TimeAn engaging hour with Robert Scoble and Buzz Bruggeman

The first thing Robert Scoble did when he walked into class was to pull out his camera cell phone and attempt to show the class how instantaneous it has gotten to broadcast an event. I found it fascinating that our discussion over the hour and a half touched on how new technologies are enabling more of a time-shift in the way we consume media. At the same time, there is still a need to be the first to put something up on the web, be the first to view it, and be the first to talk about it.

 This paradox of instant gratification and time-shifting reflects two sides of the digital era. For those of us who are junkies and thrive on the bleeding edge of knowing what’s been happening right this instant, there is the blogosphere filled with people like Scoble who are taking full advantage of instant technology to upload unedited, raw footage of events and people. For those of us who want to keep abreast but don’t have the inclination to keep tabs on everything that interests us right this minute, there is the comfort of knowing we can dig into something that catches our fancy at leisure. 

The archiving capability of the Internet is probably its most scalable and eternal feature. Technology is taking advantage of this aspect and serving us media in the platter of our choice. There is some liberation in this method of delivery (and not just the content).

The Last of the Reviews…

ChoiceThe Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less. Barry Schwartz. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. 265.

Barry Schwartz goes shopping for a pair of “regular” jeans and finds himself flummoxed by the range of choice at the local Gap store he visits. Drawing widely from psychological literature as well as case studies and experiments conducted, this Swarthmore College professor explains how everyday decisions from buying groceries to making a decision about what to wear have become increasingly complex. Using several other personal examples Schwartz builds a case for why having more choice is detrimental to the psychological and physiological self in The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less.

One would assume that having more choice means more freedom and empowerment. While this holds true in some circumstances, Schwartz hones in on the negative aspects of choice – and does so at a time when there is an abundance in just about everything around us. Chapter by chapter Schwartz peels the layers of the human psyche to expose how the way we think and act in everyday decisions influences the state of our emotional wellbeing. While the reasoning behind Schwartz’s logic is pretty simplistic, the case studies he uses to reinforce his points are often noteworthy. It’s hard to believe, for example, that folks who do not have cancer say they would want the freedom to choose their treatment if they did get the dreaded disease, whereas folks who do suffer from cancer largely say they’d rather not make that choice.

Schwartz explains the reasoning behind how we create a problem with having to choose. Missed opportunities, regrets, comparison, opportunity costs – all play a role in the way choice affects us. Depression and disappointment often go hand in hand with choice, according to Schwartz, and few recognize the problem for what it is. His style of drawing from personal experiences is easy to understand simply because one can relate readily enough to his stories. And yet, I wonder what experiences a teenager today, having been born and brought up in a world of abundance would have to say if faced with little or no choice. What is second nature to Schwartz like having just a cup of regular coffee would not be so for someone used to ordering a 4 ounce, non-fat, single-shot, caramel flavored latte at Starbucks today.

Schwartz targets a general audience with The Paradox of Choice. His writing style as well as narrative prose is easy to read. In fact, at times, it almost seems like Schwartz would rather not have his audience make an effort to digest what he has to say. Where one example suffices, he offers two. Where one story gets the point across, Schwartz creates a second. Where one case study supports his theory, he provides more. So strong is Schwartz’s belief that choice causes serious problems, he fails to analyze why we’ve come to a stage where there is abundance in everything. Why do we create and tolerate the problems that choice creates? In The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less Schwartz chooses to focus on how this choice affects the conscious and subconscious human psyche. Throughout the book he skirts the periphery of preachy-ness to climax in a final chapter on how to deal with choice.

While I’m glad he recognizes and accepts that we will continue to live in a world of abundance, his eleven points on what to do border on the ideal. Asking readers to love constraints or do away with social comparisons is too utopian in a world where marketing strategies and advertisements are built around such human weaknesses. While some of his advice is a lot more practical, Schwartz’s preachy approach undermines a lot of valuable analysis that the book contains.

If Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is a simplified glorification of the choice that technology offers us as consumers, The Paradox of Choice is the other end of the spectrum. Schwartz abhors the long tail of everything that has cropped up. Niche markets are just another way of saying there’s more to choose from and more choices to make… and ultimately, more problems to deal with. Reality, however lies somewhere in between Anderson and Schwartz’s take on the world we live in today. There are good and bad things that we have to deal with as a result of advances in technology and general economic welfare. Both the positives and negatives are what keep the balance of the scales from tipping. It would be unfair to say neither Anderson nor Schwartz makes a valid argument – however, both offer one-sided views that when read in parallel do a far more thorough job of presenting the whole picture.


Questions for discussion –

  • Is asking people to sift through too much really such a bad thing? Isn’t having everything laid out for you much worse?
  • I don’t see us moving towards a world of less choice. Are we doing a good enough job of dealing with overload? Or will we suffer dire emotional and psychological consequences, as Barry Schwartz fears?
  • The generation gap is lot more of a problem today, I think – each generation advances way too quickly for the older one to keep up. How do you think this will play out in the long run?

Semantic WebScholarly article and citation relating to Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice

Michael K Bergman (2007). Structure Paves the Way to the Semantic Web. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 22(3), 84-86. Retrieved August 8, 2007, from ProQuest Computing database. (Document ID: 1290149311).

Off-campus link [PDF opens in new window] – http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/iel5/9670/4216968/04216986.pdf?isnumber=4216968∏=JNL&arnumber=4216986&arSt=84&ared=86&arAuthor=Bergman%2C+Michael+K.

I’m reading Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less. I thought finding a contrary opinion in the form of a scholarly article would be relatively easy. But the more I looked, the more I found dizzyingly vast amounts of research showing why information overload and too much choice leads to all kinds of psychological, emotional and physiological disasters – and not just in supermarkets. Every industry from healthcare to manufacturing to communication and information is offering more while retaining the old.

So I decided to abandon that search and look for something more tangential, rather than contrary. That one is living in a world of constant technological change is a given; that one has to deal with the problems of information overload and too much choice is also a given. How then do we make sense of the world around us? We’re not all collapsing under the burden – yet. At least not in alarmingly large numbers for the majority to make a conscious decision to reduce the technological stress we face everyday.

Micheal Bergman presents an optimistic take on what the future holds. Structure, he says, will inevitably pave the way to a more semantic Web. Just as classification systems, tables, indices and statistics emerged to make sense of the growth in content, so too semantics of the Web are starting to make sense of the terabytes of information produced and shared every minute. While tools and applications that aid in semantics are easily found today, deciphering controlled vocabularies and their ontology is a more contentious area. Too many choices has lead to confusion over which is the best, leading Bergman to believe that each must first try and structure one’s own information base. He readily acknowledges and accepts the potholes en route the semantic highway – too many structures make it difficult to zoom in towards a final destination. Yet, we have the tools and the ability. So long as we recognize the larger issue and treat information as a public commodity, it is possible to make sense of information overload without getting overwhelmed.

More, more, so much more…

Tag Cloud Web 2.0Programmable Web – Reflection on T.A. McCann’s talk

It’s always fascinating to see people make sense of things – more so when someone looks at the same object as you and comes up with an idea so entirely different from yours, you lose sight of what you were thinking in the first place. I’ve always looked at the Internet and Web from a consumer perspective. How can I use this as a tool to make my life simpler, easier and more efficient? What can I do to find answers to the million questions I have in my head? Google and search makes the Internet oh, so cool. Having had the resources to always have the net at my fingertips as a user, has, I’ll admit, made me look at just one side of the story. 

