The Idealistic Future of the Past


Reading Rosenzweig, Kornbluh, Norton, and Schnapp I am struck by the overt idealism of Web 2.0. One could argue that a revolution of thought and feeling is well underway, that a true democratization of information is arriving, and a new era of collaboration and true meritocracy is on the horizon. Rosenzweig discusses the challenges of overcoming what he calls “possessive individualism” (italics in original) and presents a well-reasoned case study of Wikipedia with an analysis of its achievements and failures. Throughout his article I was impressed by the enthusiastic embrace of the notions behind this “new” collaborative world. Rosenzweig appears to claim that new media is about ideals, not technology. He does this by challenging the notions of the collegiate business model, the need for professional historians to make online history better and more available/accessible to all, the fee-for-service model of the exclusive online archives, and notes the ideals of Wikipedia where one direct challenge to professional historians is clear: There is no privileged position.

Rosenzweig suggests, and I agree, that collaboration is good, ego is bad, and professionals owe it to the amateurs to help them, and the amateurs are in relationship to work with the professionals on some of the data crunching. Sounds very utopian. In fact, it seems to mirror Goggle’s unofficial corporate motto: Don’t be evil.

Google is a pretty good example of the prevalence of ideals in this brave new world. Their corporate mission is: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Wow. This goal is so lofty that it may be considered hubris to think they could actually pull it off. BUT, the Google phenomenon is real and they are moving towards their mission. They are buoyed by belief and apparently, their ten commandments support the claim that they are a belief-based organization:

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There’s always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn’t good enough.

These ten things, as they are called by Google, are not technology-based or economy-based objectives… they are all-out philosophy. This seems to be exactly what Rosenzweig was commenting on. Kornbluh agrees as he attacks the stove-pipe, selfish mentality of previous/current works in favor of collaborative development, sharing, and exploration. This is an essential concept behind cloud-computing, another Google-supported initiative. He describes the Quilt Index as a great success in this collaborative environment, and I have no doubt that it is. The fact that is has grown to such a degree is testimony to the value of standards-based development and collaboration.

Rosenzweig and Kornbluh idealistically point to the one thing your mother may have taught you: It is nice to share and play well with others. Ironically, this seems to fly in the face of current academic practices. While professional academic historians exude the collegial nature of Senators, they can be a rowdy and vindictive bunch. Attend a controversial conference and watch the panel discussions for proof. After all, as Rosenzweig pointed out, a scholar’s measure is his or her reputation as gained through research, publication, and significant labor and as preserved in the form of authorship of the results of that research. It is possessive individualism. If you take that away, what, then, will a scholar use for his CV?

Further challenging the ideals of the Web 2.0 utopia is the Wikipedian declaration that rank has no privilege. After years of servitude to academia, there are no laurels, no seats of honor. That’s a hard pill to swallow and will be fought. If my academic opinion is weighted equally with a Pulitzer-prize wining academician, or a weekend warrior, what are the capitalistic goals? Why work so hard?

Norton and Schnapp examine the possibilities of this new world and point to some of the obvious benefits. Norton discusses some of the cloud-computing-esque notions of digital cross-walking of standards-based data indices. She gives the example of the changes in naming conventions over time for species. That information alone can save countless hours of cross-referencing data. This efficiency can allow for greater allocation of resources to research, not data mining. But, the key is there have to be multiple inputs to standards-based data. We have to share. Schnapp seems to agree when he examines the changes coming to libraries and archives away from the product-based to the process-based. In other words, they become enablers of data transfer, not necessary the agents.

Despite traditional capitalist objections to this model of irrational belief and non-attributable sharing, it appears to work.

Wikipedia provides the evidence. Examining the discussion tab of the Wiki article on the Cuban Missile Crisis, one discovers a vibrant discussion of the material and a rather useful grading scale within broader subcategories as well as an importance scale. This is the most effective and efficient peer review I have encountered.

The history provides a fair picture of how viable this topic still is with over 500 edits this year. History may help with the attribution “problem” for academics and for the editors… but it fails to answer why people spent time editing the articles. Web 2.0 collaboration is a belief system that has significant advantages and it seems to throw much of the capitalist model on its head. The economic/resource advantages of standards and collaboration are obvious, but attribution is a significant emotional component. I refer to attribution in this case as “ownership” of an idea, a conclusion, a process, etc.

Web 2.0 is not about technology or tools, it is about a balance of beliefs and a utopian vision for the world’s data.


Published by DeadGuyQuotes

I'm a history need, a technologist, and represent only my own thoughts, opinions or comments on this site... not anyone or thing else.

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  1. I never bought into the .com craze because I just could not see the business model where people were going to make money just by putting up web sites with information.

    In your remarks you said that “Despite traditional capitalist objections to this model of irrational belief and non-attributable sharing, it appears to work.” It appears to work – but for how long. Earlier this year Wikipedia threatened to go to advertisements if they did not get the donations they needed to stay afloat. Would it be as popular Twitter says that they are too busy making cool things to be worried about money – they spend more than they bring in. I guess they are going to lose money on each individual, but make it up in volume.

    A study about paying people for things they feel “good” about can have serious ramifications ( This article said the study found that people give blood freely but when they are paid to do it, they no longer feel like it is worth their time and blood donations fall dramatically. If people saw ads on Wikipedia would they feel “noble” and take the time to monitor the data. And once that trust is broken, could it be regained.

    It seems to be working – but my skepticism is getting all sorts of danger signs.

  2. What’s cloud computing? How is that related to the crosswalking?

    “Norton discusses some of the cloud-computing-esque notions of digital cross-walking of standards-based data indices.”

    Can you clarify that statement? I’ve read the referenced article, the paragraph, and the whole post several times and I’m still confused. Thanks!

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