Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Siren Song of Digital Mediocrity

I just finished Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, and found its cultural hypothesis interesting and applicable to a whole bunch of undercurrents moving through the real and digital world. The book is swollen with ideas that range from creatively insightful to verging-on-batshit-crazy, but I'll pull out two that I particularly liked (that aren't in the latter category). First is the notion that technology users in general -- and internet/software uses in particular -- should be mindful that our tech-centric culture is increasingly vulnerable to "lock-in," a process whereby the sweet web tools and gizmos we rely on are handicapped by the skills and choices of the programmers who must, necessarily, create them. Put another way, the complexity of modern software may lead designers and programmers to make arbitrary choices that, because ideas can quickly go viral and generate large network effects, become locked in and go on to limit design flexibility in the future.

Lanier offers the example of MIDI, an interface used to synchronize electronic music components. MIDI was originally created to synch up multiple synthesizers, and didn't include parameters such as note phrasing, intensity, and all of the ineffable elements of performance that make music so unique to each musician. A guy just wanted to connect some synths, so all he needed was the equivalent of "note on" and "note off." Well, MIDI caught on in a huge and international way, and became the standard for electronic music. And while some artists have used music technology to create some very bodacious stuff (I'm partial to Aphex Twin myself), they're limited in their expression by the arbitrary-yet-intentional programming of the original author. This larger idea has cultural as well as philosophical significance; here's Lanier early on, on page 10:
Lock-in removes ideas that do not fit into the winning digital representation scheme, but it also reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes, by cutting away the unfathomable penumbra of meaning that distinguishes a word in natural language from a command in a computer program.
For those digital companies looking to build market share (and maximize the network effect), the best choice is to simplify and homogenize our interfacing with their software. So all topics we don't understand fall into their respective Wikipedia entries; all movies must somehow be shoehorned into Netflix's five-star rating system; and our personas too often stand upon a rigidly-defined profile and database of connections on Facebook. This is not to say that these digital services and others can't be or aren't great -- they are! Yet they are only models of a particular idea or relationship, and they can be shoddy and inadequate. For all the attention (mine included) that Facebook siphons from other activities, it's really one of the least innovative services out there and grants very little room to paint your own little corner of the site.

We should imagine, then, that Facebook's banality should give free license to those would-be competitors who can dream up something better and more respectful of the individual's digital "right" to flexible self-definition. Things haven't turned out this way. Yes, MySpace is out there, but even people with MySpace pages had better damn well have a complementary Facebook profile lest their friends and family think they're antisocial weirdos. The unique ability of the Internet to lock in and propagate mediocrity brings me to the second, more important and overarching point that I drew from Lanier's book: the "wisdom of crowds" ideology.

Mr. Lanier addresses this issue within the context of the Web 2.0 leadership. In a nutshell, a major part of this new technological religion (which Lanier frequently refers to as "cybernetic totalism," although I'm not sure how much sex appeal and staying power that has) is the worship of the "hive mind" -- the collective intelligence represented by our individual minds all connected in cyberspace -- over the works of individual minds. It almost recalls that most horrible word of corporate jargon, synergy. As if combining the efforts of individual humans we will somehow transcend our own humanity. This is cult-ish stuff, but since technology is cool and useful we tend to give it a free pass (sort of like we did for finance over the last 25 years). Besides, we only catch glimpses of it in oblique ways. "Information/content wants to be free." (Tell that to those who have to create it.) "The Web is an idealization of democratic values." (Maybe, but that brings with it all of the pandering to selfish wants of the lowest common denominator that political democracy has. Based on Web usage, that probably means we should be focusing most of our innovative efforts on porn and piracy.)

The hive mind's elevation of collective intelligence is visible both in the world of software and of wetware. Online, the most dominant service is Google's search engine, whose algorithm bases its search results hierarchy for a given word or phrase based on how often it is linked to. Sometimes this is useful, but it (a) does not attempt to understand the semantic intent of the searcher, but assumes that the hive will take care of that itself, and (b) subjects itself to lock-in. On the latter point, Wikipedia is the easy example. As more and more people use Wikipedia and link to it, the Wikipedia entry for a given search phrase is invariably the top-ranked search result. Google co-founder Larry Page has said that the engineering challenge of search is essentially the most important one to solve, because the best tool we can create is one that points us to the correct answer for every possible question. This rings true, but a search algorithm that brings me straight to Wikipedia every time clearly signals complacency in the engineering pursuit that Google most prides itself on.

In the real world, the wisdom of crowds fetish has preceded the denigration of authors and editors. So goes the increasingly conventional wisdom: Newspapers are dead. I'll just search for news online. Books are dead. I'll get my information from other sources. Albums are dead. I'll download the single I'm looking for and that's it. This kind of thinking assumes that our culture's institutions survive and progress on the wheels of some abstract motor of crowdthink, rather than through the vision and willpower of individuals. This is a reversal of the previous synergy idea: the pieces are all that matter, not the whole presentation, and those pieces have many (and free) substitutes. But there is professional editorial and artistic value in the whole, and dissecting it not only removes the authors' intentional form, but often undermines the economic viability of the work for its creators. It is the training, experience, intuition, wisdom, and creativity of individual people across disciplines that has given us the rich cultural mosaic that many now see fit to push off into digital obsolescence. If the hive-minders think we can replace these people and their work with the crap that makes up 95% of YouTube and Facebook, they need to unplug for a bit to reconsider.

(Actually, the digital world itself offers one of the best examples of a mensch who reshapes the world through individual creativity. Steve Jobs' repeated successes has prompted discussion about the usefulness, at times, of closed culture in innovation.)

So those are two of Jaron Lanier's (many) ideas that I found most exciting in his new book. One, be wary of lock-in, and understand that the design of the software tools that everyone seems to use aren't necessarily the best or even that good. Consequently, we as users need to demand (and create!) better tools with more flexibility wherever we can, rather than simply debasing our own standards. Second, be wary of the dehumanizing "wisdom of crowds" ideology, which neglects the value of individual experience and effort that goes into our cultural artifacts and institutions. Together, these two principals seem to cry out, Authorship Matters! That is true of the software engineers and the newspaper editors alike, and both should be held to a high standard. And we should be looking for digital design methods that foster community and interoperability without devaluing creative and/or professional work.

I recommend checking out Jaron Lanier's book for the other interesting things he has to say, as well. At times it feels like he could have used a wise editor of his own to reign in his scatterbrainedness, but perhaps, like some other mad geniuses out there, that is simply an integral part of his charm and value.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. On the question of the wisdom of crowds, you should dig in (pardon the pun) to sites like Digg and Reddit. I used to look at these websites as a means to discover content, and the idea of “democratically voting” up the best stuff intrigued me. But it’s obvious that what has happened is that a few ideologies got a jump start on control of what gets voted up and down. This drove away the people who disagree and left only those who agree with the original ideologies. It would be like an election where only Democrats voted because Republicans, knowing they had no shot, didn’t even bother to show up. Now, you go on these websites and the content is extremely one-sided and predictable.