In the Pipeline:
Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline
February 28, 2008
I’m delighted to say that online bookstores are shipping copies of Here Comes Everybody today, and that it has gotten several terrific notices in the blogosphere:
Clay’s book makes sense of the way that groups are using the Internet. Really good sense. In a treatise that spans all manner of social activity from vigilantism to terrorism, from Flickr to Howard Dean, from blogs to newspapers, Clay unpicks what has made some “social” Internet media into something utterly transformative, while other attempts have fizzled or fallen to griefers and vandals. Clay picks perfect anecdotes to vividly illustrate his points, then shows the larger truth behind them.
Here Comes Everybody goes beyond wild-eyed webby boosterism and points out what seems to be different about web-based communities and organisation and why it’s different; the good and the bad. With useful and interesting examples, good stories and sticky theories. Very good stuff.
These newly possible activities are moving us towards the collapse of social structures created by technology limitations. Shirky compares this process to how the invention of the printing press impacted scribes. Suddenly, their expertise in reading and writing went from essential to meaningless. Shirky suggests that those associated with controlling the means to media production are headed for a similar fall.
Shirky has a piercingly sharp eye for the spotting the illuminating case studies - some familiar, some new - and using them to energise wider themes. His basic thesis is simple: “Everywhere you look groups of people are coming together to share with one another, work together, take some kind of public action.” The difference is that today, unlike even ten years ago, technological change means such groups can be form and act in new and powerful ways. Drawing on a wide range of examples Shirky teases out remarkable contrasts with what has been the expected logic, and shows quite how quickly the dynamics of reputation and relationships have changed.
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February 7, 2008
I’ve written a book, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which is coming out in a month. It’s coming out first in the US and UK (and in translation later this year in Holland, Portugal and Brazil, Korea, and China.)
Here Comes Everybody is about why new social tools matter for society. It is a non-techie book for the general reader (the letters TCP IP appear nowhere in that order). It is also post-utopian (I assume that the coming changes are both good and bad) and written from the point of view I have adopted from my students, namely that the internet is now boring, and the key question is what we are going to do with it.
One of the great frustrations of writing a book as opposed to blogging is seeing a new story that would have been a perfect illustration, or deepened an argument, and not being able to add it. To remedy that, I’ve just launched a new blog, at HereComesEverybody.org, to continue writing about the effects of social tools.
Wow. What a great response — we’ve given out all the copies we can, but many thanks for all the interest.
Also, I’ve convinced the good folks at Penguin Press to let me give a few review copies away to people in the kinds of communities the book is about. I’ve got half a dozen copies to give to anyone reading this, with the only quid pro quo being that you blog your reactions to it, good bad or indifferent, some time in the next month or so. Drop me a line if you would like a review copy — email@example.com.
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August 3, 2007
My class in the fall is called “User-generated”, and it looks, among other things, at the tension surrounding that phrase, and in particular its existence as an external and anxiety-ridden label, by traditional media companies, for the way that advertising can be put next to material not created by Trained Professionals™.
All right-thinking individuals (by which I basically mean Anil Dash and Heather Champ) hate that phrase. Now my friend Kio Stark* has come up with what seems like a nice, and more anthropologically correct version: Indigenous Content (which is to say “Created by the natives for themselves.”)
* ObKio: Best. Tagset. Evar.
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August 1, 2007
I have never understood Nick Carr’s objections to the cultural effects of the internet. He’s much too smart to lump in with nay-sayers like Keen, and when he talks about the effects of the net on business, he sounds more optimistic, even factoring in the wrenching transition, so why aren’t the cultural effects similar cause for optimism, even accepting the wrenching transition in those domains as well?
I think I finally got understood the dichotomy between his reading of business and culture after reading Long Player, his piece on metadata and what he calls “the myth of liberation”, a post spurred in turn by David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous.
Carr discusses the ways in which the long-playing album was both conceived of and executed as an aesthetic unit, its length determined by a desire to hold most of the classical canon on a single record, and its possibilities exploited by musicians who created for the form — who created albums, in other words, rather than mere bags of songs. He illustrates this with an exegesis of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, showing how the overall construction makes that album itself a work of art.
Carr uses this point to take on what he calls the myth of liberation: “This mythology is founded on a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary predigital world - a world of profound physical and economic constraints - from which the web is now liberating us.” Carr observes, correctly, that the LP was what it was in part for aesthetic reasons, and the album, as a unit, became what it became in the hands of people who knew how to use it.
That is not, however, the neat story Carr wants to it be, and the messiness of the rest of the story is key, I think, to the anxiety about the effects on culture, his and others.
The LP was an aesthetic unit, but one designed within strong technical constraints. When Edward Wallerstein of Columbia Records was trying to figure out how long the long-playing format should be, he settled on 17 minutes a side as something that would “…enable about 90% of all classical music to be put on two sides of a record.” But why only 90%? Because 100% would be impossible — the rest of the canon was too long for the technology of the day. And why should you have to flip the record in the middle? Why not have it play straight through? Impossible again.
Contra Carr, in other words, the pre-digital world was a world of profound physical and economic constraints. The LP could hold 34 minutes of music, which was a bigger number of minutes than some possibilities (33 possibilities, to be precise), but smaller than an infinite number of others. The album as a form provided modest freedom embedded in serious constraints, and the people who worked well with the form accepted those constraints as a way of getting at those freedoms. And now the constraints are gone; there is no necessary link between an amount of music and its playback vehicle.
And what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.
And it hasn’t.
Here is the iTunes snapshot of Exile, sorted by popularity:
While we can’t get absolute numbers from this, we can get relative ones — many more people want to listen to Tumbling Dice or Happy than Ventilator Blues or Turd on the Run, even though iTunes makes it cheaper per song to buy the whole album. Even with a financial inducement to preserve the album form, the users still say no thanks.
