Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My other blog is a Ferrari

OK, my other blog isn’t really a Ferrari. It’s not even written on a Ferrari computer, because Microsoft didn’t give me one. (That’s ok; I prefer my ThinkPad, with its wonderful pointing stick right in the keyboard.) But my other blog does exist, because I created it recently.

As I’ve written here before, I don’t like blogs to stray off topic too much. But I have sometimes wanted to write about things not related to Web 2.0. I’ve now given myself an outlet at my new blog, where topics will be whatever I rant about, which could be almost anything since I find so many things to bug me. The volume isn’t high to begin with (only two complaints for now) and may well remain low because of all the other things I do with my time.

Rohan’s Rants: . Have a look if you like. If you’re here just for commentary related to Web 2.0, please ignore.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Megapolitics and Web 2.0

In 1987, James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg published their first book, Blood in the Streets: Investment Profits in a World Gone Mad. In it the authors introduced what they called “megapolitics”, and continued the theme further in The Great Reckoning (1991, revised 1993) and The Sovereign Individual (1997). A description from the third book:
[W]e argued that the most important causes of change are not to be found in political manifestos or in the pronouncements of dead economists, but in the hidden factors that alter the boundaries where power is exercised. Often, subtle changes in climate, topography, microbes, and technology alter the logic of violence. They transform the way people organize their livelihoods and defend themselves.
They listed four revolutions in human affairs, each driven by technological change (apologies that this is partly from memory as I still haven’t organized my books since moving four years ago; in particular this is Euro-centric while the authors were not so narrow):
  1. The invention of agriculture changed a loose hunter-gatherer society into an ordered society around private property.
  2. The invention of the stirrup made it possible to fight from horseback without being thrown off. Enter feudalism.
  3. The advent of gunpowder put an end to the feudal castles and led to the modern nation-state.
  4. The invention of the microprocessor made it possible for organizations to become much smaller, causing a breakdown in large systems — such as the modern nation-state.
So in 1987 they predicted the end of Communism, in 1991 they predicted that “Muhammad replaces Marx”, and in 1997 (following the emergence of the public Internet) they argued that skilled individuals would be able to operate largely independently of governments, undermining the tax base of welfare states. There were many, many other predictions. (And the best theory I’ve seen for why Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork: They were in a desert environment where food was a challenge. Pigs eat food that humans could eat, so although it’s fine to have a few around it’s a bad idea to have lots. But if one person has a pig, everyone else will feel entitled to have one too. You have to stop an entire population from raising pigs, and a religious taboo is how.)

I didn’t hear about their first book when it came out, but I did read the second, The Great Reckoning, cover to cover in both editions (very unusual for me, particularly for a 600-page book!), and it’s one of the books that has most profoundly shaped my thinking over my life to date.

Now to the Web 2.0 connection. In Mark Kuznicki’s recent post Search for a 21st Century Ideology he theorized the possibility of a “post-industrial New Deal” that appeals to members of the Creative Class. Since that post he’s begun a survey among members of the TorCamp community and others associated with the global BarCamp phenomenon, which it seems to me is effectively the World Association of Those Advancing Web 2.0. His objective is to help answer questions such as these:
Around the world, are there differences in the Barcamp political orientation? Are we all anti-authoritarian equality types who self-select to join ad-hoc unconferences based on the values of equality and the idea that leadership can come from anyone? As the Barcamp pattern continues its march around the world both within tech and increasingly in non-tech communities, what does this imply for a political dimension of this emerging global community?

The theory of megapolitics suggests that it is no accident that those at the forefront of the Web 2.0 revolution are anti-authoritarian, because a consequence of the revolution is that, unlike in the past, an authoritarian approach simply will not work effectively in the future.

Friday, January 12, 2007

iPhone and Web 2.0

This blog is about Web 2.0, so why would I blog about Apple’s new iPhone, even though I think it’s a wonderful step forward for usable technology?

Because I think of it as a Web 2.0 device.

Its only button is the Home button (note the browser-centric name), which takes you to a page, sorry, “screen”, that has a bunch of user-selected widgets, sorry, “icons”. Just like Netvibes or Pageflakes or Google Personalized Home or whatever.

And it runs a “real computer” operating system, Mac OS X, with a “real browser”, Safari.

That’s where I already saw laptops/desktops headed for most users. Now I can see the iPhone accelerating the process: people will have their iPhone, and also their “iPhone with a keyboard and a bigger screen” for when that’s more useful. People with two devices find life much easier when they both work the same way.

“One more nail in the coffin of the personal computer”, I gloat.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Blogging infrequently is a feature, not a bug

Common advice to new bloggers is to post at least once a day. I gather that this is to establish the blog as worthwhile reading.

