Perfect internet, algorithms and long tails

“There is no standard Google anymore”, “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web”, “The internet is showing us a world we want to see, not what we need to see.” This is what we all glory in, that whatever we want is available to us, the long tail in action. As in the post below, however, the tail has to be attached to something. The long tail says that you can profit from deviating from a norm, but the result of the algorithms that choose for us is that new norm are created. Thus we have the phenomenon of your Facebook page becoming an echo chamber. Such algorithmic editing has swallowed wholesale the arguments behind generation me, as well as the result of the culture wars where all norms are negative. What we have, then, is software as a crypto-morality. “There cannot be such a thing as a norm”, this narrative tells us, “because nobody has a right to tell me what’s normal!” There is a confusion in our conceptual apparatus, because a quantitive norm is being interpreted as a qualitative norm. There is a case where there is a cross-over, as Hegel tells us, but basic exchange of information requires this standard in terms of brute numbers. There is not a political or ethical agenda to this concept of the numerical norm.
The assumption behind algorithmic editing is that there is a perfect search result. It is a cybernetic version of Plato’s forms. There cannot be such a perfect internet experience, however, and we mislead ourselves in even imagining it is impossible. Perfect, in the sense of Lt. perfectus implies completion, of something being finished. This is nonsense, and so perhaps the ideology of perfection that underlies the thought and practice of  information technologies should be reminded of the irreducible reality of noise, of that which does not necessarily communicate a message, but without which the message cannot be communicated. We need to be able to go for a stroll with no particular destination in mind. We need that element of play in the hard sense, not hippy-dippy “y’know like whatever man”. StumbleUpon curiously tries to inhere play into an algorithm, but for me it lacks that spookily magic sense of achievement when you find something that hasn’t been linked by a thousand others already. We must realise there is a fundamental and structural contradiction in terms by attempting to make our online environment perfect for us in all ways because this leads to the isolation everyone on their own personal desert island. This simply establishes us in our own limits. Where then do we meet communally? Where do we have arguments? Where do we hear new stories, or jokes, or gossip? We need to have a norm from which we deviate, we need to have a same for there to be difference.

Is open source inevitable? II

[If open source is to have its day, some implications must be examined]

Technologies of privacy:

  • Old style : passive, reactive, the default position. 
  • New versions?: Opt-in, active privacy; specifically designed ways of deciding what we share, and with whom.

Transition away from previous economic models. Manufacturing and the mass ownership of capital has been on the wane for generations. Consider the MIT model of spinning-off industries. According to this study “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT”, if one were to regard companies developed by MIT alumni, collectively they would form the 11th largest economy in the world. Technologies must be proven, thus they must be peer-reviewed as well as tested by the market. If everybody can use the same ideas (goodbye proprietary anything), if open source and the intellectual commons get their day, then the matter of ‘economic viability’ is set aside in favour of “technical viability” and ‘environmental viability’. The new models will have to incorporate recognition that there are diseconomies of scale, and what we called economies of scale were all too often a fetishization of size. This is a realization from the realm of network theory, which brings the long tail to bear on our everyday lives. It is not merely a niche element – the long tail is not long tail, as it were. (E.F. Schumacher had an intimation of this in his collection of essays, Small is Beautiful.)

How do we then differentiate between old and new? It becomes a matter of serviceWill digital mean that we are all eventually a part of the service economy? We may be able to set our businesses apart according to how we deal with our customers. It may be a matter of approach rather than cost. A fully open source world, with respect for the intellectual commons, is utopian. Too much seems to stand in its way, but elements of this can be used to consider alternatives to developing nations making the mistakes that the industrial and post-industrial nations have made. Consider the principle of the long tail applied to national economies. Of course there will factors that lead a country to be wealthy by virtue of some natural resource, as long as unsustainable practices are maintained, but an open principle towards information will in theory allow innovation to take place anywhere. We see this in the emergence of ‘regional hubs’ and ‘centres of excellence’, but the best example yet, in terms of something that will actually last (unlike Dubai), is Singapore. CNN has fifty reasons to account for this (about 20 are compelling, but that’s enough for me). For long enough have people considered the first part of McLuhan’s “Global Village”. We need now to give greater attention to the ‘village’ part. That is the locus of differentiation, and of what we can manage, to make our actions environmentally and socially sound.