World Wide Mush? An Argument Against the “Internet as a Collective”

you-are-not-a-gadgetResearcher Jaron Lanier has an interesting article in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal entitled “World Wide Mush“. The article is a plug for his book, You Are Not a Gadget. Although the author does not specifically discuss large-scale data management, I am including it because he addressed “the collective” work of the Internet, upon which so much of “data taming” is and (I believe) will be based.

These points stood out to me from the WSJ article:

Here’s one problem with digital collectivism: We shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation.

If you want to foster creativity and excellence, you have to introduce some boundaries. Teams need some privacy from one another to develop unique approaches to any kind of competition. Scientists need some time in private before publication to get their results in order. Making everything open all the time creates what I call a global mush.

There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth.

I found the article thought provoking, but I have to disagree with him. The Internet came out of work at DARPA/ARPA (i.e., “government-funded, taxpayer research”). The Web came out of CERN, which means it was also government/taxpayer-funded work. Even Google’s PageRank is an algorithm developed while Brin and Page were graduate students at Stanford, working on an NSF Digital Libraries grant (again, taxpayer-funded research). They took work by Eugene Garfield on citation analysis and Impact factor, wrote a new algorithm, and applied it to Web links. Again, their research and company was built initially from government/taxpayer-funded research that is made publicly available because it is taxpayer funded. In other words, some of the most far-reaching, innovative work that has literally changed how millions of people around the globe live and work has come out of the (often taxpayer-funded) “collective”. I will leave off of the above list many, many other projects built from the non-taxpayer-funded “collective”.

I have not read Lanier’s book, but so far, based on the WSJ article, I can’t buy his argument.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his article and/or book.

Please let me know what you think....