31 July 2007

The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0

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Web 2.0
An essay by sociologist and policy analyst William Davies (blog) in The Register offers a critique of Web 2.0, arguing that it represents a similar form of ‘economic imperialism’ as that promoted by Chicago School economists such as Gary Becker. In each case, utilitarianism is lifted outside of the realms of bureaucratic, economistic service delivery, and pushed into areas of our lives that were previously untouched by instrumental, egocentric rationality.

“What has changed is that these otherwise secluded and organic realms of social interaction are now the focus of obsessive technological innovation and commercial interest. The same technological zeal and business acumen that once was applied to improving the way we buy a book or pay our car tax is now being applied to the way we engage in social and cultural activities with others.

In short, efficiency gains are no longer being sought only in economic realms such as retail or public services, but are now being pursued in parts of our everyday lives where previously they hadn’t even been imagined. Web 2.0 promises to offer us ways of improving the processes by which we find new music, new friends, or new civic causes. The hassle of undesirable content or people is easier to cut out. We have become consumers of our own social and cultural lives.

It’s here that the connection with Gary Becker becomes plain. 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.”

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