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Dec 01

Jaron Lanier vs. Web 2.0 – An Alternative View on User-Generated Content

by Patrick • December 1, 2010

Inside Spokeo, People Search, Tech Watch, The Spokeo Perspective

"Jaron Zepel Lanier (born May 3, 1960) pronounced /ˈdʒɛrɨn lɨˈnir/ is an American computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author. He made an experimental film in the past, but does not consider himself a filmmaker. In the early 1980s he popularized the term "Virtual Reality" (VR) for a field in which he was a pioneer. At that time, he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. His current appointments include Interdisciplinary Scholar-in-Residence, CET, UC Berkeley. In 2010, he was named to the TIME 100 list of most influential people."

I’ve copied this information about Jaron Lanier from his entry on Wikipedia, which is exactly what Jaron Lanier would not want me to have done. This is not to say that anything written in the above paragraph is incorrect: much of the entry seems to have been lifted from his personal website (which, surprisingly for a renowned computer scientist, resembles a poorly designed Geocities personal page from the mid 90s, but that’s another story). Lanier’s problem with Wikipedia has more to do with what it represents: "a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force."
 
While the seemingly democratic, communal nature of Wikipedia is typically what garners praise for the online encyclopedia, Lanier sees possible dangers in the making knowledge "open-sourced." For one, Wikipedia’s use of "anonymous," collectively edited material might give the website an undeserved aura of authority, as if that article you are reading about Lady Gaga fell from the heavens. As Lanier wrote in an infamous 2006 piece for Edge magazine intriguingly titled "Digital Maoism," "Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure." Wikipedia certainly has become Generation Y’s holy writ and go-to source for quick info, a status that has been reinforced by its omnipresence on Google: Type in just about any topic and you can be sure that the Wikipedia entry will be there on the first page, if not the first result ("a way [for search engines] to be lazy," Lanier posits).
 
Lanier’s bigger fear is that sites like Wikipedia effectively kill the individual voice with all its attendant idiosyncrasies. The anonymous, bloodless tone of many articles on Wikipedia works well for certain subjects (such as science, where Lanier admits that Wiki often excels), and not so well for other, more messy subjects. Say I want to learn about the Vietnam War, not only the facts and dates but perspectives on the conflict. In the past we would go to the library and read books by authors with biographies and points of view. Now we read the Wikipedia article, which describes this immensely complex and epochal event in the same manner it describes the Renaissance/Baroque ancestor of the trombone known as the Sackbut (stop giggling), blueberries and Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk. Are we not sacrificing context and subjective voice for speed and convenience?
 
Lanier’s fear of encroaching "online collectivism" is part of a larger set of grievances with what is known as "Web 2.0," the ever-growing rash of mega-aggregators, social networks, wikis, media/file-sharing websites that give (or give the illusion of) user-control to generate content and interact, often anonymously, in a community. Lanier has compiled his grievances in a new, book-length manifesto entitled "You Are Not a Gadget". The book is sure to ruffle the feathers of some of Lanier’s colleagues, but it provides ample food for thought. I myself have my doubts about some of Lanier’s propositions and arguments, which often veer into suspiciously New Age-y waters, particularly when he talks about "personhood." (Lanier himself is a sort of hippy: a 300 lb bear of a man with waist length dreadlocks who is equally at home with an iPhone and a pan flute.) Lanier’s critique of Wikipedia too, seems dangerously exaggerated at times, especially in regard to how it is used. Most users intelligent enough to work a mouse know that Wikipedia is not the final word on anything. Wiki, like other Web 2.0 databases such as Google Books (which got me through college!) and, yes, Spokeo, is above all a reference, an immensely helpful tool that uses sophisticated technology to provide information. The strength of the tool not only lies in its user-friendly design but in the fact that it is always a work in progress. As technology and the web continue to evolve it is important to have voices like Lanier (a web pioneer) telling us where we went wrong, and more importantly, how we can improve. Web services like ours evolve together with the user and respond to feedback, positive and negative by adapting. Wikipedia entries can be edited, Facebook user controls can be tweaked to fit user needs, Spokeo’s data accuracy can be continually improved. That’s the precisely the advantage of Web 2.0.

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