more on sharing and oversharing

Tim O’Reilly takes a line similar to that of Steven Johnson:

The essence of my argument is that there’s enormous advantage for users in giving up some privacy online and that we need to be exploring the boundary conditions – asking ourselves when is it good for users, and when is it bad, to reveal their personal information. I’d rather have entrepreneurs making high-profile mistakes about those boundaries, and then correcting them, than silently avoiding controversy while quietly taking advantage of public ignorance of the subject, or avoiding a potentially contentious area of innovation because they are afraid of backlash. It’s easy to say that this should always be the user’s choice, but entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg are in the business of discovering things that users don’t already know that they will want, and sometimes we only find the right balance by pushing too far, and then recovering.

To his credit, O’Reilly goes on to say that Facebook isn’t acting out of any commitment to the public good, and he endorses a recent Bill of Rights for Facebook users. But his approach troubles me in a number of ways.First, he sees virtue only in “pushing the boundaries” in one direction, towards the reduction or elimination of privacy — but he never explains why that direction is the one that counts. Some of the people striving to create alternatives to Facebook are exploring the idea that tighter privacy controls are more generally desirable. Second, O’Reilly talks about companies like Facebook “correcting” their invasions of user privacy and then “recovering” — but, as we learned from the Google Buzz fiasco, information doesn’t go back in a bottle. You can stop sharing, but you can’t unshare what’s already out there. Facebook may “correct,” but users can’t “recover” privacy they’ve lost. Finally, he’s failing to make an important distinction. It’s absolutely true that “entrepreneurs . . . are in the business of discovering things that users don’t already know that they will want,” but historically they have discovered those “things” and then sold them to users. But what Google and Facebook have recently done is different: they have sold (or given away) a particular service and then altered it significantly without consulting or even warning users. Imagine getting up one morning and, as you’re leaving for work, discovering that your sports car has overnight been transformed into a minivan — there’s a note on the windshield from the car manufacturer saying that they know you’ll really enjoy all the features this new model has that the old one lacked. Would you say that the car company was being “entrepreneurial”?

O'Reilly and the Wave

Tim O'Reilly has a post up today about Google Wave, the new project-in-development by Jens and Lars Rasmussen, the primary creators of Google Maps. According to O'Reilly, Lars describes the project in this way: "We set out to answer the question: What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?" O’Reilly continues,

In answering the question, Jens, Lars, and team re-imagined email and instant-messaging in a connected world, a world in which messages no longer need to be sent from one place to another, but could become a conversation in the cloud. Effectively, a message (a wave) is a shared communications space with elements drawn from email, instant messaging, social networking, and even wikis.

It’s obvious that O'Reilly is pretty chuffed about Google Wave. He thinks it’s great that in Wave “conversations become shared documents.” “I love the way Wave doesn't just build on what went before but starts over. In demonstrating the power of the shared, real-time information space, Jens and Lars show a keen understanding of how the cloud changes applications.” Okay. I guess Wave could be pretty interesting, though to me it doesn't seem as game-changing and world-changing as O’Reilly and the Rasmussens claim. But we’ll see how it works out. My larger concern is this: O’Reilly is among the leaders of a group of technophiles and technocrats whose one concern with every information technology is: How can this be more social? The primary purpose of Wave seems to be to make communications networks more extensive, to create more and more and more nodes. But there are other things that communications can do than generate more points of intersection. I tend to think that among email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, shared bookmarks on Delicious, shared RSS feeds on Google Reader, and [insert your favorite social technology here] we already have enough nodes. We already have enough shared information. Instead of asking how our existing information technologies can do more and more of what they already do well, why don't we ask what they’re not doing well — or at all?

it’s Google’s world; we’re just living in it

Much of the Robert Darnton article I linked to in an earlier post is concerned with the power that Google now has over access to books, through its massive digitization project and, especially, the recent agreement it has reached with publishers to continue and expand on that that project. Darnton:

The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original “Big Google,” we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream [of a true Republic of Letters] may be as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Carr has some of the same concerns, only more so, because he would cross out Darnton’s “apart from Wikipedia” concession. Carr has been running a set of Google searches repeatedly since 2006, and while Wikipedia was prominent in the search results from the start, it now provides the first option for every single search in the series. Carr:

The first thing to be said is: Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it’s a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.The next thing to be said is: what we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history’s eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia – and I admit there’s much to adore – you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

A thoughtful response to at least some of the concerns of Darnton and Carr comes from Tim O’Reilly. Note especially this point:

There has never been more competition either in electronic books, or for books, in the broader electronic ‘republic of letters.’ . . . In short, there’s a strong economic motive for publishers to release digital editions of their books, and to treat Google Books as only one possible channel. . . . Frankly, I’d be far more worried about Darnton’s wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate. That might well have nipped the competitive ebook landscape in the bud. . . . As it is, we see lots of different competing approaches to bootstrapping this market. I’d say it’s opening up very nicely!

I don’t know who’s closer to being right here. It’s likely that O’Reilly is too sanguine and Darnton and Carr too worried. But I have just enough Richard Stallman in me to distrust Google’s power. I’ve been trying lately to disentangle myself to some degree from Google’s services — though I’m not likely to shift from Gmail — and to diversify my online investments, so to speak. I’m also thinking about retrieving some of my stuff that’s now “in the cloud” and confining it to my desktop. But I have to admit, I use Google Books more and more and more, for reasons such as the ones noted here.