The only way to support the view that Exile
is best listened to as an album, in other words, is to dismiss the actual preferences of most of the people who like the Rolling Stones. Carr sets about this task with gusto:
Who would unbundle Exile on Main Street or Blonde on Blonde or Tonight’s the Night - or, for that matter, Dirty Mind or Youth and Young Manhood or (Come On Feel the) Illinoise? Only a fool would.
Only a fool. If you are one of those people who has, say, Happy on your iPod (as I do), then you are a fool (though you have lots of company). And of course this foolishness extends to the recording industry, and to the Stones themselves, who went and put Tumbling Dice on a Greatest Hits collection. (One can only imagine how Carr feels about Greatest Hits collections.)
I think Weinberger’s got it right about liberation, even taking at face value the cartoonish version Carr offers. Prior to unlimited perfect copyability, media was defined by profound physical and economic constraints, and now it’s not. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are good for business, because business is not concerned with historical continuity. Fewer constraints and better matching of supply and demand are bad for current culture, because culture continually mistakes current exigencies for eternal verities.
This isn’t just Carr of course. As people come to realize that freedom destroys old forms just as surely as it creates new ones, the lament for the long-lost present is going up everywhere. As another example, Sven Birkerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Birkerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.
In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Birkerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment — is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”
This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.
Genres are always created in part by limitations. Albums are as long as they are because that Wallerstein picked a length his engineers could deliver. Novels are as long as they are because Aldus Manutius’s italic letters and octavo bookbinding could hold about that many words. The album is already a marginal form, and the novel will probably become one in the next fifty years, but that also happened to the sonnet and the madrigal.
I’m old enough to remember the dwindling world, but it never meant enough to me to make me a nostalgist. In my students’ work I see hints of a culture that takes both the new freedoms and the new constraints for granted, but the fullest expression of that world will probably come after I’m dead. But despite living in transitional times, I’m not willing to pretend that the erosion of my worldview is a crisis for culture itself. It’s just how things are right now.
Carr fails to note that the LP was created for classical music, but used by rock and roll bands. Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. This kind of transition isn’t a threat to Culture Itself, or even much of a tragedy, and we should resist attempts to preserve old constraints in order to defend old forms.
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July 20, 2007
Joel Spolsky approvingly quotes Dave Winer on the subject of blog-comments:
The cool thing about blogs is that while they may be quiet, and it may be hard to find what you’re looking for, at least you can say what you think without being shouted down. This makes it possible for unpopular ideas to be expressed. And if you know history, the most important ideas often are the unpopular ones…. That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.
Joel then adds his own observations:
When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.
This can be true, all true, as any casual read of blog comments can attest. BoingBoing turned off their comments years ago, because they’d long since passed the scale where polite conversation was possible. The Tragedy of the Conversational Commons becomes too persistently tempting when an audience gorws large. At BoingBoing scale, John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory cannot be repealed.
But the uselessness of comments it is not the universal truth that
Dave or (fixed, per Dave’s comment below) Joel makes it out to be, for two reasons. First, posting and conversation are different kinds of things — same keyboard, same text box, same web page, different modes of expression. Second, the sites that suffer most from anonymous postings and drivel are the ones operating at large scale.
If you are operating below that scale, comments can be quite good, in a way not replicable in any “everyone post to their own blog”. To take but three recent examples, take a look at the comments on my post on Michael Gorman, on danah’s post at Apophenia on fame, narcissism and MySpace and on Kieran Healy’s biological thought experiment on Crooked Timber.
Those three threads contain a hundred or so comments, including some distinctly low-signal bouquets and brickbats. But there is also spirited disputation and emendation, alternate points of view, linky goodness, and a conversational sharpening of the argument on all sides, in a way that doesn’t happen blog to blog. This, I think, is the missing element in Dave and Joel’s points — two blog posts do not make a conversation. The conversation that can be attached to a post is different in style and content, and in intent and effect, than the post itself.
I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason. But we’ve long since passed the point where what happens on a blog is mainly influenced by what the software does — the question to ask about comments is not whether they are available, but how a community uses them. The value in in blogs as communities of practice is considerable, and its a mistake to write off comment threads on those kinds of blogs just because, in other environments, comments are lame.
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July 10, 2007
I said that in Andrew Keen: Rescuing ‘Luddite’ from the Luddites, to which Phil, one of the commenters, replied
There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don’t mix them up.
I meant this as an assertion of fact, but re-reading it after Tom’s feedback, it comes off as simple flag-waving, since I’d compressed the technical part of the argument out of existence. So here it is again, in slightly longer form:
The internet’s essential operation is to encode and transmit data from sender to receiver. In 1969, this was not a new capability; we’d had networks that did this in since the telegraph, at the day of the internet’s launch, we had a phone network that was nearly a hundred years old, alongside more specialized networks for things like telexes and wire-services for photographs.
Thus the basics of what the internet did (and does) isn’t enough to explain its spread; what is it for has to be accounted for by looking at the difference between it and the other data-transfer networks of the day.
The principal difference between older networks and the internet (ARPAnet, at its birth) is the end-to-end principle, which says, roughly, “The best way to design a network is to allow the sender and receiver to decide what the data means, without asking the intervening network to interpret the data.” The original expression of this idea is from the Saltzer and Clark paper End-to-End Arguments in System Design; the same argument is explained in other terms in Isenberg’s Stupid Network and Searls and Weinberger’s World of Ends.
What the internet is for, in other words, what made it worth adopting in a world already well provisioned with other networks, was that the sender and receiver didn’t have to ask for either help or permission before inventing a new kind of message. The core virtue of the internet was a huge increase in the technical freedom of all of its participating nodes, a freedom that has been translated into productive and intellectual freedoms for its users.
As Scott Bradner put it, the Internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it. The upshot is that the internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom.
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July 9, 2007
Last week, while in a conversation with Andrew Keen on the radio show To The Point, he suggested that he was not opposed to the technology of the internet, but rather to how it was being used.
This reminded me of Michael Gorman’s insistence that digital tools are fine, so long as they are shaped to replicate the social (and particularly academic) institutions that have grown up around paper.
