Is Eric Schmidt the next Bill Gates?

So who said letters to the editor are dead?

Over the last couple of days, Financial Times readers have been treated to two deliciously vitriolic letters in response to Eric Schmidt's inane 5/21 FT piece about Africa. Both letters are lucid and convincing. Both letter writers could teach the blogging proletariat a thing or two about throwing nasty insults at the rich and famous.

In today's FT, David Partyka writes that the Google piece was "laughable serf-serving quixotism." Partyka, a Research Associate at Case Western Reserve University, is particularly good on Schmidt's fetish with wirelessness in Africa:

Mr Schmidt suggests that a schoolchild in Africa will be able, for example, to find research papers . . . or see ancient manuscripts" via the internet. However, as Mr Schmidt says, less than 1 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's households have a landline, thus "mobile telephony will . . . close the knowledge divide between rich and poor".... I ask Mr Schmidt if a family is so poor that they live in a neighbourhood without landlines, will they go out to buy a mobile phone (with its monthly fee) so that junior can become more educated?

While In yesterday's FT, Michael Shtender-Auerbach wrote a letter to the editor about Google's "lack of virtue." Schtender-Auerbach, the Century Foundation's  Press Officer, focuses on Google's glaring Africa and China inconsistencies:

Google's "Do no evil" creed cannot be reconciled with its business dealings in China. While I agree with Mr Schmidt that integrating internet search capability with mobile devices may do wonders to eliminate the digital divide, Google's first mobile venture is slated not for Africa, where Mr Schmidt identifies the greatest need for access, but for China...... Google cannot preach empowerment through access to information while furnishing governments such as China's with the tools of control."

Amen, Mr Schtender-Auerbach. I couldn't have put it better myself.

There have been a number of articles (The Economist, for example) recently about Google becoming the "new" Microsoft -- the coming complex superpower of the Web 2.0 world. A more intriguing comparison between Redmond and Mountain View, however, is imagining today's Eric Schmidt as yesterday's Bill Gates -- universally vilified for his moral hypocrisy.

 

Don Tapscott's giant global computer

Thumb_donT’is the season of digital utopianism. If Kevin Kelly is noisily crystal-ball gazing again, then Don Tapscott, Mr New Paradigm, can’t be far behind. Lo and behold, Tapscott has an upcoming new book called Wikinomics: Collaboration and Innovation in the Age of Linux, MySpace and Wikipedia (due to be published by Porfolio on December 28, 2006).

I heard Tapscott’s version of the digital future yesterday at the American Book Expo in Washington DC. Here’s his definition of web 2.0:

"A digital multimedia, hyperlinked, tagged, geo-spatial, content database, accessible everywhere on many devices and delivered through high value services."

Whew! That’s a mouthful, even for Mr New Paradigm. So he took a breath and thought again. This time around, Tapscott was more concise:

"A giant global computer."

That’s better. Tapscott nailed it. A giant global computer! So what will this mean to our politics, to our social life, to our economics, to our culture, to our politics, to the international system?

To Tapscott, the consequences of the world turning into a giant global computer are entirely positive – democratization, innovation, collaboration, blah blah blah. To me, however, the consequences of this are profoundly troubling. I don’t want to live in a world which is a giant global computer. This is a new dark age. It will flatten culture, impoverish the economy and transform our democratic political system into mob rule.

Tapscott has clarified things. Do we want civilization to turn into a giant global computer? Is this the fate of man? Is it really the best we can do?

WORSE THAN BAD

150pxwikipedialogo W. G. (Winfred Georg Maximilian) Sebald (May 18, 1944, Wertach im Allgäu–December 14, 2001, Norfolk, United Kingdom) was a writer and academic. Towards the end of his life he was being cited by many literary critics as one of the greatest living authors, and was tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He preferred to be called 'Max', from one of his middle names, by family and friends.
-- Introduction to the entry about W.G. Sebald, on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the open source encyclopedia that Nick Carr, the hybrid Harvard technologist and critic, so witheringly skewers in his October 2005 piece Amorality of Web 2.0. To Carr, Wikipedia, with its veneration of the noble amateur, encapsulates the great seduction of the Web 2.0 movement.