T.A. McCann opened my eyes to just how much I have taken for granted – and in the process how much I have missed. For each new service I use, for each new feature that comes up, for all the advances in technology, there’s some brain and effort that goes into the back-end. It’s not that I didn’t know this – I just didn’t spend any time thinking about it. It was fascinating to see just how T.A.’s mind worked when thinking of the Web as an opportunity to invest in. Where would the next big thing occur? What would take people to the next level in communications? How better can we use this networking landscape to offer more to the consumers? It was a completely different perspective to the Internet – one that completely took me by surprise. This is how geeks and businessmen see the Internet. It’s a hat that I’ve never put on… and have just started to see how much more there is that I haven’t a clue about.

InfoThe Wealth of Networks. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 515.

Everything has a cost and therefore a price. The barter system evolved to the monetary system and has continued into the 21st century. In spite of a few spheres where production and distribution are voluntary or charitable, the dominant and underlying principle of a market driven economy has been money. That is, till the Internet took seed a couple of decades ago, giving birth to the idea that information needn’t fit this capitalist ideal.

Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks is partly a study of the economics of the Internet as it has emerged as a network of information and partly a study of the way it has been shaped by economic history and is shaping the current economic, social and political structure. More importantly, The Wealth of Networks makes a case for why information needn’t and shouldn’t be proprietary.

Benkler makes four economic observations in his book. The first is that property and markets have been the root of all growth and productivity. Second, this has resulted in nonproprietary models of operation suffering a loss – access to information resources have been rendered more expensive for all. However, with the advent of the Internet, the basic technologies of information processing, storage and communication have made nonproprietary models more attractive and effective than before. Lastly, Benkler observes the rise of collective intelligence or peer production as a stark contrast to the conventional thinking of information production.

Overall Benkler’s take on the evolution of the Internet is a liberal and positive one – he believes the breaking down of the conventional capitalist ideals is for the greater common good.

The emergence of a substantial role for nonproprietary production offers discrete strategies to improve human development around the globe.” (p. 464)

For us, as individuals, the Internet provides the freedom to do more for and by ourselves, according to Benkler. While he acknowledges academicians who support the theory that the Internet fragments our society, Benkler clearly believes there is a wealth of social gain in online networking. People are communicating more rather than less now. Yes, there is the problem of information overload, but people are finding effective ways to navigate that don’t follow the mass-media model.

From the perspective of a participatory republic, the networked information economy offers a genuine reorganization of the public sphere, according to The Wealth of Networks.

The emergence of a networked public sphere is attenuating, or even solving, the most basic failings of the mass-mediated public sphere. It attenuates the power of the commercial mass-media owners and those who can pay them. It provides an avenue for substantially more diverse and politically mobilized communication than was feasible in a commercial mass media with a small number of speakers and a vast number of passive participants.” (p. 465)

Benkler also discusses the tenuous positions of culture and society within this new, digital era. He believes the Internet renders culture more transparent. Unlike television that created passive audiences, Benkler believes the Internet forces us as consumers to be more active, more individual and produces a better community of “readers” of culture. In being more participatory, we are changing and shaping the new digital culture as well. Twentieth century remote media – the telephone and the television – are now being replaced by the Internet. A new social paradigm is being born where geography and physical contact are no longer barriers to communicate. Peer production provides a rather thick social connection with remote others.

The Wealth of Networks doesn’t raise new issues or present new ideas. Instead, Benkler grounds his perspective in historic fact and observation. It was but natural for the Internet to be modeled on the same economic principles as a car or a watch – information after all, is a commodity – and has been treated as such all along. The fact that information is now being handled as proprietary can be blamed on the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. It is hard to disagree with Benkler when he states that the next ten years will determine the shape of many things, one amongst which is our social culture.

As a Professor at Yale Law School, Benkler addresses anyone interested in the subject of the Internet, culture and society in The Wealth of Networks. His writing style, however, clearly targets a more academic audience. The ideas presented in this book aren’t rounded – Benkler clearly supports a liberal viewpoint and says so right in the introductory chapter. Yet, he invites skeptics as well as believers to read – his position is well grounded and draws widely from literatures of philosophy, economics, and political theory. Few will find reason to question the reasons for his beliefs.