There is a similar strand in these two arguments, namely that technology is one thing, but the way it is used is another, and that the two can and should be separated. I think this view is in the main wrong, even Luddite, but to make such an accusation requires a definition of Luddite considerably more grounded than ‘anti-technology’ (a vacuous notion — no one who wears shoes can reasonably be called ‘anti-technology.’) Both Keen and Gorman have said they are not opposed to digital technology. I believe them when they say this, but I still think their views are Luddite, by historical analogy with the real Luddite movement of the early 1800s.
What follows is a long detour into the Luddite rebellion, followed by a reply to Keen about the inseparability of the internet from its basic effects.
The historical record is relatively clear. In March of 1811, a group of weavers in Nottinghamshire began destroying mechanical looms. This was not the first such riot — in the late 1700s, when Parliament refused to guarantee the weaver’s control of supply of woven goods, workers in Nottingham destroyed looms as well. The Luddite rebellion, though, was unusual for several reasons: its breadth and sustained character, taking place in many industrializing towns at once; its having a nominal leader, going by the name Ned Ludd, General Ludd, or King Ludd (the pseudonym itself a reference to an apocryphal figure from an earlier loom-breaking riot in the late 1700s); and its written documentation of grievances and rationale. The rebellion, which lasted two years, was ultimately put down by force, and was over in 1813.
Over the last two decades, several historians have re-examined the record of the Luddite movement, and have attempted to replace the simplistic view of Luddites as being opposed to technological change with a more nuanced accounting of their motivations and actions. The common thread of the analysis is that the Luddites didn’t object to mechanized wide-frame looms per se, they objected to the price collapse of woven goods caused by the way industrialists were using the looms. Though the target of the Luddite attacks were the looms themselves, their concerns and goals were not about technology but about economics.
I believe that the nuanced view is wrong, and that the simpler view of Luddites as counter-revolutionaries is in fact the correct one. The romantic view of Luddites as industrial-age Robin Hoods, concerned not to halt progress but to embrace justice, runs aground on both the written record, in which the Luddites outline a program that is against any technology that increases productivity, and on their actions, which were not anti-capitalist but anti-consumer. It also assumes that there was some coherent distinction between technological and economic effects of the looms; there was none.
A Technology is For Whatever Happens When You Use It
The idea that the Luddites were targeting economic rather than technological change is a category fallacy, where the use of two discrete labels (technology and economics, in this case) are wrongly thought to demonstrate two discrete aspects of the thing labeled (here wide-frame looms.) This separation does not exist in this case; the technological effects of the looms were economic. This is because, at the moment of its arrival, what a technology does and what it is for are different.
What any given technology does is fairly obvious: rifles fire bullets, pencils make marks, looms weave cloth, and so on. What a technology is for, on the other hand, what leads people to adopt it, is whatever new thing becomes possible on the day of its arrival. The Winchester repeating rifle was not for firing bullets — that capability already existed. It was for decreasing the wait between bullets. Similarly, pencils were not for writing but for portability, and so on.
And the wide-frame looms, target of the Luddite’s destructive forays? What were they for? They weren’t for making cloth — humankind was making cloth long before looms arrived. They weren’t for making better cloth — in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings.
The wide-frame loom was a cost-lowering machine, and as such, it threatened the old inefficiencies on which the Luddite’s revenues depended. Their revolt had the goal of preventing those savings from being passed along to the customer. One of their demands was that Parliament outlaw “all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” — all machines that worked efficiently enough to lower prices.
Perhaps more tellingly, and against recent fables of Luddism as a principled anti-capitalist movement, they refrained from breaking the looms of industrial weavers who didn’t lower their prices. What the Luddites were rioting in favor of was price gouging; they didn’t care how much a wide-frame loom might save in production costs, so long as none of those savings were passed on to their fellow citizens.
Their common cause was not with citizens and against industrialists, it was against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel. The effect of their campaign, had it succeeded, would been to have raise, rather than lower, the profits of the wide-frame operators, while producing no benefit for those consumers who used cloth in their daily lives, which is to say the entire population of England. (Tellingly, none of the “Robin Hood” versions of Luddite history make any mention of the effect of high prices on the buyers of cloth, just on the sellers.)
Back to Keen
A Luddite argument is one in which some broadly useful technology is opposed on the grounds that it will discomfit the people who benefit from the inefficiency the technology destroys. An argument is especially Luddite if the discomfort of the newly challenged professionals is presented as a general social crisis, rather than as trouble for a special interest. (“How will we know what to listen to without record store clerks!”) When the music industry suggests that the prices of music should continue to be inflated, to preserve the industry as we have known it, that is a Luddite argument, as is the suggestion that Google pay reparations to newspapers or the phone company’s opposition to VoIP undermining their ability to profit from older ways of making phone calls.
This is what makes Keen’s argument a Luddite one — he doesn’t oppose all uses of technology, just ones that destroy older ways of doing things. In his view, the internet does not need to undermine the primacy of the copy as the anchor for both filtering and profitability.
But Keen is wrong. What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat — possible, but utterly beside the point.
The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.
Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way — lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.
It is possible to want a society in which new technology doesn’t demolish traditional ways of doing things. It is not possible to hold this view without being a Luddite, however. That view — incumbents should wield veto-power over adoption of tools they dislike, no matter the positive effects for the citizenry — is the core of Luddism, then and now.
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June 20, 2007
Michael Gorman has his next post up at the Britannica blog: The Siren Song of the Internet. My reply is also up, and posted below. The themes of the historical lessons of Luddism are also being discussed in the comments to last week’s Gorman response, Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad
Siren Song of the Internet contains a curious omission and a basic misunderstanding. The omission is part of his defense of the Luddites; the misunderstanding is about the value of paper and the nature of e-books.
The omission comes early: Gorman cavils at being called a Luddite, though he then embraces the label, suggesting that they “…had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution.” No one using the term Luddite disputes the effects on pre-industrial weavers. This is the general case — any technology that fixes a problem (in this case the high cost of homespun goods) threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band.
