Jaron Lanier’s take on the Internet is worth paying attention to, even if (like me) you think he’s dead wrong.
Lanier is the father of “virtual reality” worlds, so he knows a thing or two about computers and their interfacing with humans. But someone from the background of VR — in which the user is completely immersed in a highly sculpted, highly controlled environment designed by highly paid computer programmers — is likely to have an elitist’s disdain for the common rabble.
Lanier writes: “There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development.”
The problem with that argument is, Google’s page-rank algorithm relies on the collective of users to rank pages according to likely usefulness, while Flash is evil.
NYT’s John Tierney writes approvingly of Lanier’s view, which should be a red flag, given Tierney’s track record as a pro-industry, anti-science crank. And a Newsweek book review paraphrases Lanier as asking, “Why are we so enamored of Wikipedia, the signal achievement of the Web 2.0 era, when it has channeled so much intellectual energy into a reference project that is, at best, only as good as the book it replaces?”
To which I can only reply, Wikipedia is vastly better than the book it replaces, and not just because it’s easy to Google and you can access it anywhere with WiFi. It might be just as error-prone as traditional encyclopedias, but it’s a lot easier to correct the errors (how many people buy a new encyclopedia every year?), and you’ll find lots of stuff on Wiki that you’ll never find in any printed book you’re likely to get your hands on.
Sure, lots of it is useless, but it doesn’t ‘take up valuable shelf space or anything. Just go to Wiki and use the search engine, or go to Google and add “wiki” to your search terms, and you’re likely to get what you’re looking for.