Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Aggregation Aggravation

The "Brave New World" of internet aggregation is upon us! Rejoice and be glad for all the freedom we now have!

Freedom. Hmmm. Freedom of information? Well, that is the "product" that we have been sold (hook, line and sinker). But is it really ours? And is it really free? Are there unseen costs associated with this freedom?

These questions are too big for a little blogger to answer. But I will endeavor to give us all some food for thought.

I recently finished reading "You Are Not A Gadget; a manifesto" by Jaron Lanier. (Some of you may remember that I had read an article in the London Review of Books that referred to this book; see the November 21st blog entry from this year, entitled Reflections on Social Networking By Computer.) I found Lanier’s writing voice to be awkward, in that computerese/geeky way that gizmo folk have. However, when I got past that, the ultimate message he was trying to impart was vivid and riveting, on many levels.

Lanier gives MIDI coding and technology as an example of what is limiting our creativity, in the world of computing.
Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition. 
It was a way for a musician to think, or a way to teach and document music. It was a mental tool 
distinguishable from the music itself...
After MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure 
you couldn‟t avoid in the aspects of life that had gone digital. The process of lock-in is like a 
wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life, culling the ambiguities of flexible thoughts as 
more and more thought structures are solidified into effectively permanent reality. 
This notion of computer code "lock-in" is developed by Lanier, throughout his book, as being the great weakness in all of computing. If you know what a MIDI file is, and have ever heard MIDI files, they are music that is not musical, but probably the tinniest representations of music imaginable. MIDI, because it is low level, is the base on which all digital music is founded. MIDI, Lanier suggests, is one of the factors of modern computing that limits human creativity, and he lists many others.

Having worked for a company that wrote proprietary software used in direct mail marketing, I know what he is talking about when he speaks of "lock-in" from the standpoint of limiting the way people can think, as well as limiting what they can do. The programming department wanted to create programs that the users could not use. The programmers did not want users to understand what the programs were doing because they wanted the users to use the programs in only one way. The programmers did not want the users to think, only to do, and do things only the way that the programmers wanted things done.

As a consequence of so much of our computing being based on what I might call codes of limitations, we are now into the second and third generation of people using computers and other electronic products that are frustrating because they do not work at the speed of our thoughts, nor with the naturalness of our body movements.

I want you to think on this, particularly as you consider the many products that you have purchased in the past few years, or even over the recent holidays, that all contain proprietary software and proprietary hardware and yet one more power cord that you have to keep track of (and have an available power source socket to plug into), because it is different from all the power cords you have in your house.

As you think on this, turn your attention to the internet and to social networking, information and marketing. Wow! That is a big shift, and a lot to consider at a crack, isn’t it?

Think about anytime recently when you have used a search engine on the internet to look up specific information.  I have noticed a few disturbing things about internet information: first, it is superficial; it is either completely contradictory from article to or it is nearly verbatim the same from article to article. The rush to fill up bandwidth with content from everyone and their extended families has meant a lot of copying as in duplicating and as in not original work. Lots and lots of useless and repetitive or even incorrect information is available for free all over the place. But you have to pay, just as you always did, for the in depth, likely more accurate information via a subscription service.

And what about all those ads that are festooned all over the articles you try to wade through? What is that all about? Well, this is called monetization, but you can seriously doubt that people are really making any money. I could, for example, be monetizing this blog, but that is not the point of this blog. I don’t want to be a product; I want to be a person. But there are web URLs that are trying to get my attention (can you believe it?), perhaps as a subtle bid to get me to put up their ads.

These aggregation tools are all over the place, every time you use the internet to find a product or even to look up articles, your use of the internet is tabulated, categorized and parsed, then used to send you ads on Facebook, Amazon, AOL or any of the many services where you have a sign-in account.

I commend Jaron Lanier’s book to you, which you can read via the link below, or check out from your local library, or purchase in hardcopy. I also include a link to a white paper put out by a consulting firm, a mere five years ago, called Re-Inventing Aggregation. This paper reveals, with simplistic brevity, the thinking behind modern aggregation (and also causes me to wonder how much work was put into it and how much money was made off of it).

My point in this article is to get us all to think about all the ways in which the world is getting small. We need to consider whether the information available to us is limiting. We need to consider whether our personal creativity is being limited by all that is electronic. We need to consider the role of the internet in terms of privacy, creative ownership, marketing and finance. Wars are waged and people die over the energy and resources the internet sucks from our environment. I believe that the freedom, creativity and privacy of us all hangs in the balance of this fragmentary, aggregate world of internet, and I ask you to think on all this, long and hard.


Lanier, Jaron.  You Are Not A Gadget. 2010. http://r-u-ins.org/resource/pdfs/YouAreNotAGadget-A_Manifesto.pdf

Electronic Publishing Services  Ltd, in association with Peter Sefton-Williams. Re-Inventing Aggregation. 2005. http://www.verisign.com/stellent/groups/public/documents/white_paper/dev035582.pdf

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