By labeling the Luddite program legitimate, Gorman seems to be suggesting that incumbents are right to expect veto power over technological change. Here his stand in favor of printed matter is inconsistent, since printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects. This is the same argument Gorman is making, in defense of the very tools Trithemius opposed. His attempt to rescue Luddism looks less like a principled stand than special pleading: the printing press was good, no matter happened to the scribes, but let’s not let that sort of thing happen to my tribe.
Gorman then defends traditional publishing methods, and ends up conflating several separate concepts into one false conclusion, saying “To think that digitization is the answer to all that ails the world is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that most people, young and old, prefer to interact with recorded knowledge and literature in the form of print on paper.”
Dispensing with the obvious straw man of “all that ails the world”, a claim no one has made, we are presented with a fact that is supposed to be uncomfortable — it’s good to read on paper. Well duh, as the kids say; there’s nothing uncomfortable about that. Paper is obviously superior to the screen for both contrast and resolution; Hewlett-Packard would be about half the size it is today if that were not true. But how did we get to talking about paper when we were talking about knowledge a moment ago?
Gorman is relying on metonymy. When he notes a preference for reading on paper he means a preference for traditional printed forms such as books and journals, but this is simply wrong. The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information” study, “…the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.”
We see these effects everywhere: well over 90% of new information produced in any year is stored electronically. Use of the physical holdings of libraries are falling, while the use of electronic resources is rising. Scholarly monographs, contra Gorman, are increasingly distributed electronically. Even the physical form of newspapers is shrinking in response to shrinking demand, and so on.
The belief that a preference for paper leads to a preference for traditional publishing is a simple misunderstanding, demonstrated by his introduction of the failed e-book program as evidence that the current revolution is limited to “hobbyists and premature adopters.” The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.) The failure of e-books is in fact bad news for Gorman’s thesis, as it demonstrates yet again that users have an overwhelming preference for the full range of digital advantages, and are not content with digital tools that are designed to be inefficient in the ways that printed matter is inefficient.
If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions.
The ideal situation, which we are groping our way towards, will be to have all written material, wherever it lies on the ‘information to knowledge’ continuum, in digital form, right up the moment a reader wants it. At that point, the advantages of paper can be made manifest, either by printing on demand, or by using a display that matches paper’s superior readability. Many of the traditional managers of books and journals will suffer from this change, though it will benefit society as a whole. The question Gorman pointedly asks, by invoking Ned Ludd and his company, is whether we want that change to be in the hands of people who would be happy to discomfit society as a whole in order to preserve the inefficiencies that have defined their world.
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June 18, 2007
Technorati reports approximately one buptillion disputatious replies to Fred Wilson’s observations about age and tech entrepreneurship. These come in two basic forms: examples from industry (“Youth doesn’t matter because Steve Jobs is still going strong”) and examples from personal experience (“Youth doesn’t matter because my grandmother invented DoS attacks when she was 87!”)
These arguments, not to put too fine a point on it, are stupid.
Fred is not talking about intelligence or even tech chops. He is talking about a specific kind of tech entrepreneurialism: the likelihood of coming up with an idea that is so powerful it will shift the tech landscape. He is then asserting that, statistically, young people have an edge in their ability to come up with these kinds of ideas.
The first counter-argument, whose commonest explanandum is Steve Jobs current success, not only fails, it actually supports Fred’s point. Back In The Day, Jobs’ best decision was to work with Wozniak, and together they brought out usable versions of the GUI and the mouse. These changes were so radical that they didn’t catch on until they were copied in more pedestrian and backwards-compatible forms. And now? What is Apple doing with a seasoned Jobs at the helm? They are polishing the GUI to a fare-thee-well. They are making Diamond’s idea of an MP3 player work better than anyone imagined it could. They are making (brainstorm alert!) a phone! Woz was a mere tinkerer in light of such revolutionary moves, no?
As a Mac user, I love what Jobs is doing for the company, but no way am I willing to confuse the Polecat release of the current OS with what Lisa tried and the Mac achieved in the early 80s.
Then there is the personal attestation to brilliant ideas, coming from the outraged older set. I guess I should feel some sort of pride that my fellow proto-geriatrics are still in there fighting, but instead, I think they kind of prove Fred’s point by demonstrating that they’ve either forgotten how to read, or that they can’t do math so good anymore.
Fred’s basic observation is statistical: In the domain E, with the actors divided into two groups Y and O, there are more Y in E than you’d expect from a random distribution, and many more if you thought there should be an advantage to being a member of O.
This observation cannot be falsified by a single counter-example. Given that Fred’s argument is about the odds of success (he is a VC, after all), the fact that you remember the words to the Pina Colada song and you recently did something useful is meaningless. Fred’s question is about how many grizzled veterans are founding world-changing tech firms, not whether any are.
There are lots of possible counter-arguments to what Fred is saying (and I am echoing): Maybe so many young people start companies that the observation suffers from denominator bias. Or: young people raise money from VCs in disproportionate numbers because they don’t have the contacts to raise money in other ways. Or: the conservatism of the old is social, not mental, and concerns for family and quality of life turn otherwise undiminished imaginations to lower-risk goals. And so on.
It would be good if someone made those arguments — the thesis is provocative and it matters, so it should be scrutinized and, if false, destroyed. But Fred has said something important, something with both internal evidence (the list of successful recent entrepreneurs) and external existence proofs (mathematicians careers are also statistically front-weighted, so the pattern isn’t obviously absurd.) Given this, the argument cannot simply be whined away, robbing many of the current respondents of the weapon with which they are evidently most adept.
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June 16, 2007
My friend Fred Wilson had a pair of posts a few weeks back, the first arguing that youth was, in and of itself an advantage for tech entrepreneurs, and the second waffling on that question with idea that age is a mindset.
I think Fred got it right the first time, and I said so at the time, in The (Bayesian) Advantages of Youth:
I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent. In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.