Carr is, of course, right. But he didn’t go far enough. He describes the entries as “worse than bad”, but doesn’t explain what this  actually means. He fails to take his own argument to its logical conclusion. So let me (I can’t resist) drive that hybrid Carr an extra mile.

Wikipedia is supposed to represent the ideal of “collective intelligence” which is being peddled by utopians like James The Wisdom of Crowds Surowiecki. But the truth about Wikipedia, the unintended consequences of its radical democratization of knowledge, is that it turns everyone into kids. The open source encylopedia infantilizes knowledge. On Wikipedia, we all become children, playing at being adult, slipping into an Alice in Wonderland version of reality. If you’re Alice, it might be fun. But for the grown-ups, it is worse than bad.

As all serious students of mobs understood – from Elias Canetti to Gustave Le Bon to Hannah Arendt -- the crowd is banal. Lost in the crowd, we lose our individuality, our thoughtfulness, our ability to reason. As members of a crowd, we revert to childhood.

And this is what has happened to the intellectual quality of open source entries at Wikipedia.Take the introductory remarks (see above) on W.G. Sebald, the Anglo-German essayist, historian and travel writer.  It’s not so much a question of inaccuracy or bias, but rather the utter childishness of the entry. Here is one of the more seductive literary voices of the late twentieth century and all the kindergarden-level commentary in Wikipedia can tell us is that Sebald is one of the “greatest living authors” who is a “possible” winner of the Nobel Prize. And then, to cap it all, we are told that Sebald preferred to be called Max by family and friends.

All that is missing from this encyclopedic inanity is Sebald’s favorite food, his favorite sports team and his favorite animal.

This Wikipedia entry on W.G. Sebald is the work of a five year old. In Nick Carr words, it is worse than bad.

FEAR AND LOATHING OUTSIDE SILICON VALLEY

Images_4 Maybe The Great Seduction is not very seductive.

Here, in Silicon Valley, it is taken for granted that technology is changing the world for the better. But the more I talk with non-tech friends the more I realize that contemporary information technology is actually viewed with fear and loathing. Yes, that's what I said: fear and loathing outside Silicon Valley. For many people, the Internet, personal computers and the other weapons of virtual reality only add complexity and confusion to their lives. For many people outside Silicon Valley, always-on digital technology is the problem at the heart of our culture rather than the solution.

Always-on equals always-bothered.

Always-on equals never-thinking.

This suspicion of technology’s impact upon culture was poignantly summarized in an email I received this morning from a well-known San Francisco creative artist. Through a mutual friend, I had invited this artist (who asked to remain anonymous since he/she doesn’t want to waste time in worthless email exchanges with irate strangers) to appear on my podcast show AfterTV.

This is what I got back from my anonymous artist:

L forwarded your information to me. I checked out your site, but I don't know if I'd be an appropriate guest. As far as the digital revolution goes, although I'm reasonably computer literate, and I do think computers have some good uses, I have strong Luddite tendencies. I intend to write my next book by hand. I think digital music is tiresome. Eventually people are going to return to live music, learn how to master an instrument, drop all the gizmos. Live music is where the vitamins and other musical nutrients are. Nowhere else. And I can't read a book on a computer. I don't know anybody who can. Short pieces yes, whole books no. People are reading books less and less, true, but I think the resulting "illiteracy" is showing up in disastrous ways. Nobody can follow a long thought. People have short attention spans cause all they want is to be entertained. I don't think technology is magical. It's mundane. Magic is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. With technology the whole is exactly equal to the sum of the parts--nothing more. I think of technology as being, by and large, the feverish attempt of a culture to lose itself because it is SO bored. This is not meant to be hostile. I just thought you should know where I stand.

I just thought you should know where I stand. Wow! As the German theologian Martin Luther told the Edict of Worms in April 1521: "Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God."

Yes, the artist has nailed it, Martin Luther style, with this anonymous manifesto. It’s a much more direct critique of technology than my vertiginous 11 Unfashionable ThoughtsImages_1. It should be nailed on the cubicle wall of every Silicon Valley software engineer who has been seduced by Google-like nonsense about technology “doing no evil.”

