuff" when it published its content free on the Net, adopting a pure ad model. That didn't work out financially, so it's shifted to a different model. In fact, it's experimented with many different digital models over the past two decades and has hardly displayed an inability to challenge print assumptions.

The big challenge it faces is how to maintain its distinct character, and its historical quality levels, as it shifts to the Net. It's a similar challenge to the one the New York Times (and other newspapers) faces. To say that "the NY Times takes material produced in the old way and makes it consumable in the new way" is to say nothing about the economic challenges the company faces as it makes that transition, challenges that will (and already have) had an effect on the production end, influencing who it employs, what it publishes, and what standards of quality it maintains, among other things. To the extent that changes in consumption patterns influence the economics of a market (and they usually do, I would argue), they're going to influence the production side. How could they not? You may be happy with the changes, but that doesn't mean they aren't changes.

As to whether Wikipedia may be displaceable, there's a further question: displaceable by what? Another monolith?

My reference to Luddites was meant ironically. One thing that hasn't come up in the (very interesting) Luddite discussion is the matter of quality. Machines produce cheaper goods than artisans do, but they usually (not always, but usually) produce goods of inferior quality as well. You trade off craftsmanship for a lower cost. The quality angle, in addition to the purely economic angle, needs to be taken into account in considering the fate of intellectual goods.

Nick


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46. Steve on June 19, 2007 5:44 PM writes...

Well, I don't know what "Web 2.0" is supposed to be or how it is different from the rest of the Internet, but I did find your overall thrust interesting.

What strikes me is that this has all happened before, and the setting was the 100 years or so following the invention of movable type. This is, IMO, the one historical innovation that truly appears to parallel the invention of the TCP/IP protocol in terms of its historical significance.

Many of the same issues were present - questions of control and licensing of the new technology - accessibility of pornography to the young, etc.

My reference for this is a (printed) book that I read many years ago and no longer recall the name of. It was part of a two volume series on the history of printing - highly specialized and academic, but readable for all that, which I found in the (print) library at Michigan State University.

So, what I take from this parallel as relevant to the current controversy is simply that such controversies are inevitable in the immediate wake of a world-shaking breakthrough in communications. We have had the Internet for barely a generation, and it never ceases to amaze me how young folks with a time horizon of somewhere between 5 years and 5 minutes are sure they know that the "latest and greatest" innovation of the moment is a realiable signpost for the road ahead.

We are still in the throes of the euphoria of the new. We're the kid on Christmas morning spending all day playing with the glittery presents under the tree. But the glitter will start to wear off by Christmas night, and by the first week of the new year the kid will be back in school drawn away from the seduction of glitter by the chains of Necessity.

What presents then will be found in the trash? Which in the garage or basement? Which on the bedroom shelf? And which wise gifts will become that child's valued companions as he or she grows to adulthood?

Be real here. There are way too many glitzy comm gadgets and peer-content sites to attend to in a lifetime of lifetimes. There will be a comning shakeout because individuals will have to make choices - and one of the most ubiquitous choices - which will be forced - will be simply the choice to stop playing around and get back to work.

Yes, I said the four letter word. W*O*R*K. We cannot exist as a society where we all make our living entertaining one another (although it is a lot more fun than taking in each other's laundry as was tried generations ago). Someone has to produce the material necessities. And unless we want to become a population of priveliged sun-children living off the labor of others - that "someone" had best be ourselves.

So, yeah, we live in genuinely revolutionary times - fueled in part by a genuinely revolutionary technology. But in the words of the poet - "Don't speak too soon - for the wheel's still in spin - and there's no tellin' who that it's namin'"

Have fun, but don't take any of it too seriously yet.

Just a thought,
-Steve

P.S. I did an online search to see if I could come up with the name of my "lost" reference to the early history of printing. No assurances, but it may have been this one.

Nicholas Jenson and the rise of Venetian publishing in Renaissance Europe / Martin Lowry.

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47. Michael Chui on June 24, 2007 2:39 AM writes...

Nick said, As to whether Wikipedia may be displaceable, there's a further question: displaceable by what? Another monolith?

The obvious problem here is that the original analogy was made to search, and search was a scenario of monolith e pluribus toppled by another monolith. This isn't what we want.

What we want is a successful competitor to Wikipedia: an encyclopedia source that competently serves as an alternative, such that on a large sample of search terms, this hypothetical encyclopedia and Wikipedia end up being a toss-up for either position #1 or #2 in search terms.

Can it happen? Not easily. But it's certainly possible.

And, Machines produce ... goods of inferior quality as well.

In the case of search, you can do something interesting with algorithmic information providence: you can apply Wisdom of the Crowds, where the "Crowds" are a random factor in the algorithm. In so doing, you can generate a population of ranked results with a reasonably strong variance that can be averaged as per Surowiecki.

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User-generated neologism: "Indigenous content"
history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)
New Freedom Destroys Old Culture: A response to Nick Carr
responding to critiques of my essay on class
Tagmashes from LibraryThing
Spolsky on Blog Comments: Scale matters