Today, Fred seems to have returned to his original (and in my view correct) idea in The Age Question (continued)
It is incredibly hard to think of new paradigms when you’ve grown up reading the newspaper every morning. When you turn to TV for your entertainment. When you read magazines on the train home from work. But we have a generation coming of age right now that has never relied on newspapers, TV, and magazines for their information and entertainment.[…] The Internet is their medium and they are showing us how it needs to be used.
This is exactly right.
I think the real issue, of which age is a predictor, is this: the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. I had this thought while talking to Robert Cook of Metaweb, who are making Freebase. They need structured metadata, lots of structured metadata, and one of the places they are getting it is from Wikipedia, by spidering the bio boxes (among other things) for things like birthplace and age of people listed Freebase. While Andrew Keen is trying to get a conversation going on whether Wikipedia is a good idea, Metaweb takes it for granted as a stable part of the environment, which lets them see past this hurdle to the next one.
This is not to handicap the success of Freebase itself — it takes a lot more than taking the present for granted to make a successful tool. But one easy way to fail is to assume that the past is more solid than it is, and the present more contingent. And the people least likely to make this mistake — the people best able to take the present for granted — are young people, for whom knowing what the world is really like is as easy as waking up in the morning, since this is the only world they’ve ever known.
Some things improve with age — I wouldn’t re-live my 20s if you paid me — but high-leverage ignorance isn’t one of them.
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June 13, 2007
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.
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May 24, 2007
A month or so ago, Micah Sifry offered me a chance to respond to Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming Cult of the Amateur, at a panel at last week’s Personal Democracy Forum (PdF). The book is a polemic against the current expansion of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. Also on the panel were Craig Newmark and Robert Scoble, so I was in good company; my role would, I thought, be easy — be pro-amateur production, pro-distributed creation, pro-collective action, and so on, things that come naturally to me.
What I did not expect was what happened — I ended up defending Keen, and key points from Cult of the Amateur, against a panel of my peers.
I won’t review CotA here, except to say that the book is going to get a harsh reception from the blogosphere. It is, as Keen himself says, largely anecdotal, which makes it more a list of ‘bad things that have happened where the internet is somewhere in the story’ than an account of cause and effect; as a result, internet gambling and click fraud are lumped together with the problems with DRM and epistemological questions about peer-produced material. In addition to this structural weakness, it is both aggressive enough and reckless enough to make people spitting mad. Dan Gillmor was furious about the inaccuracies, including his erroneous (and since corrected) description in the book, Yochai Benkler asked me why I was even deigning to engage Andrew in conversation, and so on. I don’t think I talked to anyone who wasn’t dismissive of the work.
But even if we stipulate that the book doesn’t do much to separate cause from effect, and has the problems of presentation that often accompany polemic, the core point remains: Keen’s sub-title, “How today’s internet is destroying our culture”, has more than a grain of truth to it, and the only thing those of us who care about the network could do wrong would be to dismiss Keen out of hand.
Which is exactly what people were gearing up to do last week. Because Keen is a master of the dismissive phrase — bloggers are monkeys, only people who get paid do good work, and so on — he will engender a reaction from our side that assumes that everything he says in the book is therefore wrong. This is a bad (but probably inevitable) reaction, but I want to do my bit to try to stave it off, both because fairness dictates it — Keen is at least in part right, and we need to admit that — and because a book-burning accompanied by a hanging-in-effigy will be fun for us, but will weaken the pro-freedom position, not strengthen it.
The panel at PdF started with Andrew speaking, in some generality, about ways in which amateurs were discomfiting people who actually know what they are doing, while producing sub-standard work on their own.
My response started by acknowledging that many of the negative effects Keen talked about were real, but that the source of these effect was an increase in the freedom of people to say what they want, when they want to, on a global stage; that the advantages of this freedom outweigh the disadvantages; that many of the disadvantages are localized to professions based on pre-internet inefficiencies; and that the effort required to take expressive power away from citizens was not compatible with a free society.
This was, I thought, a pretty harsh critique of the book. I was wrong; I didn’t know from harsh.
Scoble was simply contemptuous. He had circled offending passages which he would read, and then offer an aphoristic riposte that was more scorn than critique. For instance, in taking on Andrew’s point that talent is unevenly distributed, Scoble’s only comment was, roughly, “Yeah, Britney must be talented…”
Now you know and I know what Scoble meant — traditional media gives outsize rewards to people on characteristics other than pure talent. This is true, but because he was so dismissive of Keen, it’s not the point that Scoble actually got across. Instead, he seemed to be denying either that talent is unevenly distributed, or that Britney is talented.
But Britney is talented. She’s not Yo-Yo Ma, and you don’t have to like her music (back when she made music rather than just headlines), but what she does is hard, and she does it well. Furthermore, deriding the music business’s concern with looks isn’t much of a criticism. It escaped no one’s notice that Amanda Congdon and lonelygirl15 were easy on the eyes, and that that was part of their appeal. So cheap shots at mainstream talent or presumptions of the internet’s high-mindedness are both non-starters.
More importantly, talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age (c.f. Google.) Whatever we think of Keen or CotA, it would be insane to deny that.
Similarly, Scoble scoffed at the idea that there is a war on copyright, but there is a war on copyright, at least as it is currently practiced. As new capabilities go, infinite perfect copyability is a lulu, and it breaks a lot of previously stable systems. In the transition from encoding on atoms to encoding with bits, information goes from having the characteristics of chattel to those of a public good. For the pro-freedom camp to deny that there is a war on copyright puts Keen in the position of truth-teller, and makes us look like employees of the Ministry of Doublespeak.
It will be objected that engaging Keen and discussing a flawed book will give him attention he neither needs nor deserves. This is fantasy. CotA will get an enthusiastic reception no matter what, and whatever we think of it or him, we will be called to account for the issues he raises. This is not right, fair, or just, but it is inevitable, and if we dismiss the book based on its errors or a-causal attributions, we will not be regarded as people who have high standards, but rather as defensive cult members who don’t like to explain ourselves to outsiders.
