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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Berners-Lee’

The Virtual Revolution Episode 1: Some Notes

In Coming to terms with the Web, The Web and democracy on October 23, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Last week I watched the first episode of a doco about the Web, The Virtual Revolution (SBS, 8.30pm Tuesdays). This episode is called The Great Levelling? It’s presented by Aleks Krotoski, an academic and technology journalist for the Guardian.  The producers of the doco have evidently decided that she’s a bit like Simon Schama: an approachable intellectual. Accordingly, she’s often in front of the camera, wearing a thoughtful frown, a choppy ‘do and a flattering outfit. She strolls in fields, drives a convertible, and looks stylishly windswept on a ferry.

Nonetheless, if you can ignore the endless posing and  shameless Apple promotion (Krotoski often needs to whip out the Mac to better appreciate her exotic surrounds), it’s a thought-provoking 50-odd minutes. I thought I’d summarise some of its main points and link to some of the people, including technology writers and Web luminaries, who featured.

As the title suggests, Krotoski is trying to come to terms with the ‘democracy’ of the Web. Is it really the great leveller it’s made out to be?

 

The computer Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the Web

The Web, she notes, espoused the culture of sharing from the beginning. Frustrated at the lack of interconnectivity the Internet provided, Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir) created the Web, then gave it away. Its first users were, to use Krotoski’s wording, social misfits, and the first bloggers were those who ‘had no voice’. She posits that the Web was (is?) a virtual continuation of doomed sixties libertarianism.

 

One guest was musician John Perry Barlow from The Grateful Dead. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of the Web and promoter of Web equality; in 1996 he even wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It begins:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Barlow was also one of the first celebrities to be mobbed by internet-savvy music geeks in a chatroom, in this case the historic Web institution, The Well. Never heard of it? I hadn’t neither, but it’s been around since 1985. It’s the original social networking site, and its still a lot more basic than Facebook et al. It distinguishes itself by asking that members use their real names and by banning advertising, formal or otherwise – now that’s idealistic.

Krotoski enthuses that the Web ‘blows open access to knowledge’,  and points to the crowdsourcing phenomenon that is Wikipedia, but she’s not afraid to canvass a few dissenting voices. One of these is Lee Siegel, cultural commentator and author of a book Against the Machine. Check out this interview with Siegel in New York Books, in which he trashes another of the doco’s interviewees, cyberculture expert Douglas Rushkoff. Siegel hates Wikipedia and other internet phenomonena, but is nonetheless drawn to them – like the rest of us.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Fry makes an appearance. He lopes to the Web’s defence, hailing it ‘the best source of perfectly acceptable knowledge’. Talk about a back-handed compliment – perhaps he’s read too much Wilde.

Krotoski wheels out more celebs – Al Gore observes, optimistically but not especially originally, that the Web facilitates the discussion of ideas, which in turn can lead to better ideas; we also meet Bill Gates, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (reminiscing, with no apparent sense of irony, about the times when software piracy was just sort of funny),  Napster creator Shawn Fanning (who admits to being amazed by how quickly he managed to destroy the old music distribution model and the industry itself), and the founders of You Tube and Wikipedia.

We also learn that Tim Berners-Lee frets about the Web’s future, and how it might come under central control – he notes that in some countries, it already has.

Following this thread, Krotoski describes the battle between the philosophy of sharing which characterised the early Web, and colonisation by major corporations, and seems to come to the conclusion that the capitalists have won. One commentator notes that it’s strange how now there is one dominant social networking site, one online bookshop, and one search engine. To the terrifying thought that the Web’s inequality merely reflects that of the real world, Korotski counters that the Web may be more than a reflection of the world, as the technology is endlessly reinventing itself. Once a monopoly has asserted itself, the technology presents an alternative (or, in the case of Internet Explorer, competition laws re-level the playing field).

This being said, I think the most significant observation in the doco was that the Web helps people, musicians for example, promote themselves within the existing system. Yes, new online frontiers are constantly opening up, and there might be the illusion that the Web is consistently able to slip out of corporate control, but all of this was brought about, and most of it is still happening within, the biosphere of capitalism.

Did anyone else catch this doco? Any thoughts?

Photo by Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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