musings of a mediabot

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America has harbored a culture of opportunity since Columbus landed on its eastern shores (or Norse explorer Leif Ericson if you will).  And from its original ideals of promise that capture the true American dream have opened endless doors to fruitful possibilities – look where we are now in our digital communities.  There is talk about Web 3.0, and now the Internet, whose environment formerly had no walls, can connect one user to another user with seamless agility, without doing anything at all.  If the machine is not closing the gaps, who or what is?  It’s you and me!

Let’s first discuss Web 2.0.  The innovative technology author Tim O’Reilly who helped coined the term describes Web 2.0 as a digital platform where various “elements” (web services, web behaviors, for example) work together in a sort of “solar system,” where everything that has ever been put on the web is now available (and discoverable!) to everyone.  O’Reilly emphasizes that in a Web 2.0 platform, there is an implicit “architecture of participation,” where users connect with each other to discover and create even more ways to connect with each other.  This fundamental theory is the start of Web 3.0.  (O’Reilly has written an article about Web 2.0 for the curious.)

So, what does this have to do with America and opportunities?  Well,  Chris Anderson explains in his book The Long Tail.  What is a long tail?  It describes a new business strategy in which companies sell few quantities of unique products in niche markets and still make a lot of profit. Netflix and Amazon are examples of long tails.  Each have a seemingly endless number of movies and other sought-after items and because of its scope of variety have seen its profits grow and grow.  Anderson attributes the success of this niche strategy to the simple fact that there is an abundant amount of “resources” to recover.  The long tail reflects the overwhelming culture of abundance that America is known for around the world.

You would think that having thousands of movies to choose from, or a type of pasta sauce, or a flavor of Jell-O is heaven.  I am thankful that music still has reached its exhaustive peak in the digital landscape for I am always itching for a new sound by a new band.  But at what point is abundance just too much?  

This brings to mind a very interesting read by Daniel Pink called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.  In it, Pink argues that the proliferation of new technologies require a new breed of business people.  Instead of CEOs in business suits, Pink calls for the creatives to start filling board rooms and making executive decisions.  He argues that the current business models will become stale and that out-sourcing will eventually corrode business exchanges from zest and innovation and complex thinking. He attributes the corrosion to abundance, among other reasons.

What’s interesting is that Anderson, an observer and preserver of technology and innovation is for abundance (the more products are available, no matter how popular, the more profit there is to be made), while Pink, an advocate for creativity and new ideas (not to far from innovation now is it?) is against abundance.  Who is right?

I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong here.  As Rhapsody founder Rob Reid said, “In a world of infinite choice, context – not content – is king.”  It’s all in the context, I suppose.

I seem to keep jumping on, then jumping off this digital culture bandwagon.  I can’t keep still.

Sometimes I can’t get enough of the ride, the technological turns that make me Oooh and Aaahhh, and then other times, I feel so sickened by another ridiculous gadget that’s cluttering my digital head, that I want to say To hell with it!  I will snuggle with my book (yes, book) and be happy with the contained knowledge held within.

But then the bells of the wagon come a-ringling…and I open the pages to John Battelle‘s The Search.  I can read it, watch a video of Battelle summarizing it, join a Google Group discussion and chat about it, read others’ blogs about it, and on and on.  (If you haven’t caught the ad nauseam nature of the previous sentence, you may not get the point of this post.  Stop reading now.) 

Welcome to the Google lovefest.   Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for love and all for fests, but I am not all for aimlessly jumping into the throes of a completely digital society without considering what impact it has on our souls. 

Here’s what unsettles me most about Battelle’s discussion of Google being the All-Supreme-Search-God-of-the-Americas-and-the-Land-Beyond-the-Americas:

Google may archive our intentions into one database, but do they really capture the essence of who we are as a people?  Battelle never discusses the essence of being human.  He says we all have desires and birth them by entering keywords into a search box, but this sounds like two-dimensional behavior to me.  We perform an act when searching for that perfect birthday gift, or the cheapest textbook, or that high school lover, but Google can infer no meaning from our acts.  Google cannot capture the essence of our wanting, the magical potion that makes us human.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Google.  I love gchatting with friends; I love that gmail saves all of my emails and conversations; I love seeing that McDonald’s-esque ticker telling me how much more space I can fill with my daily banter making me feel like what I say is very important and should be preserved for all of eternity; I love Google’s seeming simplicity (even though now I know how complex the machine really is, thanks to Battelle); and I love the idea of geeks getting the credit, and filled pockets, they deserve.

But, should we really go ga-ga over Google?  What is it really doing for us?  How is it nurturing my soul?  If to nurture means to provide me more digital potholes where I am distracted by things to buy, trivial information to clutter my brain, endless banter and blog vomit to choke my precious day, then I say No thanks. 

I’m not saying that Google is a digital pothole.  But considering the dark side of a digital kingdom is all part of  wearing the crown.  If Google wants to own it, it must take some jabs.

I’ll just keep watch with my virtual trident.