What We Should Say
Here’s my response to the core of Keen’s argument.
Keen is correct in seeing that the internet is not an improvement to modern society; it is a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible, or, put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are significantly important, and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the society they live in. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are transmogrified, replaced, or simply destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the music and newspaper businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is epochal. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without radical alteration.
This change will create three kinds of loss.
First, people whose jobs relied on solving a hard problem will lose those jobs when the hard problems disappear. Creating is hard, filtering is hard, but the basic fact of making acceptable copies of information, previously the basis of the aforementioned music and newspaper industries, is a solved problem, and we should regard with suspicion anyone who tries to return copying to its previously difficult state.
Similarly, Andrew describes a firm running a $50K campaign soliciting user-generated ads, and notes that some professional advertising agency therefore missed out on something like $300,000 dollars of fees. Its possible to regard this as a hardship for the ad guys, but its also possible to wonder whether they were really worth the $300K in the first place if an amateur, working in their spare time with consumer-grade equipment, can create something the client is satisfied with. This loss is real, but it is not general. Video tools are sad for ad guys in the same way movable type was sad for scribes, but as they say in show biz, the world doesn’t owe you a living.
The second kind of loss will come from institutional structures that we like as a society, but which are becoming unsupportable. Online ads offer better value for money, but as a result, they are not going to generate enough cash to stand up the equivalent of the NY Times’ 15-person Baghdad bureau. Josh Wolf has argued that journalistic privilege should be extended to bloggers, but the irony is that Wolf’s very position as a videoblogger makes that view untenable — journalistic privilege is a special exemption to a general requirement for citizens to aid the police. We can’t have a general exception to that case.
The old model of defining a journalist by tying their professional identity to employment by people who own a media outlet is broken. Wolf himself has helped transform journalism from a profession to an activity; now we need a litmus test for when to offer source confidentiality for acts of journalism. This will in some ways be a worse compromise than the one we have now, not least because it will take a long time to unfold, but we can’t have mass amateurization of journalism and keep the social mechanisms that regard journalists as a special minority.
The third kind of loss is the serious kind. Some of these Andrew mentions in his book: the rise of spam, the dramatically enlarged market for identity theft. Other examples he doesn’t: terrorist organizations being more resilient as a result of better communications tools, pro-anorexic girls forming self-help groups to help them remain anorexic. These things are not side-effects of the current increase in freedom, they are effects of that increase. Spam is not just a plague in open, low-entry-cost systems; it is a result of those systems. We can no longer limit things like who gets to form self-help groups through social controls (the church will rent its basement to AA but not to the pro-ana kids), because no one needs help or permission to form such a group anymore.
The hard question contained in Cult of the Amateur is “What are we going to do about the negative effects of freedom?” Our side has generally advocated having as few limits as possible (when we even admit that there are downsides), but we’ve been short on particular cases. It’s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining, because the writing has been on the wall since Brad Templeton founded Clarinet. It’s harder to say what we should be doing about the pro-ana kids, or the newly robust terror networks.
Those cases are going to shift us from prevention to reaction (a shift that parallels the current model of publishing first, then filtering later), but so much of the conversation about the social effects of the internet has been so upbeat that even when there is an obvious catastrophe (as with the essjay crisis on Wikipedia), we talk about it amongst ourselves, but not in public.
What Wikipedia (and Digg and eBay and craigslist) have shown us is that mature systems have more controls than immature ones, as the number of bad cases is identified and dealt with, and as these systems become more critical and more populous, the number of bad cases (and therefore the granularity and sophistication of the controls) will continue to increase.
We are creating a governance model for the world that will coalesce after the pre-internet institutions suffer whatever damage or decay they are going to suffer. The conversation about those governance models, what they look like and why we need them, is going to move out into the general public with CotA, and we should be ready for it. My fear, though, is that we will instead get a game of “Did not!”, “Did so!”, and miss the opportunity to say something much more important.
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May 19, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, Fred Wilson wrote, in The Mid Life Entrepreneur Crisis “…prime time entrepreneurship is 30s. And its possibly getting younger as web technology meets youth culture.” After some followup from Valleywag, he addressed the question at greater length in The Age Question (continued), saying “I don’t totally buy that age matters. I think, as I said in my original post, that age is a mind set.”
This is a relief for people like me — you’re as young as you feel, and all that — or rather it would be a relief but for one little problem: Fred was right before, and he’s wrong now. Young entrepreneurs have an advantage over older ones (and by older I mean over 30), and contra Fred’s second post, age isn’t in fact a mindset. Young people have an advantage that older people don’t have and can’t fake, and it isn’t about vigor or hunger — it’s a mental advantage. The principal asset a young tech entrepreneur has is that they don’t know a lot of things.
In almost every other circumstance, this would be a disadvantage, but not here, and not now. The reason this is so (and the reason smart old people can’t fake their way into this asset) has everything to do with our innate ability to cement past experience into knowledge.
Probability and the Crisis of Novelty
The classic illustration for learning outcomes based on probability uses a bag of colored balls. Imagine that you can take out one ball, record its color, put it back, and draw again. How long does it take you to form an opinion about the contents of the bag, and how correct is that opinion?
Imagine a bag of black and white balls, with a slight majority of white. Drawing out a single ball would provide little information beyond “There is at least one white (or black) ball in this bag.” If you drew out ten balls in a row, you might guess that there are a similar number of black and white balls. A hundred would make you relatively certain of that, and might give you an inkling that white slightly outnumbers black. By a thousand draws, you could put a rough percentage on that imbalance, and by ten thousand draws, you could say something like “53% white to 47% black” with some confidence.
This is the world most of us live in, most of the time; the people with the most experience know the most.
