You and me, and the evolving web 2.0

Since Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle introduced the term Web 2.0 five years ago, there has been an explosion of web tools and Internet-connected gadgets that foster conversations, interactions and discoveries.

In the past five years startups have built massive brands by harnessing communities and conversations. Brands like Twitter, Facebook, Stumble Upon, Ebay, Amazon and many others grew massive audiences by offering means for related and unrelated people to connect using Internet technologies. By crowdsourcing these brands provided platforms for collective interactions that create useful and cool tools like book reviews, movie databases, online encycopedias, map annotations, link resources .

There has also been a lot of chatter about what’s next. The teleological nature of the term, Web 2.0, lead some to focus on what web 3.0 might look like. Is it the mobile Internet? Is it the fast(er) Internet?

O’Reilly and Battelle see Web 2.0 simply as “harnessing collective intelligence.”

I always found the term a really useful rallying cry but overall a spurious oversimplification for what the web was always meant to be. Web 2.0 for me is a great epochal term expressing the evolution of how we use and interact with technology rather than a concrete real-world thing. And the danger with epochal terms is that we focus too much on the term, defining and justifying it, rather than the really interesting stuff that helps us understand the intersections between culture and technology.

In a new paper “Web Squared“, O’Reilly and Battelle write about how the web is on a “collision course with the physical world” through a proliferation of Internet-enabled devices, smartphones and real-time
microblogging platforms like Twitter.

For the authors Web Squared is “Web meets World” and they mount a compelling case for web technologies being applied to solve the problems of the world using the principles of “openness, collective intelligence, and transparency”.

I found the article to be both insightful and inspiring. The idea that the web is an entity comprised of devices and the collective intelligence of millions of users, which could be applied to the real problems of the world really speaks to my aspirations and vanity.

I can’t help think that O’Reilly and Batelle are speaking from a very privileged position as elites in the most webified economy in the world and that the global problems including hunger and poverty, drought, global warming, war, slavery, health, corruption and despotism are a long way from being solved by a bunch of well intentioned web developers, designers, strategics, venture capitalists and well-intentioned twitterers.

Not straight away anyway.

There is a direct line between the invention of the printing press and the breakdown of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. The opportunities offered by being able to easily and quickly distribute information meant that the monopoly the elite (the Church) had on knowledge was no longer tenable. The consequences of this “revolution”  took hundreds of years to emerge.

My point is that we’re too close, too involved, too emotionally engaged to really see whaat the epochal implications of the Internet revolution are. It is entirely possible that the Internet having been responsible for the breakdown of Western media empires dominance of the distribution of knowledge and information will be the catalyst for the breakdown of the Western economic hegemony. If 80% of the populations of China and India get access to the Internet and relative economic security the world and the web will look completely different. It will be dominated not by the privileged citizens of the West but by the “Other”.

The rise of the Arabic TV network, Al Jazeera and their release of broadcast quality footage from Gaza on a Creative Commons license puts this evolution in real context. I can’t see CNN, the BBC or even the Australian ABC putting their syndication deals at risk.

In fact it could be the case that the real revolution could be the emergence of a new global heterogeneity in the distributiom and consumption of knowledge, rather than the homogenous US dominated Internet. This has less to do with Web 2.0 than multi-lingual domain names and the rise of affordable Internet enabled mobile devices.

When we talk about conversations and interactions, most of us still have what Edward Said would have called an Orientalist point of view: “There are a lot of them and their economy is going well, but we invented Google and the iPhone”.

If we are to have a rallying cry to use the web to solve the worlds problems then it needs to be grounded in those radical ideas that provide the economic tools, including the Internet, to the world’s poorest peoples.

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