Wikipedia and the Internet Grow Up

To celebrate the web’s 20th birthday, the BBC – never one to miss anniversary of an insurrectionary movement – is producing a major new television series entitled “The Digital Revolution”. Scheduled to be broadcast next year and featuring interviews with web revolutionaries such as Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales as well as reactionaries like myself, this four part BBC series is intended to be an “open and collaborative documentary” on the way in which the web is supposedly "changing our lives".

The media here, of course, is designed to be the message. Ask any filesharing internet revolutionary what the web has achieved between 1989 and 2009 and the two words you’ll likely hear first will be “open” and “collaborative”. They will boast that all the progressive achievements of the internet – from social networks to Wikipedia to peer-to-peer “sharing” of information to crowd-sourced creative projects – have been built upon a culture of radical openness and collaboration.

Given the undeniably subversive impact of the internet on our culture and economy, there’s no doubt that this classically Whiggish version of history contains more than a grain of truth. But for all the grandiose transformational promise of the digital revolution, I wonder if 2009 actually represents a watershed in its history.....



Is Tim Harford, the author of the excellent Undercover Economist, serious? In this morning's Financial Times, he says that intellectual theft is okay provided one owns up to it. I am not quite sure if his argument is  cynical, or just plain immoral.

Writing in the wake of this week's William Swanson and Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandals, Harford argues that most people aren't capable of interesting arguments and thus should "borrow" from other people. According to Harford, "without more elegant plagiarists, there would be no art."

This argument is both bogus and banal. Of course, any book or movie or piece can be placed within a tradition, even if -- as with Beethoven, Mahler or The Sex Pistols -- it is a reaction to that tradition. But most lasting art is original, it is not plagarised. It only makes sense after it has been authored. Art can't be predicted by clever sociologists of culture. It is not a thing that is cut-and-pasted.

I fear that Harford's piece is symbolic of the dangerous contemporary fashion for open-mindedness in the intellectual property realm. This is a consequence of IP radicals like Larry Lessig who are shamelessly trying to undermine traditional copyright law in favor of their utopian "creative commons."

Harford says that we should learn our plagiarism lessons from bloggers: "blogs are so liberally peppered with other people's work that bloggers have developed a code to acknowledge an intellectual debt: HT, the hat-tip."

But blogs, of course, are the reverse of art. They are just links to other people's links. In this blog, for example, all I am doing is repeating Harford's argument who is repeating Lessig's argument. This hall of electronic mirrors contains the acoustic of a endless Steve Reich loop. There is no originality here. It is one unending conversation about the same thing.

HT: Tim Harford


Vanheuse275x125After noting the morally dubious nature of My Space yesterday, I picked up the Wall Street Journal this morning to read an article by Julia Angwin and Brian Steinberg about News Corp’s move to defend its expensive new acquisition. According to WSJ, My Space is full of “swinging” teenagers.

Well, surprise, surprise.

Apparently, “My Space users post sexually explicit photos and list activities such as swinging and spanking among their interests. Oh my God. Kids these days are SO much more depraved than their AOL chat room addicted parents.

The problem, as the WSJ says, is that News Corp wants to “retain My Space’s cool factor.” So Rupert Murdoch has two choices: either maintain the sexually dodgy nature of My Space and retain its 36 million users (8th most visited site on the Internet); or do-the-right-thing and instigate a moral clean-up, thereby losing most of those 36 million users and recycling that $580 million he paid for My Space in one of his uncharacterically all-too-human moments of irrational exuberance.

“We’re going to take some pretty dramatic steps to provide industry-leading safety,” said Ross Levinshohn, president of News Corp’s Fox Interactive Media unit.

Cool, Ross, cool. A firm hand, that’s what needed, with the swingers, the spankers and the spanked. Here are some dramatic, if not necessarily pretty, suggestions:

  • Spank the My Space swingers.
  • Swing the My Space spankers.
  • Spank Rupert Murdoch in real-time – as a new media spectacle on behalf of all those poor little old ladies who own News Corp stock.

Speaking of public spankings, everyone should read Saturday’s Financial Times flogging of the blogosphere by the very talented Trevor Butterworth. At long last we are seeing some more intelligent media coverage on the Web 2.0 nonsense.

Butterworth sent me a most entertaining note yesterday about the great Web 2.0 seduction:

“I was reminded of Richard Rorty's liberal utopia where everyone was a poet constructing stories that are useful and interesting freed from metaphysical illusion of truth...Yes the blogosphere, a giant mfa program where all effort is equally applauded. LOL. However - -if you noted some of the comments on the hastily conceived FTMag blog - my guess is that there's a couple of asteroids assuming a trajectory that will obliterate the Internet as we know it... the telecom clamp down and the media corp crack down on content aggregators...

Butterfield nailed it: the blogosphere as a giant mfa program. And not a very good one at that. Iowa State or, worse still, Stanford.

And to learn more about those asteroids which will obliterate the Internet, a spankingly entertaining conversation with Butterfield will appear on afterTV in the next couple of weeks.