But what would happen if the contents of the bag changed overnight? What if the bag suddenly started yielding balls of all colors and patterns — black and white but also green and blue, striped and spotted? The next day, when the expert draws a striped ball, he might well regard it as a mere anomaly. After all, his considerable experience has revealed a predictable and stable distribution over tens of thousands of draws, so no need to throw out the old theory because of just one anomaly. (To put it in Bayesian terms, the prior beliefs of the expert are valuable precisely because they have been strengthened through repetition, which repetition makes the expert confident in them even in the face of a small number of challenging cases.)
But the expert keeps drawing odd colors, and so after a while, he is forced to throw out the ‘this is an anomaly, and the bag is otherwise as it was’ theory, and start on a new one, which is that some novel variability has indeed entered the system. Now, the expert thinks, we have a world of mostly black and white, but with some new colors as well.
But the expert is still wrong. The bag changed overnight, and the new degree of variation is huge compared to the older black-and-white world. Critically, any attempt to rescue the older theory will cause the expert to misunderstand the world, and the more carefully the expert relies on the very knowledge that constitutes his expertise, the worse his misunderstanding will be.
Meanwhile, on the morning after the contents of the bag turn technicolor, someone who just showed up five minutes ago would say “Hey, this bag has lots of colors and patterns in it.” While the expert is still trying to explain away or minimize the change as a fluke, or as a slight adjustment to an otherwise stable situation, the novice, who has no prior theory to throw out, understands exactly what’s going on.
What our expert should have done, the minute he saw the first odd ball, is to say “I must abandon everything I have ever thought about how this bag works, and start from scratch.” He should, in other words, start behaving like a novice.
Which is exactly the thing he — we — cannot do. We are wired to learn from experience. This is, in almost all cases, absolutely the right strategy, because most things in life benefit from mental continuity. Again, today, gravity pulls things downwards. Again, today, I get hungry and need to eat something in the middle of the day. Again, today, my wife will be happier if I put my socks in the hamper than on the floor. We don’t need to re-learn things like this; once we get the pattern, we can internalize it and move on.
A Lot of Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing
This is where Fred’s earlier argument comes in. In 999,999 cases, learning from experience is a good idea, but what entrepreneurs do is look for the one in a million shot. When the world really has changed overnight, when wild new things are possible if you don’t have any sense of how things used to be, then it is the people who got here five minutes ago who understand that new possibility, and they understand it precisely because, to them, it isn’t new.
These cases, let it be said, are rare. The mistakes novices make come from a lack of experience. They overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But the experts make the opposite mistake, so that when a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, they are at risk of regarding it as a fad. As a result of this asymmetry, the novice makes their one good call during an actual revolution, at exactly the same time the expert makes their one big mistake, but at that moment, that’s all that is needed to give the newcomer a considerable edge.
Here’s a tech history question: Which went mainstream first, the PC or the VCR?
People over 35 have a hard time even understanding why you’d even ask — VCRs obviously pre-date PCs for general adoption.
Here’s another: Which went mainstream first, the radio or the telephone?
The same people often have to think about this question, even though the practical demonstration of radio came almost two decades after the practical demonstration of the telephone. We have to think about that second question because, to us, radio and the telephone arrived at the same time, which is to say the day we were born. And for college students today, that is true of the VCR and the PC.
People who think of the VCR as old and stable, and the PC as a newer invention, are not the kind of people who think up Tivo. It’s people who are presented with two storage choices, tape or disk, without historical bias making tape seem more normal and disk more provisional, who do that kind of work, and those people are, overwhelmingly, young.
This is sad for a lot of us, but its also true, and Fred’s kind lies about age being a mind set won’t reverse that.
The Uses of Experience
I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that you have to try on pants before you buy them. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that the library is the most important building on a college campus. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent.
In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.
Ten years ago, I was the CTO of a web company we built and sold in what seemed like an eon but what was in retrospect an eyeblink. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at how little I knew, but I was a better entrepreneur because of it.
I can take some comfort in the fact that people much more successful than I succumb to the same fate. IBM learned, from decades of experience, that competitive advantage lay in the hardware; Bill Gates had never had those experiences, and didn’t have to unlearn them. Jerry and David at Yahoo learned, after a few short years, that search was a commodity. Sergey and Larry never knew that. Mark Cuban learned that the infrastructure required for online video made the economics of web video look a lot like TV. That memo was never circulated at YouTube.
So what can you do when you get kicked out of the club? My answer has been to do the things older and wiser people do. I teach, I write, I consult, and when I work with startups, it’s as an advisor, not as a founder.
And the hardest discipline, whether talking to my students or the companies I work with, is to hold back from offering too much advice, too definitively. When I see students or startups thinking up something crazy, and I want to explain why that won’t work, couldn’t possibly work, why this recapitulates the very argument that led to RFC 939 back in the day, I have to remind myself to shut up for a minute and just watch, because it may be me who will be surprised when I see what color comes out of the bag next.
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April 25, 2007
Four years ago, I wrote a piece called Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content. The piece was sparked by the founding of a company called BitPass and its adoption by the comic artist Scott McCloud (author of the seminal Understanding Comics, among other things.) McCloud created a graphic work called “The Right Number”, which you had to buy using BitPass.
It didn’t work. BitPass went out of business
in January of this year. I didn’t write about it at the time because its failure was a foregone conclusion. This isn’t just retrospective certainty, either; here’s what I said about BitPass
BitPass will fail, as FirstVirtual, Cybercoin, Millicent, Digicash, Internet Dollar, Pay2See, and many others have in the decade since Digital Silk Road, the paper that helped launch interest in micropayments. These systems didn’t fail because of poor implementation; they failed because the trend towards freely offered content is an epochal change, to which micropayments are a pointless response.
I’d love to take credit for having made a brave prediction there, but in fact Nick Szabo wrote a dispositive critique of micropayments back in 1996. The BitPass model never made a lick of sense, so predicting its demise was mere throat-clearing on the way to the bigger argument. The conclusion I drew in 2003 (and which I still believe) was that the vanishingly low cost of making unlimited perfect copies would put creators in the position of having to decide between going for audience size (fame) or restricting and charging for access (fortune), and that the desire for fame, no longer tempered by reproduction costs, would generally win out.