The only shortcoming is The Wealth of Networks pays little attention to the way in which the networked information economy will evolve. Benkler does not address its vulnerabilities – will it succumb to technical capture (better technological changes wiping out the old) in the same way the industrial information economy is vulnerable to capital capture (companies being bought out)? Benkler has a wait-and-see approach to regulatory intervention. Still, The Wealth of Networks is a comprehensive, logistic and grounded analysis of the arguments for a commons-based approach to the development of the information network.


Questions for discussion –

  • How does one deal with the issue of copyright when its very purpose is to block open forms of collaboration?
  • Is there any validity to the Net Neutrality debate?
  • The idea of a global network brings with it two important issues – one, in developing economies the digital divide raises its ugly head again and two, pricing is no longer as simple as demand and supply in one particular market. How does one address these two issues?

Internet Editorial

Internet PolicingAbstract and Citation of scholarly article related to Wealth of Networks

Stuart Hannabuss (2002). Internet editorial. Library Management, 23(3), 168-172.  Retrieved July 24, 2007, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 259551331).

Off-campus ProQuest link: http://proquest.umi.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/pqdweb?index=12&did=259551331&SrchMode=1&sid=5&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1185301950&clientId=8991

The Internet offers a new paradigm for argument – no rules and greater security. Issues of copyright, intellectual property, safeguards against political rebellion are just some instances where people would rather have the State or some other authority offer protection. But for these same issues, there are others who would rather not have any form of control at all.

There are moral concerns about privacy, pornography and hacking within the World Wide Web realm. It’s precisely for these concerns – in order for society to be decent – that these political and moral choices have to be made. Stuart Hannabuss (2002) puts forth an Internet editorial where the governance of cyberspace implies the distribution of society’s information and communication resources. In spite of free speech being a vital component to information flow in society, Hannabuss argues that the attempts to regulate Internet traffic around the world don’t necessarily undermine the distribution of information.  

Issues of free access and intermediation are contradicted by the economic advantages to content aggregation and ownership. The two sides of the debate are both valid and equally important to a digital evolution. There are clearly wider implications for community, democracy and the public sphere when information is controlled by authority or written into law. Any form of censorship then, according the Hannabuss, means that the infosphere ceases to be democratic and becomes and arena of social Darwinism.

Unlike Yochai Benkler’s (2006) argument in The Wealth of Networks, Hannabuss believes that the friction between no control and greater security are vital to a social and digital revolution.

People CommunicatingConvergence Culture Discussed – An Engaging Hour with David Weller and Eyejot

It’s always so fascinating to see new technology at work. Video messaging isn’t a new concept. Yet, package it differently, jazz it up with funky, really easy-to-use interface and get the word out, and voila! Of course, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. My point here is that Eyejot is a really good example of Jenkins’ idea that it’s not the medium that changes, it’s the technology. What Eyejot does is lower the barrier to entry for so many of us who are uncomfortable with new technology. The ease of use doesn’t require the user to have any knowledge of video. Buy a laptop or computer with a built-in camera and even that hook-up is taken care of.

Yet, listening to David Weller talk about how he’s getting the word out to an audience, word-of-mouth still emerges as the clear winner. Sure, one can take advantage of social networking, but what I took home at the end of the day from class is that we’re dependent on people, in spite of technology. And Eyejot is all about people communicating with each other. The technology merely helps get the word from one to the other. Yes, it is faster, easier, smoother and free compared to a lot of other means of sending a message, but again, not one of these adjectives is a first to be used when describing communication technology.

David Weller presented a fascinating scope for a revolution in video messaging. YouTube may well be the catalyst driving this revolution. I’m really glad that smaller initiatives like Eyejot are taking off. It gives me hope that there are people out there who really get what the Internet is all about.


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