To which I say: hogwash and codswollop. That’s oldthink.

In the old days, web pages were supposed to be updated frequently so that when people visited they would see new content: if they saw no change they’d stop bothering to come back. But now that subscriptions are well established, people have new blog entries delivered to them, either through a feed reader if they use one (I use Google Reader) or via email. The reason to post daily is gone.

Instead, there is now an advantage to posting less often: in this age of information overload, less is more. I subscribe to over 200 blogs and I can’t possibly keep up with them all. But I can keep up with those that don’t have too much volume, and those are the ones I tend to make sure I read.

Other people who read many blogs can keep up with everything (I’ve never figured out how), but I don’t think they’re typical of the general population. Over time they will become less and less representative of blog-readers.

Back to “less is more”. Because my time is limited, I’d rather have quality than quantity. And anything filler-like lowers my interest. If your blog is about a particular topic, I don’t want to see too much that’s extraneous. That includes your personal life (unless of course that is the actual topic of your blog). I don’t have time to waste reading about what music you’re listening to right now, or that you’ll have to drive into the city today. Well, not too often: the occasional self-disclosure can help the reader feel connected to you, but too much is just vanity.

So (a) I don’t want blog entries to be padded with a lot of irrelevant stuff, and (b) I don’t want entries to be written just to meet a “publication schedule”. Post when you have something to say, and not when you don’t. Your quality will be higher as a result, and I believe more of your readers will stick with you (rather than unsubscribing to reduce their overload). And neither of us will waste our precious time.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Kool-Aid and failure of nerve

“Failure of nerve [...] occurs when even given all the relevant facts the would-be prophet cannot see that they point to an inescapable conclusion.”
—Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1963

Clarke was writing about unwarranted pessimism, but the same thing holds true for unwarranted optimism. Web 2.0 enthusiasts tend to be full of “isn’t this wonderful” faith that leaves no room for the possibility of any downside. Those who “drink the Kool-Aid” are not only convinced of the certainty of the 2.0 future but are closed to the possibility that this future might not be universally positive.

A good illustration is this post by Leila Boujnane, entitled The changing face of photojournalism. It nicely brings together two opposing views about the impact of the Internet on the incomes of freelance photographers, and I completely agree with her assessment. But then there is this:
Surprisingly I am very optimistic about the future of photojournalism. It may seem or feel like the changes in the industry are continuously eroding photojournalists’ markets - the situation is complex and there isn’t an easy answer but.... technologies for taking pictures have improved, cost of taking pictures have decreased, tools for an online presence and marketing have improved, technologies to allow individual photographers to track their images are entering the market and most importantly photojournalists today have an entire world market open to them and are no longer restricted (by technology or reach) to simply do business in their country.

Leila may be right to be optimistic about the future of photojournalism, but the topic she had been covering was actually the future of photojournalists. The improvements she mentions, such as access to an entire world market, generally don’t help these people because they are largely zero-sum: where one photojournalist gains, another loses. What would help would be a significant expansion of the market for commercially usable photos, but these “improvements” don’t do that. What they do instead is to dramatically expand the supply of such photos by letting amateurs enter the market. When the supply of something goes up while demand doesn’t, prices inevitably drop. Deflation 2.0, as I’ve been calling it.

I believe that freelance photojournalists are right to be worried. And so are the programmers in highly industrialized countries who fear losing their customers to people in India or Eastern Europe who can now do the work over the Internet. And the dealers in secondhand goods who can’t compete on price against the people selling the contents of their attic on eBay.

Kool-Aid drinkers rarely pay any attention to history. Situations like this have occurred many times. In the early 1800s, for instance, technological change in Britain made it possible to produce textiles much more cheaply than before. Good news for the wonderful new world in which ordinary people could, for the first time, afford to have many clothes and to replace them when they wore out. Not such good news for the Luddites who were absolutely correct about the threat to their livelihood. Some of them smashed the new machines. Their movement declined only after many of them had been hanged for this (yes, machine breakage was seen as such a problem that it was made a capital crime).

Will we see much public backlash against the Internet? I doubt it because this time around there aren’t such obvious physical targets for anger. It’s hard to smash the new machines when you don’t even know where they are, and hard to beat up the amateurs when there are so many of them and they are everywhere. Instead I expect massive frustration that will inevitably be taken out on innocent bystanders: people encountered in the normal course of life, but perhaps also convenient scapegoats such as immigrants. This is just a continuation of the process of frustration that began with job loss caused by globalization, frustration which I believe has so far been contained only because of the success of a debt-fuelled economy — which can’t last forever.