Creators are not publishers, and putting the power to publish directly into their hands does not make them publishers. It makes them artists with printing presses. This matters because creative people crave attention in a way publishers do not. […] with the power to publish directly in their hands, many creative people face a dilemma they’ve never had before: fame vs fortune.
Scott McCloud, who was also an advisor to BitPass, took strong issue with this idea in Misunderstanding Micropayments, a reply to the Fame vs. Fortune argument:
In many cases, it’s no longer a choice between getting it for a price or getting it for free. It’s the choice between getting it for price or not getting it at all. Fortunately, the price doesn’t have to be high.
McCloud was arguing that the creator’s natural monopoly — only Scott McCloud can produce another Scott McCloud work — would provide the artist the leverage needed to insist on micropayments (true), and that this leverage would create throngs of two-bit users (false).
What’s really interesting is that, after the failure of BitPass, McCloud has now released The Right Number absolutely free of charge. Nothing. Nada. Kein Preis. After the micropayment barrier had proved too high for his potential audience (as predicted), McCloud had to choose between keeping his work obscure, in order to preserve the possibility of charging for it, or going for attention. His actual choice in 2007, upends his argument of four years ago: he went for the fame, at the expense of the fortune. (This recapitulates Tim O’Reilly’s formulation: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” [ thanks, Cory, for the pointer ])
Everyone who imagines a working micropayment system either misunderstands user preferences, or imagines preventing users from expressing those preferences. The working micropayments systems that people hold up as existence proofs — ringtones, iTunes — are businesses that have escaped from market dynamics through a monopoly or cartel (music labels, carriers, etc.) Indeed, the very appeal of micropayments to content producers (the only people who like them — they offer no feature a user has ever requested) is to re-establish the leverage of the creator over the users. This isn’t going to happen, because the leverage wasn’t based on the valuing of content, but of packaging and distribution.
I’ll let my 2003 self finish the argument:
People want to believe in things like micropayments because without a magic bullet to believe in, they would be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that what seems to be happening — free content is growing in both amount and quality — is what’s actually happening.
The economics of content creation are in fact fairly simple. The two critical questions are “Does the support come from the reader, or from an advertiser, patron, or the creator?” and “Is the support mandatory or voluntary?”
The internet adds no new possibilities. Instead, it simply shifts both answers strongly to the right. It makes all user-supported schemes harder, and all subsidized schemes easier. It likewise makes collecting fees harder, and soliciting donations easier. And these effects are multiplicative. The internet makes collecting mandatory user fees much harder, and makes voluntarily subsidy much easier.
The only interesting footnote, in 2007, is that these forces have now reversed even McCloud’s behavior.
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March 7, 2007
So a few weeks ago, I started getting spam referencing O’Reilly books in the subject line, and I thought that the spammers had just gotten lucky, and that the universe of possible offensive measures for spammers now included generating so many different subject lines that at least some of them got through to my inbox, but recently I’ve started to get more of this kind of spam, as with:
- Subject: definition of what “free software” means. Outgrowing its
- Subject: What makes it particularly interesting to private users is that there has been much activity to bring free UNIXoid operating systems to the PC,
- Subject: and so have been long-haul links using public telephone lines. A rapidly growing conglomerate of world-wide networks has, however, made joining the global
(All are phrases drawn from http://tldp.org/LDP/nag/node2.html.)
Can it be that spammers are starting to associate context with individual email addresses, in an effort to evade Bayesian filters? (If you wanted to make sure a message got to my inbox, references to free software, open source, and telecom networks would be a pretty good way to do it. I mean, what are the chances?) Some of this stuff is so close to my interests that I thought I’d written some of the subject lines and was receiving this as a reply. Or is this just general Bayes-busting that happens to overlap with my interests?
If it’s the former, then Teilhard de Chardin is laughing it up in some odd corner of the noosphere, as our public expressions are being reflected back to us as a come-on. History repeats itself, first as self-expression, then as ad copy…
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February 6, 2007
Introduction: Last week, Henry Jenkins, Beth Coleman and I all published pieces on Second Life and virtual worlds. (Those pieces are here: Henry, Beth, Clay.)
We also agreed we would each post reaction pieces this week. Henry’s second week post is here, Beth’s is here. (I have not read either yet, so the reactions to those pieces will come next week.) My reaction to Henry’s first piece is below; my reaction to Beth’s first piece will appear later in the week.
I hope you’re a betting man, because at the end of this post, I’m going to propose a bet (or rather, as befits a conversation between academics, a framework for a bet.)
Before I do, though, I want to react to your earlier post on Second Life. Reading it, it struck me that we agree about many of the basic facts, and that most of our variance is about their relative importance. So as to prevent the softness of false consensus from settling over some sharp but interesting disagreements, let me start with a list of assertions I think we could both agree with. If I succeed, we can concentrate on our smaller but more interesting set of differences.
I think you and I agree that:
1. Linden has embraced participatory culture, including, inter alia, providing user tools, using CC licenses, and open sourcing the client.
2. Users of Second Life have created interesting effects by taking advantage of those opportunities.
3. Most people who try Second Life do not like it. As a result, SL is is not going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term, to use your phrase.
4. Reporters and marketers ought not discuss Second Life using phony numbers.
The core difference between our respective views of the current situation is that you place more emphasis on the first two items on that list, and I on the second two.
With that having been said (and assuming you roughly agree with that analysis), I’ll respond to three points in your post that I either don’t understand or do understand but disagree with. First, I want to push back on one of your historical comparisons. Next, I want to try to convince you that giving bad actors a pass when they embrace participatory culture is short-sighted. Finally, and most importantly, I want to propose a bet on the future utility or inutility of virtual worlds.
One: Second Life != The Renaissance
You compare Second Life with the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This is approximately insane, and your disclaimer that Second Life may not reach this rarefied plateau doesn’t do much to make it less insane. Using the Renaissance as a re