Perhaps the San Francisco artist should drive down 101 to Mountain View and nail it, Martin Luther style, on the front door of the Google office. Martin Luther 2.0. The only problem is that, here in Silicon Valley, where The Law of Forgetting is the only game in town, nobody can remember Martin Luther 1.0. No, grand historical gesture here is pointless. Better to slap the manifesto on the blogosphere. Anonymously. Just as Martin Luther would probably do, if he happened to reappear now, almost five hundred years after the Edict of Worms, in our brave new Web 2.0 world.

MEMORIES OF GUTENBERG MOMENTS

Index_05 “Hi, I’m Ron Suskind and I want you to remember your life,” the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist had introduced himself to me on the telephone one afternoon in late 2000. “I hear you’re quite the digital guy.”

Yeah, that’s me, Silicon Valley’s everyman, I confessed. Completely digital. The next big thing. Version 2.0 of man.

Suskind laughed. “Well, I want you to remember,” he said. “I need to know how it felt to be so close to acquiring the wealth of the Gods.”

A few months later, Suskind and I arranged to meet for dinner at Bizou, the mustard yellow restaurant in San Francisco’s SOMA district, on the corner on Fourth at Brannan. Suskind, like me, an early pioneer of the Internet revolution, was writing an Esquire article about life in Silicon Valley after the dotcom crash. He had come to town as a scavenger, to dine on the rotting flesh of our digital dream.

Memories. I can’t remember the quality of our duck-liver pate appetizer, but I do remember that Suskind paid the bill.  I also remember that there were no other diners at Bizou that night. Just Ron and I. Eight months earlier, in the middle of April 2000, the technology laden NASDAQ exchange had crashed, losing a quarter of its value in a single week. Our radical dream of a paperless society had been realized. Nobody in San Francisco had any cash in January 2001.

So there we were: the journalist in the market for remembrance; and the entrepreneur who wanted to forget. That evening, I sung – or tried, at least, to sing -- for my supper. Suskind was mining my memory. But imagining Suskind as a miner is inaccurate. A priest is a better metaphor. Ron Suskind sought my confession. He wanted me to remember how it felt:

“I am sitting with a buddy in an overpriced restaurant south of Market Street—San Francisco's Internet district —when it happens. It is a rainy January night, and we are talking about what we have in common: we both were CEOS of now-vanished dot-coms. We've talked about this before, through the fall, always ending with an exchange of stories about being so close we could breathe the ether, some money raised, everything falling into place, big capital coming, on the precipice of dizzying connectedness and vast wealth. As we pick over a duck-liver pate, Andrew Keen goes through his riff about how his company—a music and culture site called Audiocafe.com—was moving from content to product sales and big-time investors were signed on. It was his moment at the epicenter of the awakening, the Gutenberg moment, the disruptive dawn. We all tasted some of that. Whole country fed off of it." (Esquire, April 2001)

Suskind’s article, “The Era of the Scavenger Begins: A Practical Guide to The Next Economy” won space on the cover of Esquire’s April 2001 issue, next to a color photograph of baseball’s Alex Rodriguez and alongside features on America’s George W. Bush and Hollywood’s Julia Roberts. But for existential drama, Suskind’s seductive description of his Dinner with Andrew outshone anything written about A-Rod, Dubya or Roberts:

Tell me again,” I say. “How did it feel to be there, in the midst of it all?”
Keen looks at me quizzically. Something’s off. Rhythm broken.
“You know. How did it feel?” I ask again.
“I’m not sure,” he murmurs, dazed, like someone who reaches down for a lost limb. Then he looks at me, startled and stricken.
“I can’t remember anymore. I can’t remember how it felt.”

How did it feel? That question lurked behind everything Ron Suskind ever said to me. The investigative journalist wanted to get inside my head. He wanted me to remember how it felt like to be a digital media entrepreneur riding on the new economy rollercoaster. He wanted a sound-bite on my Gutenberg moment.

I can’t remember, I kept telling him in that empty restaurant in January 2001. I was forgetting on behalf of Silicon Valley. I can’t remember, I can’t remember, I can’t remember….

Today in Silicon Valley, as we slide into another of our Guttenberg moments (this one officially called Web 2.0), I still can’t remember. And I doubt anyone else can either. The Law of Forgetting, Silicon Valley’s law, was as true in January 2001 as it is today.