Gadgets, Fetishism & Web 2.0

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of Virtual Reality, takes apart Web 2.0 mentality and launches an attack on the internet, computing and a culture of gadget fetishism that is driven more by fear than love of technology, in his book You Are Not a Gadget.

Proponents of Web 2.0 talk about the powers of collective knowledge construction but the reality is not always borne out by the facts. Lanier describes this emergent line of thinking as the noosphere – a global brain formed by the sum of all human brains connected through the internet. Lanier basically suggests that to enter a new era of creativity & innovation we need to kill the ‘hive’ mind (noosphere, echo chamber) that is web 2.0. 

This line of thought is at odds with the open source movement and Clay Shirky’s concept of Cognitive Surplus which can be summarised as  “Lets say that 1% of people’s time, instead of watching TV, is devoted to producing and sharing – this would be equivalent to 98 Wikipedia projects per year of participation.” Lanier counters this with “…if we got all people to say, contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one like Einstein.”

The thing that both Shirky & Lanier assume though is that people actually want to contribute – the reality is that often they don’t. We talk about Twitter and PLN’s and all the wonderful sharing, but we are caught up in this concept of the ‘hive mind’ or ‘echo chamber.’ We only need to look at the #commentsforkids and all the coercion that people engage in to artificially produce an audience for students.  

From my own experience I would even go as far as suggesting that the idea of cognitive surplus may be nothing more than an idealistic, utopian fantasy – at best a moot point that relies on intrinsic motivators for participation.

For instance, my Games in Education wiki – 187 members and only one has made a contribution. This is ok because I really only use this space to collect interesting research and information about games and GBL – it’s a public/personal space for me as opposed to being a space for collective knowledge construction (which is how a wiki is supposed to operate). This lack of interaction isn’t restricted to this wiki however – being a moderator of various online communities of both adults and children, with memberships ranging from 3500 to 200, some people actively participate more than others. Researcher Jakob Nielsen calls this “Participation Inequality“.

In summary Nielson states that:

90% of users are “lurkers”. These people tend to read or observe, but don’t actively contribute.

9% of users contribute from time to time.

1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions

Lanier got me thinking about the motivations of people and in particular the study of Game Theory and how this can be applied to the situation.

Game theory is the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers. One of the first known uses of Game Theory was to describe and model how human populations behave. By finding the equilibria of games, you can predict how actual human populations will behave when confronted with situations analogous to the game being studied.  (A famous example of the application of Game Theory is the Prisoner’s Dilemma)

In game theory, Nash equilibrium (named after John Nash – think A Beautiful Mind with Russel Crowe) is a solution concept of a game involving two or more players, in which each player is assumed to know the equilibrium strategies of the other players, and no player has anything to gain by changing only his own strategy. Overall, an individual can receive no incremental benefit from changing actions, assuming other players remain constant in their strategies. So for a Nash Equilibrium to exist in the game of Collective Knowledge Construction, assuming that the optimum strategy is knowledge building and sharing, no players would change their strategy, despite knowing the actions of their opponents. And this doesn’t play out to be true. As long as we have corporate interests, consultants, publishing companies and old mindsets a Nash equilbria can never be reached. But this use may be slightly incorrect because we assume player participation.

Lanier states,

“Numerical popularity doesn’t correlate with intensity of connection in the cloud”

This book challenges many fundamental assumptions those of us caught up in the hype of web 2.0 make. Regardless of whether you take the time to read Lanier, and whether you agree/disagree with his thoughts, I think this is what we should be looking for: Intensity of Connection – Holding the quality of connections higher than the quantity of connections.

Watch Jaron Lanier’s talk at LWF in January – Learning Through Experience & Play.

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