September 12, 2014

Every Generation Makes the World Anew

This is probably something obvious to most people, but it struck me the other day that so much of how we perceive and interact with the world - language, culture, how-to knowledge, etc. - is in practice quite stable and long-lived, but in theory is very malleable and uncertain. As the title of this post says, each generation has to choose what to pass on - what books to preserve, what buildings to (not?) tear down, what songs to teach to their children, etc. The things they choose not to pass on disappear. Forever. I found that to be sobering.

September 2, 2014

The Web We Had

I recently finished the very good, classic work Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger. I enjoyed it very much (my brief review is here).

The book is 12 years old, however, and the Web has changed a lot in that time. While I found many of the ideas, especially the philosophical ideas about the Web, both insightful and applicable, as I was reading, I couldn't help but think about the ways in which the Web has drifted from the Web Weinberger knew in 2002.

In fact, coincidentally, Weinberger himself recently wrote about one of the ways that the web changed since then. Weinberger knew that it was social, but in the early days, that sociability was built almost exclusively around interests - mailing lists, irc channels, forums, blogs - they are all built around people interested in the content that is produced. Now, much more of the experience of the web is built around real-world relationships - Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. For most people, these are populated primarily with people who they know. In ways that are both good and bad, the web is more intimate and more insular than it was.

Secondly, the web was a purpose-built place. Many of Weinberger's arguments revolve around the idea that the web is a place apart from the "real world" - where what is created is created intentionally, and build around the interests of its creators. While the core of this claim is still true today, much of the web is now co-created with algorithms.

There are very few web pages that are designed exactly as they are. Most pages at least have ads which are chosen and served up by an algorithm. Many are created by algorithms in even more explicit ways. For example, Amazon suggests other items that you might be interested in, based on what similar consumers purchased in the past. Your Facebook feed is filtered based on the relationships you have with others - how many times you've liked someone's posts, how many friends you have in common, etc.

This is really interesting - we are living in a space that is altered based on what browser we are using, what sites we have visited, what purchases we have made, etc. It's as though when you went to the mall, all the stores you like were put closest to the entrance, and the salad places magically disappeared from the food court. Then, when the next person came in, their favorite stores and food magically moved to prime locations.

There are some dangers. The idea of a filter bubble is one - the idea is that it is good for us to be exposed to things we don't like, ideas we disagree with, etc. While I agree that this is something to worry about, let's not forget how amazing what we have is - the algorithm-based world of the web is one with better ads, more interesting content, and ways to find and connect with others who have things to say which are particularly interesting to us.

August 26, 2014

Review: Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web

Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web
Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web by David Weinberger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only on the web does a book 12 years old feel like ancient history. In many respects, Weinberger was prescient, identifying trends that have become more and more powerful (e.g., one passage could be seen as predicting the rise of Wikipedia, and another the advent of the currently omnipresent "Like" button). Even more often, he provides insights that are still deep and thought-provoking.

Weinberger is a philosopher by training, and this book is strongest when Weinberger focuses on philosophy. For example, he argues that the web is a push back against the turn toward realism in society. He argues that the web is a completely constructed space, without the constraints of the real world, and the fact that we can find such meaning and purpose through that sort of "unreal" environment says something about what our real needs and desires are.

At times, the book is overly technological deterministic, and at times Weinberger makes claims about the nature of the web that may have been true 12 years ago, but feel less true today (e.g., today's web is much more organized around real-world friends and less around interests). However, I find his argument that using the Internet subtly changes the way we see the world to be both persuasive and important. Just because the Internet isn't "changing everything" rapidly before our eyes doesn't mean that there it isn't influencing culture in really important ways.

Overall, an important and interesting book. Should be required reading for anyone interested in the cultural impact of the internet.

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