More noise, more heat

Will Davies’ article The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 compares the efficient online tools that are increasingly structuring our social and cultural lives with the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker. Becker pushed economic analysis into sociological and behavioural studies, and Will likens this to web 2.0 extending the efficiency gains that web 1.0 made for the retail sector into more personal networks:

Where Becker took the utilitarian assumptions of economics and pushed them into areas of society seemingly untouched by rational self-interest, Web 2.0 takes the efficiency-enhancing capabilities of digital technology and pushes them into areas of society previously untouched by efficiency criteria.

But in both cases there is a crucial aspect of human relations that is missed out and threatened as a result. This is that the means by which people discover, choose or access something can very often contribute its value. People are not only outcome-oriented.

Will worries that the increased speed of selection and consumption erases the inefficiences that create texture to our experiences:

[…]when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable

I normally find myself in complete agreement with Will – he is one of the most informed crtics of web culture, in that he applies rigorous, well researched thought to otherwise hyped debate, rather than being a knee-jerk nay-sayer. But in this piece he risks coming across a reactionary luddite, another Carr or Keen.

His mistake is best illustrated in the last quote above, where he gives three very different examples of human behaviour – voting, chatting to neighbours and browsing through a record shop – and suggests that Web 2.0 strategies seek to find the same efficiences in each type of transaction.

This is too crude a comparison – each of those relationships is fundamentally different, with different power relationships, cultural and financial contexts. To say that Web 2.0 strategies seek to collapse each of these different contexts into a ruthless drive for efficiency simply isn’t true.

His argument is strongest in the first scenario. He has previously pointed out the dangerous illusion that lowering the barriers to political participation is always desirable. He has called for an ‘ethics of inconvenience’ that seeks to preserve the friction in certain experiences as a way of ensuring their value is not degraded.

But what value is *really* lost through making it more efficient to chat with friends or by replacing record shops with online marketplaces? And, by the way, can we all stop talking using vinyl records as the arbiter of some kind of high-water mark for physical culture? Nick Carr’s recent Long Player post is another eulogy to the LP, which Clay Shirky has unpicked as cultural nostalgia for the LP as the “natural unit of music”, rather than an accident of the production technology available at the time.

There is an important question being overlooked in all these debates. It is not about whether ‘inefficient’ cultural and social value is lost in new technological networks (ie whether buying an LP or chatting over a fence is a more valuable cultural experience than browsing iTunes or reading Twitter). Instead, we should be looking at whether users can readily re-inscribe these values onto the new networks in their own ways. In other words – can we make these new spaces our own? Can we add noise to the signal, and does it matter if this drowns out the new, efficient, transaction itself?

In all Will’s examples, the question is not whether efficiency is a valid goal, but whether the drive for efficiency reduces ownership and transparency – whether we’re being locked into new transaction models that we can’t twist and annotate, or whether efficiency in fact creates more adaptable and mutable systems that can start to accrue new forms of ‘noise’.

A voting system that seeks to make participation more efficient whilst reducing the ability to contextualise this participation within free and open debate would indeed be a disaster, so we should strive for systems that create as much ‘noise’ around the moment of participation as possible. Sharing cultural objects has arguably – through MP3 blogs, bluetooth exchanges, etc – become more deeply ingrained in social contexts than in the ‘golden years’ of the LP. As someone who has spent more time than is strictly healthy thumbing through racks in record stores and fairs, I can admit that what we’ve lost through the ongoing digital revolution are actually feelings of privilege, snobbery and exclusivity, not some shared cultural experience.

Geoffrey Batchen has written movingly about how photography created new opportunities for cultural and social expressions. Cheap portrait photography was a far more efficient, democratic form of representation, and this openness led to vernacular annotations that re-inscribed older social currencies onto the new forms – lockets combining photos with locks of lovers hair; silver frames that included casts of baby’s boots alongside their photo. The incredibly diverse forms of social exchange on social networking services like Facebook, Flickr, etc are merely the most recent forms of this vernacular expression.

Will Davies might think that Web 2.0 has a ‘cold, cold heart’, but this is only true if you assume that ‘efficiency’ is the primary goal. Rather than arguing whether efficiency is good or bad on its own terms, we must instead place these efficiencies in context, and ask whether they increase or decrease the ability for users to re-inscribe their own cultural values in new forms. Is there more noise, more heat? or a cold, cold heart?

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