Last week in Wellington, New Zealand, all the brightest future-minded web nerds gathered together at an event called Webstock. And scifi author Bruce Sterling keynoted with a lecture about how Web 2.0 is doomed.
I was there at Sterling's speech, which was both intriguing and confrontational. Here are some highlights.
Web 2.0 Is a Ponzi Scheme
Sterling began his talk by poking fun at Web 2.0*, calling it mostly a social network of investors and developers. He complained that it's not an ideology or set of aesthetic tenants; it's just a little network - "a little network for the network." He talked about how Web 2.0 uses the Web as a "platform" for services, and then dismissed that as an "utter violation of common sense" based on the kind of thinking, translated into the financial realm, that caused the current global financial crisis, where mortgages are aggregated together and turned into a kind of Ponzi scheme platform.
Sterling acknowledged that of course Web 2.0 is not the same thing as the financial system, "but that frail and problematic system was what funded Web 2.0. After all, Web 2.0 is supposed to be business."
* What exactly is Web 2.0, you might ask? Well, it's a term invented by techie publisher Tim O'Reilly to describe applications like Google and Facebook that are packed with user-generated data - all the debris accumulated during the Web's baby days in the 1990s and its teenhood in the 2000s. Essentially, Web 2.0 is any nifty website or service that's based on organizing a whole bunch of information (think Flickr) - or linking together a whole bunch of disparate ideas (again, think Google, which trawls the whole damn Web).
"Collective Intelligence" and Why Google Is Important
Sterling had some choice words for the idea of "collective intelligence," a business buzzphrase for Web services that supposedly use "the wisdom of crowds" to solve problems. He thinks Google's ability to harness collective intelligence is actually important, and that it can't be dismissed. So Google is one of the aspects of Web 2.0 he approves of. Google is the "sacred spirit demon that haunts Mountain View and knows everything." It's an actual phenomenon vs. an off-the-wall metaphor. But he was suspicious of the idea that Google's search algorithm known as PageRank is a kind of "intelligence."
Sterling added, "Google is not a hive mind. It doesn't even have a being. Plus the users aren't a community or collective - they aren't aware of each other's existence and have no influence on what Google chooses to do with their clicks." Again, this was an interesting point - the idea that these so-called wise crowds are being used by companies for their data but that these same crowds rarely create communities with each other. The wise crowd is also a lonely crowd.
Sterling concluded by saying:
The original sin of geekdom is to think that just because you can think algorithmically and impose it on a machine that this is disembodied intelligence. That is just rules-based machine behavior. Just code being executed. Sure it's an art and science. Calling it intelligence is dehumanizing. It makes you look delusional, sad and pathetic. It's like being an old woman whose only friends are cats. Also, collective intelligence is not your friend. Just as markets aren't your friend. They'll jerk you around.
I'd like to see some better jargon for collective intelligence. A little less metaphysical. Maybe something like "primeval meme ooze." Or "semi-autonomous data propagation." Or "neo-biological out of control emergent architectures," Kevin Kelly style.
Sterling Imagines His Own Future
I cornered Sterling afterward and asked him what his hopes are for the future of the Web, since he's not predicting a bright tomorrow for the current set of services we use today. He'd mentioned the "internet of things," or ubiquitous computing, in his talk and I asked if that might be his idea of the future of the Web - people using smart phones, GPS devices, wearable computers, shoes with RFIDs in them. Objects that network with each other and the internet, rather than computers that do it. He said he advocates for that future, partly because "there's a tangibility to it." And he mentioned that he deals with this idea a lot in his new novel (out this week!) The Caryatids.
Sterling said, with his trademark half-sarcastic, half-genuine grin:
I imagine myself as a completely senile old man wandering around saying, "Do I need to water this plant? Uhh, where are my keys?" And my plant tells me when to water it, and the house tells me where my keys are and I think, "Gee this isn't so bad! I'm really happy."
Leave it to Sterling to remind you that the happy future depends on senility.